Wednesday, October 02, 2013

undercover police: another inside view

In the week after the Mark Kennedy undercover police scandal hit the news in January 2011, amidst the flurry of newspaper articles there was one that bears re-examining. Perhaps overshadowed by Kennedy’s Max Clifford brokered Mail on Sunday splash that day, ex-undercover officer Liam Thomas gave an interview to the Independent on Sunday (two years later the Sunday Times lazily recycled it, giving him a false name to make it seem more edgy).

Thomas doesn't mention any involvement with protest groups, describing instead his time among drug gangs, paedophiles, and 18 months running a fake shop front to catch local petty criminals. But, because of he isn't covering his own arse and had long since left the force, his dispassionate insight into the culture of undercover police is all the more illuminating.

Notably, whilst senior officers were loudly delivering unequivocal proclamations that sexual contact with targets is grossly unprofessional and never allowed, Thomas was the first person to corroborate the fact that it was an established strategy.

At training school, it was drummed into your head that you are only limited by your imagination. The whole UC [undercover] model in the police is taken from the spooks, where an agent sleeping with the enemy is condoned.

The official Met line was 'don't do it', but unofficially it was condoned. I remember one senior detective saying to me, 'Have you embedded yourself in the community yet?' It was tongue in cheek, but I left with the impression that had I shagged around for intelligence, it would have been OK.


It's clear that undercover officers acted as agents provocateur. Even the judges who overturned 20 convictions Kennedy secured said so.

After the spate of revelations the police have been keen to say that lessons need to be learned, that long-term undercover work needs better oversight and must avoid over-involvement with those being spied on.

But hang on, what's this?

Scotland Yard claimed last night that the future of covert police work was under threat after a court ruling that some of its officers had committed a "state-created crime"... A prosecution based on the sting was thrown out at Southwark crown court yesterday after a judge described the police actions as "massively illegal".

Judge George Bathurst-Norman allowed 10 defendants to walk free after saying that the police had "overstepped the line between legitimate crime detection and unacceptable crime creation".

Sounds a lot like what Kennedy and co did with the entraspment of the Ratcliffe protesters and subsequent collapse of the trial.

But this is dated 29 July 2003. Mark Kennedy's first active infiltration, attending the 2003 Earth First! Summer Gathering, happened less than a fortnight earlier. Everything else in his mission came after this, including the agent provocateur work some six years later that got 20 people wrongfully convicted.

Thomas went on to highlight Kennedy's work in this wider context.

the Met had just been humiliated in court after another long-term infiltration was found to have spiralled out of control. In that case, Operation Cotton, the Met had allowed two UCs [undercovers] posing as money launderers on the Costa del Sol to operate for seven years. It cost tens of millions of pounds. I was one of the many UCs asked to go to Spain with cash to fund their high-rolling lifestyle...

The judgment was supposed to have forced a major internal review of the oversight of long-term undercover operations. But the management lessons don't seem to have been learned in the deployment and handling of Kennedy.


Thomas also tells a - by now familiar - story of ending up suffering a mental breakdown and leaving the police on medical grounds. There can be no denying that those in charge of operations are fully aware that the officers are likely to be scarred by the work, but there'll always be a fat cheque to buy the old ones off and new ones waiting to sign up. Not only are the people targeted and the bereaved families whose childrens identity is stolen seen as mere collateral damage, but the officers themselves are added to that pile of human mincemeat.

Those same senior officers refuse to co-operate with the women and families they jeopardised and damaged. They say it's not to do with trying to avoid accountability, but that their policy to 'neither confirm nor deny' that people were undercover cops is based on an overarching need to protect their staff even after they've left the force.

Those ex-officers, meanwhile, have to launch lengthy legal cases to win compensation to help them deal with the serious damage that was knowingly, predicably and therefore pretty much deliberately inflicted on them.

I'm certainly not saying that the undercover officers should be our main concern. They signed up for their job, and those they targeted for abuse, who had no choice, are unquestionably the real victims. But it is those who devised their missions and pushed them through the mind-mangle who bear the greatest responsibility, even more than those whose hands did the work.

For all their bluster about 'mistakes' and 'lessons to be learned', it's clear that all the practices of undercover police now being widely decried, and conceded as wrong by senior police, were part of a long established strategy that those in charge were fully aware of and content with.

No comments: