On the trail of Britain's undercover police

Recent revelations have exposed the routine embedding of undercover police officers within environmental and social justice campaigns. But piecing together the public evidence on undercover police tactics brings as many questions as answers.

When activists exposed their long-term comrade Mark Stone as police officer Mark Kennedy in 2010, the British public was stunned. On the surface he appeared indistinguishable from his 'targets'. The long-haired, pierced and tattooed man had lived among environmental and social justice groups for seven years. Perhaps most shockingly, he had long-term sexual relationships with activists, including a woman he lived with as a committed partner for six years.

Senior police initially portrayed Mark Kennedy as a rogue officer who had strayed off mission. But a swift flurry of further unmaskings have shown his tactics to be textbook methods, endemic in Britain's secret police.

Since they were formed amidst the political upheaval of 1968, around 150 officers of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) - later the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, and nowadays the National Domestic Extremism Unit - have infiltrated political groups this way. Behaving in a similar manner to the earlier COINTELPRO operation in the USA, their secret, counter-democratic remit finds them deeply and seriously involved in far left, animal rights, environmental, peace, anti-racist, and far right groups.

The secret police do not gather evidence to be used in court. Instead, they infiltrate groups, collecting information on individual campaigners. The aim is to preemptively disrupt a threat before it begins. Sometimes it is a threat of violence on the streets but much more often it is a threat to corporate profits, to police credibility or to the dominance of capitalist ideology. Being critical of corporations and government policies, being the victim of police corruption, or holding anti-capitalist views, is deemed 'subversive' in itself.

Their work has included undermining numerous justice and anti-racism campaigns for people who either died in police custody or whose deaths were under-investigated by police. The undercovers would get actively involved in the campaigns, even holding official positions, looking for personal information with which to discredit the participants - including the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.

In going so deep undercover with so little oversight, officers have sometimes crossed the line to become agent provocateurs, instigating the very activities they are there to prevent.

Textbook methods

Twelve officers have now been exposed. Almost all of them had sexual relations with the citizens they targeted, most of them having serious relationships that integrated them into activists’ lives, work and families. Sexual relationships with targets provided a fast track into the social circle and staved off potential suspicions. One woman explained how she had been used to get social credibility: ‘people trusted me, people knew that I was who I said I was, and people believed, therefore, that he must be who he said he was because he was so welcomed into my family’.

Three of the exposed officers fathered children. This included the man who would go on to be in charge of SDS operations, Bob Lambert, who had a planned pregnancy with one of his activist girlfriends, being present at the birth before disappearing from their lives three years later. The mother of his child only found out the truth by reading a newspaper article 25 years later in June 2012.

The police need a warrant from a judge to search your home once. Yet the secret police decided for themselves to send these men to move in and stay for years, sharing an activist’s innermost feelings and of course the details of their political plans and legal cases. It is the most complete invasion of privacy that it is possible for the state to enact.

The women would think they were meeting The One when it wasn’t even a person - it was a mask, a set of techniques. The whole relationship was controlled, monitored and quite possibly directed by an unseen group of analyst officers. The lasting trauma visited on the women was seen as just collateral damage.

The women were not giving informed consent to the relationships. Had they known the men's true identities, they would not have allowed them close. One of them has said it feels ‘like being repeatedly raped by the state’. They have been left psychologically devastated, their judgment and trust shattered, unable to form new relationships as they used to.

Identity theft

To create false identities that have official documentation such as passports and driving licenses, a large proportion of officers stole the identity of someone who died as a child. A recent internal police report concedes it was ‘an established practice that new officers were taught’. It is believed that around a hundred secret police officers did it between 1973 and around 2005.

This is not merely in poor taste. Social justice campaigner Helen Steel tried to track down John Barker, a boyfriend who had disappeared. She got the birth certificate and went to the address on it, discovering that 'John Barker' was a boy who died of leukemia aged eight. Her boyfriend was police officer John Dines, who had passed off Barker's identity as his own.

The real John Barker’s brother Anthony spoke of the danger that the police put unwitting bereaved families in: “Imagine that policeman had infiltrated a violent gang or made friends with a volatile person, then disappeared, just like this man did. Someone wanting revenge would have tracked us down to our front door – but they wouldn't have wanted a cup of tea and a chat, like this woman.”

Miscarriages of justice

Undercover officers have been arrested and prosecuted under their false identities, committing perjury whilst bolstering their undercover identities. In the case of undercover police officer Jim Boyling, prosecution under his false identity granted him access to confidential meetings with lawyers as one of the 'defendants'.

The judicial process has been undermined in other ways by the presence of undercover police: most shockingly through the withholding of evidence that exonerated accused activists.

In April 2009, Mark Kennedy was part of a group of 114 climate activists preemptively arrested at a meeting for conspiring to shut down a coal-fired power station. Kennedy was the intelligence source for this police action, and had secretly recorded the gathering prior to the police raid. Despite the fact that Kennedy's surveillance tapes exonerated many of the arrested activists, it was not disclosed to the defence at the subsequent trial, and 20 people were convicted of conspiracy.

A later trial of six others charged with conspiracy occurred following the exposure of Kennedy as a police spy. Prosecutors were forced to disclose the previously withheld evidence – and the case collapsed.

This wasn’t just a police cover-up. Senior members of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) knew of the planned action, and of police plans to preemptively arrest, before it even happened - including the use of an undercover officer. It seems clear that between the arrests and trials senior officials in the CPS worked with police to ensure that Kennedy’s crucial evidence did not come to light.

The original 20 activists had their convictions quashed, with the appeal judges saying that Kennedy had arguably been an agent provocateur and a juror at the original trial lambasting the ‘prolonged entrapment’ of the police operation. 29 convictions from another action that Kennedy was involved in are due to be overturned as well.

These miscarriages of justice were prevented or overturned only because Kennedy was exposed as an undercover police officer. If this one officer can set up at least 55 wrongful convictions, how many thousands can the secret police be responsible for? Even now, police policy to 'neither confirm nor deny' whether someone is an undercover police officer, is keeping similar cases in limbo.

Transparently secret

A group of women who were in relationships with undercover officers are suing police – the managers who orchestrated it, not the individual officers – for assault as well as an assortment of crimes of deceit. They are suffering a double injustice. Firstly there was what was done to them, and now – just like with the wrongful convictions - there are the legion legal obstructions, delays and other tricks the police perform in order to avoid accountability and justice.

The human rights claims – infringement of the right to privacy and a family life – are to be heard in a bizarre secret tribunal. They do not get to be in court, to see what evidence the police present (or omit), do not get given the reasons for the judge’s verdict, and have no right to appeal.

So much for the right to a fair trial. The given reason is the protection of security around the secret police. But Mark Kennedy could scarcely be less secret: he hired the notorious press agent Max Clifford and sold his story to tabloid newspapers years ago.

As this scandal rolls on the authorities are forced to respond to the outcry. There have been 17 inquiries commissioned, largely just the police investigating themselves. Others have been given to satellite bodies, such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission or Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, who have an established record of obediently waving through the police’s requirements. Many will not be publishing their findings. All but one have been given very narrow remits that cannot join the dots to create a picture of any systemic problem.

The one inquiry taking a broader view is Operation Herne. It consists of 44 staff, the vast majority of whom are from the same Metropolitan Police force under investigation. They include serving officers who have their future careers to think of before flagging up anything that embarrasses their superiors. It is not due to report for several years and there is no promise to publish the findings. The overseeing officer, Chief Constable Mick Creedon, claims police will do a better job than the independent public inquiry that many people are calling for.

But with secrecy comes impunity. The very fact that the allegations involve secret police covering up the actions of other police who unarguably acted wrongly undermines the credibility of any police self-investigation. Some victims, like the Lawrence family, have much of their grievance based on the consistent failure of police self-investigation.

The smattering of reports out so far show that the truth is not being searched for. Worse than that, there is no redress for victims, nor believable assurances that the same disruption of justice, stifling of protesters and persecution of individuals has ended. The promised tightening up of rules about undercover policing merely requires authorisation from higher ranks and a bit more involvement of the compliant rubber-stamp body of Surveillance Commissioners.

Exporting police spies

After two years among British activists Mark Kennedy was hired out to other states, working in 14 different countries. Whilst under contract to the German police, Kennedy had sexual relationships with activists and, upon arrest for arson, disclosed only his false identity to the public prosecutor, all of which is illegal under German law. Questions abound over the German police's hiring of this British police spy.

Tenacious research by German parliamentarian Andrej Hunko has revealed that such contracts are not piecemeal: shining light on the hitherto unknown European Co-ordination Group on Undercover Activities that organises and focuses undercover work.

Established in the 1980s, it is comprised of all EU member states and other countries such as the USA, Israel, South Africa and New Zealand, plus selected private companies. It meets irregularly and says it doesn’t keep minutes. According to the German government, the UK and Germany are the trailblazers in the group. Far from the undercover scandal being centred on a rogue officer or a rogue unit, the UK’s tactics seem to be part of a concerted effort in which governments and corporations act together across borders.

The big question

Three years on from Kennedy’s exposure, the flow of facts is not abating. As more activists uncover old spies and former officers come forward out of conscience, it seems that we have still barely begun to get the full story of Britain’s political secret police. It is also becoming clear that Britain is by no means unique in this.

Beyond the ‘who and what’ lies a bigger question - ‘why?’ Where do these monstrously intrusive, anti-democratic, ill-defined, open-ended missions come from? Do the police make them up for themselves? Or are they ordered from higher up? The stoic silence from British politicians seems telling.

We know that these activities, like the individual officers themselves, cross borders. Answers will not come from the UK police investigating themselves. Rather the police forces and governments involved across Europe must be compelled to reveal the truth.

About the author

Merrick Badger is an environmental and social justice campaigner based in England.
He blogs at bristling badger and tweets @merrickbadger.