IN THE NORTH
20-26 FEBRUARY 2012
The government’s own watchdog has just ruled that the use ofcovert police spies to disrupt protest movements went too far. Butas
reports, there are fears that without new lawsto rein in undercover policing, little will change
Spies andtheir masters
They slept with women under falsepretences, used fake passports andeach cost the taxpayer an estimated£250,000 a year. In the last12 months, police spies used toinfiltrate and monitor protest groupshave come under intense scrutinyafter a series of exposés. Now, a newgovernment review hasrecommended that undercoverofficers should be subject to greaterindependent oversight. Seriousconcerns remain, however, that theproposed changes do not go farenough.
The controversial spy tactics used by the police began to unfold in late2010, when Mark Kennedy, a covertMetropolitan Police officer, wasunmasked. Kennedy, who wasknown to activists as Mark “Flash”Stone, had operated for yearsalongside protesters as a secret policeintelligence gatherer. Tattooed andwith long hair, he presented himself as a “freelance climber” and quickly became a key figure in theenvironmental movement with hiseasy access to money and transport.Kennedy’s cover was eventually blown when the girlfriend he wasseeing in his guise as an eco-warriorfound his real passport. Shocked, shetold her friends. Kennedy confessed,and it soon emerged he hadinfiltrated major environmentalprotests dating back to 2003,travelling to 11 European countriesmeeting and befriending activists.Unbeknown to them, he had atracking device inside his mobilephone – and was constantly feedinginformation back to his policesuperiors in London.Following the revelations aboutKennedy, government policewatchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorateof Constabulary (HMIC) reviewed theuse of undercover officers by theNational Public Order IntelligenceUnit (NPOIU), the “domesticextremism” outfit he worked for.Written by HMIC chief Sir DenisO’Connor, the review, publishedearlier this month, criticised the lackof oversight of Kennedy’s activities,noting that “the full extent of hisactivity remains unknown”.O’Connor recommended that futurelong-term deployments of undercoverpolice officers should be “pre-authorised” by independent body theOffice of SurveillanceCommissioners, which oversees MI5and other state agencies that useclandestine surveillance techniques.But according to campaign groupthe Network for Police Monitoring(Netpol), the HMIC review has failedto address fundamental issues.“On the basis of this report,undercover police officers cancontinue to target a range of politicaland protest groups,” says Val Swain,spokesperson for Netpol. “The reportis not even able to deliver an agreeddefinition of the term ‘domesticextremism’, meaning there are stillno real limits on how the targets of undercover policing are decidedupon.”Swain points to the case of an 87-year-old artist, John Catt, wholaunched a legal challenge againstpolice last year after he was brandeda domestic extremist and put undersurveillance during a number of anti-arms trade demonstrations.“Mr Catt had no criminal record,and spent his time at protestssketching, but the police have beenadamant in asserting their right tohold details of his vehicle, his family,his appearance and his movements...There is no justification for theinvasive surveillance of this kind of political activity, either throughundercover officers or other means.“The domestic extremism unitlacks any real accountability ortransparency, and ultimately lacksany credibility. It is a shadowy unitthat has been allowed to set its ownrules for spying on legitimatepolitical activity and dissent, and hasno place within British society, orBritish policing.”In recent months, a further eightundercover officers, whose secretiveoperations date back to the 1980s,have been exposed. Of these, six are believed to have had sexualrelationships with women they werespying on – despite this beingconsidered “grossly unprofessional”under existing police rules. On twooccasions, the covert officers evensecretly fathered children withactivists before vanishing from theirlives.
According to the authorities, undercover officers perform a vital function – helping detect and prevent crimecommitted by protest groups, often described by police as “domestic extremists”. Police watchdog Her Majesty’sInspectorate of Constabulary reported earlier this month that the undercover work had helped identify:•a European-wide protest group capable of making bombs, whose aim was to unite the most violent ofEuropean protesters in order to take part in combined protests in cities subject to political unrest•an anti-fascist group planning to 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 monitoractivists is proportionate or necessary. Val Swain, spokesperson for the Network for Police Monitoring, said: “Thework of the undercover units appears to be focused more on protecting government institutions and privatecompanies from the inconvenience of protest activity, than doing anything to protect the public from realcriminality.”
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