They slept with women under false pretences, used fake passports, and each cost the taxpayer an estimated £250,000 a year. In the last twelve months, police spies used to infiltrate and monitor protest groups have come under intense scrutiny after a series of exposés. Now, a new government review has recommended that undercover officers should be subject to greater independent oversight. Serious concerns remain, however, that the proposed changes do not go far enough.
The controversial spy tactics used by the police began to unfold in late 2010, when Mark Kennedy, a covert Metropolitan officer, was unmasked. Kennedy, who was known to activists as Mark ‘Flash’ Stone, had operated for years alongside protesters as a secret police intelligence gatherer. Tattooed and with long hair, he presented himself as a “freelance climber” and quickly became a key figure in the environmental movement with his easy access to money and transport.
Kennedy’s cover was eventually blown when the girlfriend he was seeing in his guise as an eco-warrior found his real passport. Shocked, she told her friends. Kennedy confessed, and it soon emerged he had infiltrated major environmental protests dating back to 2003, travelling to eleven countries across Europe meeting and befriending activists. Unbeknown to them, he had a tracking device fitted inside his mobile phone – and was constantly feeding information back to his police superiors in London.
Following the revelations about Kennedy, government police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) reviewed the use of undercover officers by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), the specialist “domestic extremism” outfit he worked for.
Authored by HMIC chief Sir Denis O'Connor, the review, published earlier this month, criticised the lack of oversight of Kennedy’s activities, noting that “the full extent of his activity remains unknown.” O’Connor recommended that future long-term deployments of undercover police officers should be "pre-authorised" by independent body the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, which oversees MI5 and other state agencies that use clandestine surveillance techniques.
But according to campaign group The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), the HMIC review has failed to address fundamental issues.
“On the basis of this report, undercover police officers can continue to target a range of political and protest groups,” says Val Swain, spokesperson for Netpol. “The report is not even able to deliver an agreed definition of the term ‘domestic extremism’, meaning there are still no real limits on how the targets of undercover policing are decided upon.”
Swain points to the case of an 87-year-old artist, John Catt, who launched a legal challenge against police in 2011 after he was branded a domestic extremist and put under surveillance during a number of anti-arms trade demonstrations.
“Mr Catt had no criminal record, and spent his time at protests sketching, but the police have been adamant in asserting their right to hold details of his vehicle, his family, his appearance and his movements... There is no justification for the invasive surveillance of this kind of political activity, either through undercover officers or other means.
“The domestic extremism unit lacks any real accountability or transparency, and ultimately lacks any credibility. It is a shadowy unit that has been allowed to set its own rules for spying on legitimate political activity and dissent, and has no place within British society, or British policing.”
In recent months, a further eight undercover officers, whose secretive operations date back to the 1980s, have been exposed. Of these, six are believed to have had sexual relationships with women they were spying on – despite this being considered "grossly unprofessional" under existing police rules. On two occasions, the covert officers even secretly fathered children with activists before vanishing from their lives.
A catalogue of serious misconduct allegations involving the officers – including claims that they gave false testimony in a court case – is now being investigated by twelve separate inquires, set up by police chiefs and prosecutors. But all are being held behind closed doors, prompting calls for a full and open public inquiry.
“The reason you need public scrutiny is that more and more we see examples of the police unjustifiably criminalising peaceful protest,” says Katherine Craig, a solicitor at law firm Christian Khan. “When the state has been left to regulate itself it has failed. Absolutely the presumption should be for maximum transparency and accountability.”
Craig expresses concern that there has been a “cultural shift” in the way protests are policed, with authorities increasingly targeting activist groups. The revelations around the conduct of undercover officers, she believes, show the failures of a system that has for decades been allowed to function behind a veil of intense official secrecy.
“You can’t simply rely on individual officers or even on police forces as a whole to act responsibility and that’s really been borne out in these cases that have come to light,” Craig says. “The fact that there isn’t a proper system [of regulation] is obscene.”
Though the HMIC review recommended that a new structure of independent regulation is put in place for undercover officers, critics say this is insufficient. Human rights group Liberty has called for judicial oversight to be introduced, which would mean a judge would have to authorise the use of covert police officers.
“If a judge has to sign off a warrant to search your premises, why on earth should the police be able to self-authorise the far greater intrusion of putting a mole amongst your colleagues and friends?” says Rachel Robinson, policy officer for Liberty. “The report says that judicial sign off would compromise independence without any proper reasoning for this assertion. Only legislation will prevent more Kennedys playing James Bond and abusing our trust."
The Association of Chief Police Officers, a private company which leads the development of policing in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has backed the idea of introducing judicial oversight of undercover operations. However, in the short term this looks an unlikely proposition. The home secretary, Theresa May, has remained non committal, saying only that the government would “consider carefully the recommendations [made by HMIC] to ensure enhanced control of these undercover police officers in the future.”
Meanwhile, after a year of disclosures about undercover police infiltrating protest groups, concern has heightened in activist communities. Protesters at the Occupy London encampment at St Paul’s Cathedral have spoken openly about how they believe police officers are living among them, and at an Occupy demonstration in December a number of men were accused of being agent provocateurs.
The protesters’ fears are well founded. In an interview with the Daily Mail last year, Kennedy claimed he knew of at least 15 other officers who had infiltrated activist groups – four of whom remained undercover.
“The world of undercover policing is grey and murky – there is some bad stuff going on,” he said. “I wasn't the only undercover police officer doing this kind of work and I'm quite sure that there may be operations still running.”
Decades of spying
In Britain, the use of undercover police officers to infiltrate protest groups can be traced back at least four decades. In 1968, at the height of anti-Vietnam war movement, a secretive unit within the Metropolitan police called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) was set up to monitor left-wing activists. The SDS, which disbanded in 2008, deployed covert officers across London for long periods to gather intelligence, with the aim of “preventing serious crimes associated with protest.”
In 1999 the Met established the home office funded National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) in response to “campaigns and public protest that generate violence and disruption.” Unlike the SDS, which operated only in London, NPOIU deployed covert police spies across Britain and Europe who were embedded within protest groups. According to police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), NPOIU “gathered and coordinated intelligence that enabled the police to protect the public.”
In January 2011 the NPOIU was subsumed into the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU) within the Met, which carries out a similar function – gathering intelligence about protest groups for police, industry and government. Both the NPOIU and the NDEU were criticised by HMIC earlier this month, which said that they “appear to have operated in isolation from the host organisation, and to have lacked effective governance.”
According to the authorities, undercover officers perform a vital function – helping detect and prevent crime committed by protest groups, often described by police as “domestic extremists”. Police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary reported in February that the undercover work carried out by police spies had helped identify:
- A European-wide protest group capable of making bombs, whose aim was to unite the most violent of European protesters in order to take part in combined protests in cities subject to political unrest.
- An anti-fascist group who planned to physically attack members of extreme far right wing groups and political parties.
- A network of anarchists set up to disrupt the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.
However, campaigners continue to question whether the long-term deployment of undercover officers to monitor activists is proportionate or necessary. Val Swain, spokesperson for the Network for Police Monitoring, said: “From what has been discovered so far, the work of the undercover units appears to be focused more on protecting government institutions and private companies from the inconvenience of protest activity, than doing anything to protect the public from real criminality.”
This article first appeared in issue no.915 of the Big Issue north magazine.