I want you to know I know who you are

Katrina Forrester

  • BuySecret Manoeuvres in the Dark: Corporate and Police Spying on Activists by Eveline Lubbers
    Pluto, 252 pp, £19.99, June 2012, ISBN 978 0 7453 3185 0

Five years ago, I helped to unmask a corporate spy. Climate activism was at its peak: the second ‘climate camp’ had spent a week at Heathrow the summer before, and many environmental groups had reported an upsurge in membership. Ken Tobias was one such new member. He came to his first Plane Stupid meeting at a pub in Russell Square in December 2007. Posh, eager, with a Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck, Ken was fresh out of Oxford and very keen. He never missed a meeting, and was always offering to arrange extra ones. He thought environmental activism should take bigger risks, he said.

This was all very welcome but some things about him made us uneasy. Activists love meetings, but they never arrive early, as he did, or ask to hold more. We began to get suspicious. The one protest he knew about in advance the police knew about too: they were there when we arrived. Ken was there too but he stood on the sidelines. To test him we made fake plans: the plans were leaked to the tabloids. The Evening Standard reported where some of our meetings had taken place – but only the meetings he had attended. Shortly after that, we asked all new members of the group to provide postal addresses, with the excuse that sensitive material is better sent by snail mail than email. Ken didn’t show up on the electoral register at the address he gave. Gradually, we realised he had no internet presence. Back then, activists often weren’t on Facebook. But a former Oxford rugby player like him not being on Facebook?

Eventually, we confronted him. We told him we wanted to let him in on plans for a major action, but we needed to do it somewhere secure, away from possible infiltrators. Two of us arranged to meet him at a Japanese restaurant in Islington. Another three sat quietly at the next table, reading the papers behind a bamboo screen – ready to come to our aid if necessary. I asked him if Ken Tobias was his real name. He looked startled, hurt, a little scared. We asked to see some ID. He’d lost his wallet earlier that day, he said. But he could get us some ID from his mum’s house in West London – if we’d just wait a couple of days. He started to get angry. How could we not trust him? It was because he went to Oxford, wasn’t it? Because he was posh. It was so unfair, he thought we’d been friends. The angrier he got, the more unsure we became. Had we got it all wrong?

As he stormed out of the restaurant, someone positioned outside took his photograph. I sent it to a friend, then working as an investigative journalist, who had been at Ken’s college at Oxford. She discovered his real identity within minutes. His name was Toby Kendall, and he worked for a corporate espionage agency called C2i International. (C2i later denied that they had any connection with Kendall; it’s likely that they were contracted by the airport operator BAA, though that has never been confirmed.) There is very little that’s unusual about this story. ‘Ken’ did everything that he was employed to do. He helped find locations for meetings, volunteered to take minutes, suggested bolder protests and more risky direct actions. There is only one thing that made this case different from usual: Ken was a lousy spy. Thanks to his incompetence no campaigns were disrupted and no one got hurt. The press described him as more Austin Powers than James Bond, and even that may have been too much of a compliment.

You may find the story quite farcical, and in a sense it is, but the farce had a sinister side to it. Take the recent case of Mark Kennedy. Kennedy, a police officer, infiltrated the environmental movement in 2003 and remained undercover for seven years. Known as Mark Stone, he was a trusted member of activist groups across Europe. With a fake passport and driver’s licence, he travelled across 22 countries attending and organising protests with various environmental and anti-fascist groups. While undercover, he had a long-term activist partner and sexual relationships with several other activists. There was nothing unique about his case. A number of other undercover police officers have even had children with activists. In December 2011, eight women – all of whom were deceived into having relationships with infiltrators – began legal action against the Metropolitan Police. Many see these tactics as amounting to state-sponsored sexual abuse.

In Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark: Corporate and Police Spying on Activists, Eveline Lubbers, an academic, activist journalist and researcher with the organisations SpinWatch and Buro Jansen & Janssen, focuses on what she calls ‘grey intelligence’, the informal networks of co-operation between corporate interests and state agencies that are now central to the surveillance of dissent in Western European democracies. One of her five case studies tells the story of the infiltration of London Greenpeace by McDonald’s. In 1985, Greenpeace launched an annual international day of action against McDonald’s; the following year they produced a leaflet: ‘What’s wrong with McDonald’s? Everything they don’t want you to know’. McDonald’s initially appeared to ignore Greenpeace, but in 1990 they sued five activists for libel. Two of them accepted the challenge, and their trial – the so-called McLibel case – became the longest in British legal history. In the course of this unequal battle between the two Greenpeace volunteers – one an unemployed postman and full-time father, the other a gardener and bar worker – and the McDonald’s corporation, the court proceedings revealed that there had been a high level of co-operation between the company and the police. In 1987, Special Branch had set up a department to gather intelligence about animal rights activists, and those involved provided McDonald’s with profiles of protesters and details of events. But McDonald’s didn’t want to have to rely on the police alone, and chose to employ its own private investigators too. The reason may have been that evidence gathered by ‘informal’ co-operation with the police is rarely admissible in court. (Evidence gathered by undercover police can also lead to legal problems: the revelations about Mark Kennedy’s infiltration caused the collapse of the court case against protesters charged with conspiring to take over Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station.) More cynically, undercover police have human rights obligations to the people they spy on, private investigators do not.

McDonald’s didn’t just hire one or two investigators: it hired teams from two separate agencies. The teams weren’t known to each other, but both got stuck into activist life. Becoming involved in an environmental group is fairly easy. In the 1980s, Greenpeace held public meetings on the last Thursday of every month which anyone could attend. Other meetings were held weekly at the Greenpeace offices on Caledonian Road in Islington. These meetings were technically ‘open’ and, like the Plane Stupid meetings attended by Toby Kendall, were intended to recruit new members. The people who run meetings like this, for whatever activist group, will naturally be welcoming to newcomers: this makes them ideal for infiltrators. During the period in which McDonald’s infiltrated Greenpeace, attendance at group meetings varied from five to ten people, sometimes fewer. ‘With at least seven spies infiltrating the group,’ Lubbers writes, ‘their presence – absolute and relative – was fairly large’: ‘On a number of occasions, meetings included as many spies as campaigners. The investigators’ notes show that at two separate meetings (1 March and 10 May 1990), the four people attending included one spy from each bureau.’ The spies were spying on each other.

The spies were given different briefs: some to collect evidence pertaining directly to McDonald’s, others to chart the wider aims of the group and the profiles of its members – the real ones and the spies. Most information was gathered by attending meetings but some spies collected evidence by less legal means: ‘borrowing’ files and photos from activists and, on one occasion, forcing entry into the Greenpeace offices. (The spy in question denied that this was a break-in, despite admitting that he had used a phone card to force open the office door: ‘The door lock on the office to London Greenpeace was basically not very strong,’ he recalled. ‘It was decided by me and my principals that entry to it would not be a problem.’) One spy had a sexual relationship with a key member, allowing her to win the trust of the group and then infiltrate other, apparently more radical groups.

The consequences of the McDonald’s infiltration were mixed. If the aim was to forestall unlawful direct action and arrest and charge protesters, it was a failure. If it was to gather evidence for the libel case, then the spies did better and the defendants were eventually convicted of libel. The whole episode nonetheless proved embarrassing for McDonald’s and in 2007 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that since the activists had had no access to legal aid (libel cases didn’t at that time), they had been denied a fair trial. Quite apart from helping McDonald’s to win the libel suit the spies made it possible for McDonald’s to anticipate the activists’ every move. If a particular criticism was going to be developed in a protest, leaflet or press release, McDonald’s would be one step ahead, able to manage delicate issues and stifle criticism before Greenpeace had the opportunity to shape the debate.

It is difficult to point to the precise moment when spying becomes incitement. As such a big presence in a group with falling numbers and commitment, the McDonald’s spies actually provided a much needed injection of energy. They wrote letters, manned stalls, helped run crèches at activist gatherings. All this may seem quite benign but it had an insidious effect. Greenpeace’s interest in McDonald’s had declined by the late 1980s but the spies put the issue back on the agenda. Many of them ended up distributing the anti-McDonald’s leaflet that had started the fuss in the first place: in other words, the spies were acting as agents provocateurs. Their presence also led to a breakdown of trust among the activists. It’s a familiar outcome: those who are being spied on soon notice something is wrong; they become suspicious; plans are derailed. The spies, rather than the campaign’s goals, become the focus of attention. In volunteer groups, time is what people have to offer, and spies – even the most incompetent – waste time. Companies like McDonald’s have no financial constraints and can continue to spend money pursuing campaigning groups until the activists’ limited resources are drained – tied up in legal cases, or spent chasing their own tails.

Compared with other incidents documented here, the McDonald’s case seems straightforward. One espionage agency oversaw a series of far more complex operations in the 1990s. Evelyn le Chêne owned and ran a company called Threat Response International. For her, spying was a family business. The widow of a British agent who fought with the French Resistance and survived the concentration camp at Mauthausen, le Chêne had strong links to the intelligence and defence communities. In the 1980s she seems to have worked for various think tanks specialising in strategic and security issues, travelling in the Middle East and Africa to advise on potential terrorist threats. She advised the UK’s National Council for Civil Protection on issues of national emergency and ‘preparedness’, and in 1989 wrote a report advising Western governments on how to prepare against the use of chemical and biological weapons by terrorist groups. (She also wrote a book called Silent Heroes: The Bravery and Devotion of Animals in War.) The family business extends to le Chêne’s son, who allegedly infiltrated anti-arms trade groups in France while his mother was co-ordinating the infiltration of a broad range of peace and environmental groups in Britain. The case that led to her exposure – the infiltration of CAAT, the Campaign against the Arms Trade, an explicitly non-violent NGO – showed how deep into an activist group private investigators will go.

According to files obtained by the Sunday Times in 2003, Threat Response International had up to eight agents infiltrating CAAT over a five-year period in the late 1990s. Le Chêne passed on the information she collected to British Aerospace, who did the rare thing and admitted they had employed her. Le Chêne’s spies managed to get on CAAT’s payroll. Martin Hogbin had begun as a volunteer in 1997: in 2001 he joined its small team of paid employees. Working as a paid campaigner, Hogbin had access to detailed information, which he regularly passed on to le Chêne, who then passed it on to BAe. Hogbin had access not only to CAAT’s protest plans but also to details of legal cases, and to its accounts: at the ‘London office a cheque for £5542 was banked’, le Chêne reported to BAe. Crucially, Hogbin also had access to the members’ database.

As national campaigns and events co-ordinator, Hogbin was in a unique position to steer the group in one direction rather than another. As with the McDonald’s spies, or Kendall and Kennedy, there were numerous opportunities for him to play the role of agent provocateur. He was responsible for organising protests at BAe meetings, planning direct actions, buying token shares in BAe to allow activists to attend shareholder meetings, and organising transport to protests. He also represented CAAT at meetings of the European Network against the Arms Trade (meetings which le Chêne’s son attended as a representative of French anti-arms groups). This looks more like incitement than spying: Hogbin seemed to be engaged in the very activity that he had been employed to monitor. He was effectively spying on himself.

With Hogbin’s information at her fingertips, le Chêne was able to give detailed advice to BAe on how to manage protests. Demonstrations would be thwarted by tip-offs from infiltrators; protesters were served with injunctions before they arrived at the site, making any demonstrations which breached the injunctions illegal. Providing BAe with advance warning of protests was, however, just one part of le Chêne’s job. She also monitored CAAT’s lobbying activities, alerting BAe to any meetings with MPs or parliamentary events that activists attended. When CAAT attempted to get a judicial review of the granting of export licences for arms companies, BAe knew in advance. Le Chêne also provided advice on the timing of press releases and other tactics that could shape public debate in BAe’s favour.

Le Chêne’s written advice indicates that BAe may also have been in discussions with the police about long-term strategy. Sometimes activists want to get arrested, she explained, because the resulting court case can be used to draw attention to their cause. Because of this, le Chêne wrote, BAe should pressure the police to ‘avoid arresting protesters’ on the grounds that arresting activists plays ‘into their hands and leads ultimately to larger protests in the future’. Elsewhere, she argued that there were certain kinds of arrest that would work in BAe’s favour: ‘If any activists are arrested for assaulting a police officer, it would significantly discredit their cause.’ Not only was close co-operation between BAe and the police shown to be entirely commonplace, it was accepted that police can engin-eer situations of violent confrontation in order to damage the long-term interests of protesters.

But the scope of le Chêne’s espionage operation went far beyond Hogbin and far beyond CAAT. Her broader project was the creation of a database of activists, the information on whom could then be made available to the police and, ultimately, to whoever was willing to pay. In March 1996, le Chêne claimed to have the identities of and confidential information about 148,900 activists and it’s likely that the profiles she put together over the following years were just a small part of a much larger operation to expand this database. The information she collated about CAAT – details about its supporters, its volunteers, its paid employees, and even profiles of sympathetic public figures – provides an insight into the scale of her operation:

Y. is a white male about 21 years old. He is over 6’ tall and slim and looks fit. Has a long face with a Roman nose and thick lips. He looks slightly Mediterranean and wears an unkempt straggly beard with sideburns beneath a shock of long, thick brown hair … He declares he is ‘new to the protesting game’ but is eager to try. He does not appear to fear arrest.

As well as physical descriptions, le Chêne provided information about the extent of individual participation in campaigns:

A. is recovering from influenza and is not participating at all for the moment. She is still interested in doing CAAT ‘things’ … However, this year she has been crying off sick or as being too tired or that she has something else to do when she is asked to participate in meetings and liaisons.

Lubbers leaves unclear the extent to which private investigators like le Chêne pass the information they gather on to the police. Le Chêne certainly collected intelligence on members of the movement that arose in response to the government road-building programmes in the mid-1990s, but it isn’t clear exactly where her intelligence ended up. Thames Valley Police and the Department of Transport both later admitted to obtaining information from private sources. This could have been le Chêne, and she may also have sold information to others. She would not have been alone in doing so. Lubbers examines three different agencies specialising in online intelligence services. In 1999 one of them, eWatch, launched a service called CyberSleuth that explicitly targeted online anti-corporate activism. It offered corporations the opportunity to find the identity of an activist behind a screen name and claimed to be able to provide a complete dossier within seven to ten days. The price for targeting individual users was $4995 per name. According to their website (long since deleted but still available on archive.org), ‘48-hour turnaround is available for an additional $1995 per screen name.’

Around the time that le Chêne was creating her database, the Met’s Public Order Intelligence Unit began to send out Forward Intelligence Teams to put together profiles of activists. These days, FIT teams go to every protest and every march in Britain. Officers will often call activists by name at such events – just so you know they know. Some go further, and ask you about your boyfriend, your visa status, your new job. An organisation called FIT Watch dispenses advice to protesters about how to avoid the gaze of the state; the Network for Police Monitoring has recently set up a new campaign called Don’t Be on a Database. Though the FIT teams justify their information-gathering as necessary to prevent unlawful direct action, it’s part of a much broader operation to document the make-up of activist movements. It’s impossible to gauge how many people these police databases now include, but given that the FIT teams are currently present at every anti-austerity protest, from UK Uncut actions to TUC marches, we can safely assume it is not small.

It matters that private interests are in bed with the police, and it matters that the aims of the spies are unclear, and their tactics dirty. Lubbers goes to great lengths to identify the spies, but she is less sensitive when it comes to the question of who is being spied on. She takes it for granted that every victim of spying – and certainly everyone on the left – is a good guy, and that surveillance measures taken against leftist groups are all equally unjust. She suggests that the problem with spying on activists is that they are part of ‘civil society groups’ that exist to ‘promote democracy’. There are good strategic reasons to make this argument and it’s clear why Lubbers makes it: the Association of Chief Police Officers’ National Domestic Extremism Unit – a more recent incarnation of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, set up in 1999, and the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, set up in 2004 – has labelled dozens of NGOs and left-wing groups ‘domestic extremists’. Describing activists as members of harmless civil society groups challenges this classification.

But most radical groups don’t want to be seen as harmless. Some want to be seen as dangerous and, even if they’re not, a significant proportion of the voting population will agree with that self-evaluation. Lubbers traces the career of a spy working for the intelligence firm Hakluyt (the firm Neil Heywood advised before he was murdered in China in 2011). Over a period of two decades, Manfred Schlickenrieder spied on revolutionary groups throughout Western Europe, including the German Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades (as well as Greenpeace and other environmentalist groups). Posing as a documentary film-maker and the owner of a radical bookshop, he collected information on hundreds of groups. It’s not clear that they all fit into Lubbers’s ‘civil society’ model. She includes an index of Schlickenrieder’s files seized by suspicious activists towards the end of his spying career in the 1990s: it indicates that he spied not only on left-wing direct action groups but also on armed insurrectionary and neo-Nazi groups. Lubbers leaves this last fact out of her story: her explanation of what is wrong with spying can’t account for it. But even if we bracket out spying on the far right – and even if the problem of distinguishing between ‘violent’ and ‘non-violent’ groups is set aside (the categories are most often externally imposed) – there is a significant difference between a group that aims to smash the state, and a group that does not. Most contemporary revolutionary groups would be pretty insulted if it were suggested that they didn’t already know that the state – and corporate interests – were out to get them. You don’t have to take a cynical view of the state to see that it exists to protect capital and promote order; a group that threatens the state’s monopoly on violence – even one that only threatens to threaten it – can’t be surprised if the state tries to infiltrate it. They can’t have it both ways; what Lubbers ignores is that most don’t expect to.