- Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis
Faber and Guardian Books, 346 pp, £12.99, June 2013, ISBN 978 0 571 30217 8
The Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War in March 1968 caught the Metropolitan Police by surprise. After a rally in Trafalgar Square and a march to the US Embassy, the protest turned into a street battle; stones, smoke bombs and firecrackers were thrown, and mounted police charged the crowd. More than two hundred protesters were arrested. In the months that followed, alarm seemed to grip the police, who felt they were on the back foot. Special Branch – the covert unit of the Met which gathered intelligence on perceived state-subversives – began sending weekly reports to the Home Office predicting what protesters would do next. In one report, a Special Branch chief inspector, Conrad Hepworth Dixon, claimed that the city faced the threat of demonstrators carrying ‘ball-bearings, fireworks, hat pins and banner poles for use as weapons’. Ministers considered deploying the army. Senior police officers assured the government they were in control, but it was clear that a radical change in tactics was needed. Dixon proposed the formation of a new covert unit called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which would operate differently from previous undercover police, who infiltrated criminal gangs with the aim of making targeted arrests within a few weeks. Instead, a squad of ten SDS officers, drawn from the ranks of Special Branch and borrowing strategies from MI5, would go deep undercover over a period of years, with the sole aim of gathering intelligence on the activities of political groups. The idea was to prevent outbreaks of disorder like the one in Grosvenor Square, and to catch anyone intent on ‘engineering a breakdown of our present system of government’. Harold Wilson’s government approved Dixon’s plan and agreed to fund the SDS directly from the Treasury.
Just as the state overestimated the threat of disorder after Grosvenor Square (the next demonstration, on 27 October, was an anti-climax), it continued to overplay the dangers of dissent in subsequent decades. Over the years, the remit of Special Branch and the SDS expanded along with the definition of ‘subversives’. In 1963 the term was used to describe individuals who ‘would contemplate the overthrow of government by unlawful means’; by the 1970s, it referred to anyone whose actions would ‘threaten the safety or wellbeing of the state, and are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means’. Special Branch had long concerned itself with counter-espionage, the ‘communist threat’ and the IRA. The focus of the SDS was more specifically on public order policing, and its list of targets was long: socialists, anarchists, environmentalists, animal rights groups, anti-Nazi, anti-racist and anti-apartheid campaigners, Labour Party activists. A report on the policing of protest issued by the Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2012 stated that the point of undercover intelligence is to differentiate between those ‘intent on causing crime and disruption’ and those ‘who wish to protest peacefully’. But by exaggerating the threat of the former, the state justifies constant surveillance of the latter. The implications have long been recognised, even at the highest levels of official oversight. It is now nearly thirty years since a Home Affairs Committee reported that Special Branch had acquired a ‘sinister reputation’. ‘Accountable to no one’, it represented ‘a threat to civil liberties’.
The workings of the SDS, which became known as ‘The 27 Club’ after the date it was founded, were until very recently well concealed. It operated on a ‘need to know’ basis: intelligence gathered by its officers would be distributed to other police departments but they would not know how the intelligence was obtained. It had few rules and little oversight; quite how little is still unclear. Until it was shut down in 2008, it deployed only ten officers at any one time. Its replacement, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, founded in 1999, had more like seventy. In October 2010, a group of activists announced on the alternative news site Indymedia that Mark Kennedy, an undercover officer working with the NPOIU, had infiltrated them. Since then, a good deal of detail about the tactics of the NPOIU and SDS, the double lives its officers led and the people they exploited and betrayed, has been brought to light. The official police response has been to stress that the majority of undercover officers did and continue to do their job well, providing intelligence that allows the state to monitor subversives. The fault, they claim, lies with a number of rogue officers.
In Undercover, Rob Evans and Paul Lewis draw on the testimonies of activists and whistleblowers to chart the history of secret policing. Their prize source is the former undercover officer Peter Francis, who spied on minor anti-fascist and anti-racist groups in North London in the early 1990s before infiltrating his target group, Anti-Fascist Action. While undercover, he lived alone in Highbury, drove a van and got a day job working in a school for children with special needs. (His new friends thought he was the school handyman, which fitted with his tough-guy persona, but in reality he volunteered at the school in exchange for free ‘dyslexia lessons’, though he wasn’t dyslexic.) He spent the rest of his time gathering intelligence on anti-racist groups. Spying on campaigners across Europe, he became so good at his job that he even caught out an unconvincing MI5 agent. It is thanks to Francis – who initially gave interviews to Evans and Lewis as an anonymous whistleblower, but has since revealed his identity – that the way the SDS operated is now known in some detail.
An officer would begin his or her deployment (one woman, Lynn Watson, is known to have been a police spy) by borrowing the identity of a dead child, a routine called the ‘jackal run’ after Frederick Forsyth’s novel, in which the assassin does just that. The trick was to find a child born around the same time, with the same first name as the officer, so that he could carry on using it. The idea was to make his real identity harder to track. He would go to the place the child was born, explore the area, learn the street names, get to know the local attractions and bus routes – usually, he would also visit the child’s grave. In SDS slang, he was creating his ‘legend’. A good legend would account for every aspect of the character’s story and personality, and would make it possible for a spy to be a ‘deep swimmer’ rather than a ‘shallow paddler’. Francis’s legend included an abusive, alcoholic father to explain why he could fight so well, and a mother dying of cancer abroad to explain his trips to visit his actual family (undercover for years at a time, officers couldn’t go home regularly). When an officer had prepared his legend, he exchanged his warrant cards for identity papers – driving licence, birth certificate, passport, even a fake criminal record on the police database, where the role required it. Once in the field, handlers aside, they were on their own. The unofficial SDS motto was ‘By Any Means Necessary’. Twice a week they would meet the other SDS officers in a safehouse, where they remained in character, exchanging stories, smoking roll-ups, drinking cans of lager.
Of all the undercover police whose secret lives have been exposed, none lived up to the SDS motto quite so completely as Bob Lambert. Francis refers to Lambert’s as the ‘best SDS tour of duty ever’. He was famous within SDS ranks long before the details of his tour were made public – by the activists whose lives Lambert temporarily shared. Known to them as Mark (‘Bob’) Robinson, he went undercover in 1983. He got a girlfriend, went to Glastonbury and became involved in the squatting and free party scene, campaigning with animal rights groups and London Greenpeace. He had a hand in writing the leaflet that formed the basis of the McLibel case in the 1990s, produced propaganda for the Animal Liberation Front and is alleged to have been one of three activists who planted incendiary devices at branches of Debenhams in Luton, Romford and Harrow in 1987. The plan was to place the devices during the day, timed so that they would go off in the middle of the night, causing just enough of a fire to set off the sprinklers, flood the stores and ruin the fur stocks. In the event, rather more damage was caused to the stores in Luton and Harrow than they intended. The other two men were convicted of arson and given custodial sentences; Lambert mysteriously walked away. Special Branch officers have said that Lambert must have acted alone; that even if the allegations are true, it is inconceivable that he had permission to do what he did. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, covert policing requires advance authorisation from senior officers. In the 1980s the rules were more vague. SDS officers commonly sought ‘retrospective authorisation’ for crimes committed in the field – usually trespass, criminal damage or a breach of the Public Order Act. Arson is a different matter. It’s hard to believe that such a serious crime could have been authorised, retrospectively or otherwise. But it’s harder still to believe that Lambert’s actions were unknown to senior officers, his handler at the very least.
Lambert led two lives. In one, he was a policeman with a wife and children in suburban Herefordshire. In the other, he was an activist in London involved in multiple long-term sexual relationships. Lambert met Charlotte in the first year of his deployment; their relationship gave him the cover he needed to gain the trust of his target groups. When their child was born in 1985, Lambert was there at the hospital, seemingly awed by the birth of his ‘first’. He disappeared when it was time to sign the birth register. The new parents made numerous appointments to visit the registrar’s office together. Each time Lambert let Charlotte down. Charlotte put it down to his radical politics: he’d said that he didn’t think people should own each other. By 1987, when Lambert was reaching the end of his stint, he began to engineer problems with their relationship: there wasn’t a lot of money (Charlotte had taken work, allowing Lambert to ‘dedicate his time to politics’, but it wasn’t enough) and he became distant. Complaining that they weren’t having enough sex, Lambert looked elsewhere; in all, he had four sexual relationships while undercover. In May 1987, just before the Debenhams action, he met Karen.
It was standard SDS practice for officers to begin by infiltrating less radical groups in order to get to their real targets. Charlotte was Lambert’s way in. But Karen wasn’t an activist, and she gave him no access to intelligence. His purpose with her was different. It appears that splitting his time between the two women was part of Lambert’s exit strategy: feigning fears that the police were catching up with him after the firebombing, he told both of them that he had to flee to Spain, and that they could join him there. And then he vanished. Charlotte searched for him for years, enlisting the help of social services and the Child Support Agency. All the while he was working in his new job as the SDS’s spymaster, in an office just a few miles away from the child he abandoned. Whoever promoted Lambert apparently didn’t think he had broken the rules. Instead, his time in the field was treated as a model for others to follow; he took on the job of monitoring future officers and made sure they did as he would have done. Since leaving the police in 2008, he has been teaching terrorism studies at St Andrews and has become known as a campaigner against racism and Islamophobia. It is a strikingly public life for a man with so much to hide.
The experiences of Karen and Charlotte were not exceptional. Of the ten undercover operatives identified so far, nine had sex with their targets. Helen Steel, one of the activists sued by McDonald’s for the pamphlet cowritten by Lambert, discovered after ten years searching for her ex-partner John Dines that he was not the man she thought he was. Steel found the death certificate of the child whose identity Dines had stolen, discovered that he was married and that he had been a police officer. The SDS monitored the search and, worried that Steel was getting too close, relocated Dines to New Zealand. Perhaps the most disturbing story is that of Laura, whose partner, Jim Boyling, infiltrated the environmental movement in the 1990s. When he disappeared, she believed he had gone to South Africa, and followed him there. The fruitless search drained her savings and affected her health. Back in London and weighing less than seven stone, she spent the next few months in and out of hostels. Thanks to Boyling’s inability to let her go entirely (he kept in occasional contact with her by email) she was eventually able to track him down. After a series of confessions and promises – that he would leave the police, that they would have a new life – she stayed with him. Boyling persuaded her to cut ties with her activist friends and made her change her name by deed poll. They had two children and got married, but in 2007 Laura left him and went to a women’s refuge.
Lambert wasn’t the first officer to advocate ‘using the tool of sex to maintain your cover’, or the first to father a child in the field (at least one other SDS officer did so in the early 1980s; like Lambert, he was later promoted). But Lambert’s strategies proved especially influential. Since the SDS had no field manual, officers looked to success stories like Lambert’s for tactical tips. Peter Francis remembers his advice. How should a new undercover cop gain the trust of the group? Find a woman. How should he stop a woman getting attached, interfering with his work or blowing his cover? ‘Shag somebody else … It’s amazing how women don’t like you going to bed with someone else.’ How should he end his deployment? Shag another. Just remember always to use a condom.
Boyling seems to have taken the advice to heart. He told Laura that having sex with activists was a ‘necessary tool’, and besides, undercover police had ‘needs’ too. The rhetoric of necessity runs through all the justifications offered for undercover policing, which, on this view, is the defence of national security by other means. In practice, the ‘necessity’ here is not only state security, but what it takes to maintain a role. In June 2012, the minister for policing and criminal justice, Nick Herbert, justified undercover officers’ use of sex by arguing that ‘to ban such actions would provide a ready-made test for the targeted criminal group to find out whether an undercover officer was deployed among them.’ The targets are so dangerous, it seems, that anything and everything may be permitted in order to keep the mask in place. Yet, to take just one consequence of this way of thinking, if the individuals under surveillance are dangerous, and perhaps liable to retaliate should the officer be exposed, doesn’t an officer’s use of a dead child’s identity put the child’s family at risk? If it doesn’t, it is because so little threat is posed by the vast majority of the targets: the rhetoric of necessity is used to cloak the essential triviality of the whole endeavour.
There are psychological costs to leading a double life. Francis estimates that of the ten officers on the team during his time in the SDS, six sought help after their deployment was over. Mark Kennedy is only the most recent officer who had a hard time ‘coming off’. At the end of his deployment, he became a corporate spy, maybe because he couldn’t face leaving his other life. He had refused to leave on previous occasions. In 2006, when he was beaten up by the police at a protest, he was ordered to return to his real wife and children to rest; he refused, texting his handler to say he was ‘going to stay here for the time being, where people are actually going to take care of me’. Another officer, Mike Chitty, kept hold of a fake ID after his tour of duty ended, and by using it to renew his driving licence and passport, continued to lead a double life as both an activist and a spy for more than two years. He even asked an activist to marry him; how he thought that would work out is unclear. Rogue behaviour was not exceptional; some went native, refusing to come out of the field altogether. Duplicity had all sorts of consequences. Francis recalls infiltrating an anti-fascist gathering in Germany. Activists there slept in communal tents, so Francis kept himself awake all night for a whole week. Sleep was a risk: you might mumble something about your other life. Another officer found returning to normal life so difficult he ended up at relationship counselling twice – once with his real wife, once with his activist partner. Kennedy became obsessed with biomechanical body art: a tattoo was etched into his forearm that depicted his skin peeled back to reveal mechanical levers.
Not all the officers kept quiet about their grievances. Chitty was one. Unable to deal with his feelings of guilt at having betrayed the activists he infiltrated and facing disciplinary action for refusing to leave the field, he wrote a letter to Paul Condon, then commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, complaining about his mistreatment and threatening to go public about the whole operation. The threat was taken seriously, especially by the officer overseeing Chitty’s decline, Bob Lambert, who appears to have been more worried about the danger of publicity than anything else. In the report on Chitty’s case, Lambert claimed that going public would put officers and their families in danger – they should ‘expect at “the very least” postal bombs at their homes’. Chitty was persuaded not to go public; he began legal action, but settled out of court. Others were threatened with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act; Francis only went to the press after a long series of threats and counter-threats.
Only now that the activities of the SDS have been made public have the police been forced to consider changing the culture of undercover policing. The internal police reports produced in the aftermath of the Kennedy scandal have focused on the level of support given to officers. Their recommendations amount to a suggestion that officers should be better at drawing the line between their real identity and their activist personae. But success in the field often depends on blurring that line. From the outset, SDS officers were told not to feel ‘bound by their rank’ when discussing operations, and were expected to ‘approach problems in a creative way, eschewing the obedient, plodding mindset of a bobby’. They were meant to become precisely the sort of people who go rogue, to occupy their roles to such an extent that, as Francis puts it, ‘I could only just about find myself afterwards.’
It isn’t only the line between the officer and his persona that is deliberately blurred in this sort of operation; so is the distinction between the interests of the state and those of the police. The murder of Stephen Lawrence by a racist gang in 1993, and the subsequent failure to bring the killers to trial, produced a rise in anti-racist activism. The campaign for justice for Lawrence was soon joined by others against police corruption and brutality, and on behalf of families seeking justice for loved ones killed in police custody. The police, Francis recalls, began to have nervous ‘visions of Rodney King’. There was ‘huge pressure from the commissioner downwards’ to gather intelligence on the Lawrence campaign. In an attempt to protect themselves from charges of institutional racism and corruption, the police used dirty tricks to discredit the campaign, smearing Lawrence’s family and his friend Duwayne Brooks, who witnessed the murder. Francis admits inserting ‘total conjecture’ about the family into his reports. His crowning moment came when he successfully predicted clashes between protesters and police at Welling in South-East London in 1993. That earned the SDS a personal visit and a bottle of whisky from Paul Condon, which doesn’t do much to support the contention that the SDS was a rogue force whose actions were unknown to their superiors.
Francis was pulled out of the field in 1997, when the anti-racist movement was at its height, but found it hard to get out of role: ‘I had spent years hating the police and then suddenly I was one of them again. I just couldn’t deal with it … I had real sympathy for the “black justice” campaigns. I also witnessed numerous acts of appalling police brutality on protesters. I genuinely became anti-police.’ He couldn’t help but see his uniformed colleagues differently: ‘It was the simple reality that they were repeatedly in the wrong.’
Once the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was set up in 1998, Francis felt it was time for the SDS to admit it had been spying on the black justice campaigns. He wanted his bosses to disclose details of his own deployment in the anti-racist movement. They refused, and instead sent Special Branch officers to the inquiry to monitor proceedings and gather intelligence. Now that Francis has spoken out, the official police response has been to condemn the cover-up and to promise that if the allegations of a plot to smear the Lawrences are true, there will be a public apology. There has been no acknowledgment – presumably there never will be – of the simple truth at the heart of it all: that although the police claim to have done what they did in defence of the state, they were, in the end, just defending themselves.
Who now should bring the police to account? In a recent book about how to monitor the secret-keeping arms of the state, Rahul Sagar has argued that the traditional forms of institutional oversight don’t work, and that whistleblowing is the best mechanism of accountability available.[*] Institutions are always at risk of being captured by special interests, but whistleblowers can be relied on to call out officials when they abuse state secrecy. Whistleblowers, Sagar believes, should be judged according to their intentions: they must make their disclosures openly, so that the public can decide whether they are acting in a disinterested, non-partisan way – in ‘good faith’. This is an argument that tends to work in the interests of the state: it is far easier for the US government to tar individuals – Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden – than it is to win the argument about state secrecy and the NSA. In any case, focusing on intentions is a distraction. Who cares if whistleblowers act in good faith? Francis’s motivations for coming forward are no doubt complicated: what matters is the story he has to tell. His evidence supports the claims made by the women who were used by police spies and who are currently taking legal action against the Met.
But even if they are successful in these actions, what chance is there that we will see significant reform of policing practices? The police will continue to argue that the SDS operations belong in the past, and that responsibility for them lies with a once (but no longer) institutionally racist police force. The NPOIU has made a similar attempt to distance itself from its now defunct parent squad, even though it has committed and concealed the same offences. Sagar isn’t wrong: the recent reviews of political policing that promise higher authorisation, more internal oversight and better exit plans for undercover officers read more like an attempt to prevent whistleblowing and publicity than anything else. Though they stress that the actions of officers must be ‘necessary’ and ‘proportionate’, and that attempts should be made to minimise ‘collateral intrusion’, they are also careful to point out that a ‘system of control … can only reduce the risks, not eradicate them completely.’ Sex is not discussed. Fifteen separate official inquiries into policing are currently underway. All of them are taking place behind closed doors, and the largest, Operation Herne, is being conducted by the Metropolitan Police itself. The Met has also separately referred Francis’s allegations to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Perhaps all this internal oversight will make a difference? Perhaps not. The women suing the Met have refused to co-operate with Operation Herne while the police remain in charge. So has Francis himself; and neither he nor they will be impressed by the referral to the IPCC, described in a recent Home Affairs Committee report as lacking ‘the investigative resources necessary to get to the truth’.
[*] Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy (Princeton, 281 pp., £27.95, October, 978 0 691 14987 5).