Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police, page 21
The answer is that the NPOIU has become adept at drawing in intelligence from dozens of different streams. Police chiefs insist that some of their information is sourced publicly, from internet websites, pamphlets and open email lists. Since the 1990s, police have also deployed overt surveillance teams equipped with cameras to float around demonstrations or stand outside meetings to openly record everything that happens. These small teams of officers, usually numbering two or three, are not used quite as frequently as they once used to be. But for around a decade these Forward Intelligence Teams were notorious for tracking activists wherever they went during a protest. These cops with cameras stick to their targets like flies. There have been occasions when FIT officers have pursued protesters, travelling with them on buses and trains to film their every move. A number of activists have even left their homes in the morning to find groups of FIT officers waiting for them on the pavement. One was once followed as he walked his children to school. Another recalls being tracked all the way to the supermarket.
Occasionally the police cameras have even turned on journalists covering protests. A surveillance video shot by police at a demonstration against a power station in Kent in 2008, and later obtained by protesters, reveals quite how interested police appeared in reporters.
‘A lot of press officers aren’t there,’ an officer says as he zooms into a group of TV journalists. ‘Just think they can bloody wander in and out of the field. It’s wrong, I think. I trust them less than the protesters.’
Moments later, the camera pans to two photographers across the road.
‘Inquisitive, ain’t they – these two, by the pole,’ the officer says. ‘He don’t like having his photograph taken – that one there with the bald head.’
Incidents like these have caused consternation among civil libertarians. But the truth is that FIT teams form only a small fraction of the intelligence picture collated on the domestic extremism database. For a long time, they were a useful distraction for police. It is covert surveillance – true spying – that is most intrusive, and most useful for the authorities.
One source of covert information has always come from paid informants. It is impossible to know how many activists have been persuaded to grass on their comrades, although lots say they have been offered money in exchange for information at least once by police, usually after arrest. Quite a few activists had been unable to live with the guilt and confessed to their friends that they have been speaking with police. Usually they have ended up expelled from the group or frozen out of important meetings. One informant who spied on climate activists says police threatened to prosecute him for possession of cannabis if he did not agree to the deal. He met plain-clothes police down a country lane once a day and was paid just £30 for each report.
It is a murky world, but one that was laid bare thanks to the cunning of an environmental activist. Tilly Gifford was a member of Plane Stupid, an anti-airport expansion collective that occupied runways. In 2009 she was approached by two plain-clothes detectives in Glasgow and asked to inform on her friends. At the time she was on bail for vandalism and breach of the peace. A few weeks earlier she and her friends had barricaded themselves onto the runway at Aberdeen airport dressed as the American tycoon Donald Trump.
Gifford had an idea. The 24-year-old decided to play the cops at their own game. She would pretend she was open to selling information about Plane Stupid, but secretly record the discussions with the handlers. She sewed a secret recording device into her tweed jacket. Gifford ended up recording three conversations with two plain-clothes cops from Strathclyde police, a detective constable and his assistant.
‘There’s no one on this earth, and there’s no one certainly in this room, who is going to condemn you for your – if you want, your ideologies, for what Plane Stupid are trying to achieve,’ the detective said during their first encounter. But he warned that involvement in protest could leave her with a criminal record and even a prison sentence.
His assistant – adopting the ‘bad cop’ role – warned Gifford there were ‘hard, evil’ people in Scotland’s women’s prison, Cornton Vale. ‘And they would make your life a misery.’
‘All we’re here for today, Tilly, is simply to ask you: is there some way we can work together in this?’ said the more conciliatory detective. ‘We have a responsibility to the people of the country to look at groups like Plane Stupid, like other groupings who appear out of nowhere.’
The men hinted at the kinds of questions they wanted answered.
‘Who is the leader? Who is the head honcho?’ the detective asked. ‘In a nutshell, Tilly, look: we basically have a responsibility to the people of Scotland – to their safety. How we go about that – there are ways and means. And as in any, shall we say, big groupings, there’s always people within those groupings willing to speak to us.’
He explained more explicitly what these informants were doing. ‘Feeding to us what’s going on in the groupings – the actual dynamics of the groupings, who’s saying what, who’s doing what, who’s running it, who’s not running it.’
‘Why would they do that?’ she asked.
‘People would sell their soul to the devil,’ the assistant said.
The detective suggested other motives. ‘Moralistic. Financial gain. Cos they’ve been in bother with the police…’
‘They don’t want to get in further bother with the police,’ the assistant said.
‘You’re caught up in the whole wishy-washy ideology of it,’ the detective said. ‘You don’t see the bigger picture. Look at the big picture – we work with hundreds of people, believe me, ranging from terrorist organisations right through to whatever … We have people who give us information on environmentalism, left-wing extremism, right-wing – you name it, we have the whole spectrum of reporting. The point we’re making is: they come to us with the concerns, because within the organisations for which they have strong ideologies and beliefs they are happy to go along with that, but what they will not get involved in is maybe where it’s gonna impact someone else. That’s when they come to us and say, “By the way, so and so – in my opinion – is maybe getting a wee bit too hotheaded.”’
That was the opening gambit. By the second meeting the police officers were themselves growing a little suspicious. One asked if Gifford was covertly recording their conversations.
‘Ha!’ she laughed. ‘Quite possibly!’
‘We’re just asking you to consider a proposal,’ the detective said. ‘It is effectively entering into a business contract. Let’s not use the word “work” – you would assist us. But equally we would be assisting you – be it financially or whatever.’
He told her she could use the money for her university fees or donate it to charity. ‘Cancer Research, Save the Whale, whatever.’ She would become one of thousands of informants secretly working for police.
‘They then go home to their families,’ he added. ‘They go home to husbands, wives, children. We are way, way down. That would be exactly the same with you. You would still have your life, Tilly.’
He added: ‘You wouldn’t pay any tax on it. So you could do with it what you want.’
Finally Gifford asked the important question. How much would she be paid?
‘Oh, you’d be surprised, Tilly,’ said the detective.
She said she would be unlikely to help them for a mere ‘20 quid’.
‘UK plc can afford more than 20 quid,’ the assistant said. ‘Years gone by, people have been paid tens of thousands of pounds.’
For the NPOIU, paid informants are undoubtedly an essential source of intelligence. The same was always true of the Special Branch. The problem is they can never be fully trusted. The information supplied by activists is patchy and can be unreliable – and occasionally it is deliberately misleading. When Conrad Dixon came up with the idea of using SDS spies in 1968, he did so explicitly because the senior ranks in Scotland Yard felt that informants were not providing the calibre
By 2005, both the SDS and NPOIU had full fleets of spies planted in protest organisations. With two rival units, it was sometimes impossible to work out who exactly a police spy was working for.
One undercover officer for example was caught out when a conversation was accidentally recorded on an answerphone. It was 2005 and the spy, who used the fake identity Simon Wellings, was infiltrating the anti-capitalist group Global Resistance. He worked as the group’s unofficial photographer, a useful excuse for documenting their activities.
One day he accidentally called an activist friend on his mobile phone and was diverted to answerphone. The two-minute recorded message was in large parts inaudible although the sound of bleeping police radios could be heard in the background. It captured the infiltrator in discussions with a police officer, presumably his handler. Wellings could be heard discussing photographs of protesters, and it seemed the pair had the images spread out in front of them as Wellings was asked to put names to faces – a key role fulfilled by all undercover cops.
‘She’s Hannah’s girlfriend, they are very overtly lesbian,’ Wellings told his colleague. ‘Last time I saw her, her hair was about that long, it was bright blonde, week before it was black, so you get the picture. She’s definitely her girlfriend, they have been together for a long time.’
‘Thing is, we’ve got the CO11s. They’re like, “Who are these people?”’ said the other officer. He was referring to the Met’s public order branch who regularly like to identify prominent activists at protests. ‘Do you know who they are?’ the officer asked. ‘Have you just photographed them?’
Wellings seemed unsure. He identified one protester as ‘in the Socialist Workers Party, I don’t know his name’. He said another ‘sort of flirts with the anarchist side’. He described a third as a ‘central bloke’.
It was the tiniest snippet of dialogue. But the recording was sufficient for his friends in Global Resistance to realise he must be an infiltrator. Leaving the answerphone message was an amateur error to have made, and one that resulted in the immediate end of his deployment. By then Wellings had been in the group for four years and managed to get himself onto the main committee of around 20 activists who ran the group. He had originally turned up in 2001, claiming to have a job installing security systems. His friends described him as amenable, considerate and caring. Over the years he joined them on demonstrations in the United States, France, Switzerland and Spain. The fact he was based in London suggests he may have been one of the last spies to serve under the SDS.
A short, rotund man with a brown goatee, Wellings appears to have been satisfied lingering on the fringes of serious protest. He never immersed himself in activism. He was always at demonstrations, but never did much. In SDS speak, he paddled in shallow waters. He told friends he had been travelling for a long time and was separated from his wife and son, who were living in Australia. Looking back, there was never that much suspicion about Wellings. He stands apart from fellow undercover cops infiltrating protest groups for one reason alone: he is the only known spy who did not have sex with activists. That may not have been for want of trying; according to a friend, Wellings moaned that he ‘wasn’t getting any’.
When Wellings was confronted by his friends over the recorded answerphone message, he spent 10 minutes trying to deny he was an infiltrator and then disappeared. He has not been seen since.
The Clown and the Truck Driver
Lynn Watson was one of the more professional undercover operatives to work for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. She was also the only known police spy who was a woman and, by one measure at least, the unluckiest.
It was a warm day in Leeds in July 2004. Watson was deep undercover. She had large red dots painted on her cheeks and a green feather duster in her hand. Dressed in military trousers and jacket, she was festooned with bright strips of pink and orange cloth. The outfit was all in the name of duty. She was at the frontline of a covert police war on domestic extremism.
The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army was one of the most harmless protest groups to campaign against the invasion of Iraq. They used street theatre and comedy as a tool of dissent. ‘We are clowns because what else can one be in such a stupid world?’ the group declared. ‘Because inside everyone is a lawless clown trying to escape. Because nothing undermines authority like holding it up to ridicule.’ Cringeworthy it may have been, but proponents of clowning argued it was a light, refreshing alternative to earnest banner waving.
This particular excursion in Leeds – supposedly a mock ‘invasion and liberation’ of the city – was recorded on a video camera. It began in a church hall, where around a dozen clown recruits stood in a circle and introduced themselves. Watson was one of the more awkward members of the group who, when it came to unveiling her clown character, was stuck.
‘I am Lynn,’ she said. ‘And I don’t have a clown name either.’ She made a sad face.
‘Let’s play Tango!’ said another clown. Watson and the others lifted their arms in the air and huddled together. Moments later, they were marching out of the hall, banging drums and blowing kazoos. Watson ran up to the person holding the video camera.
‘We’re checking for clowns,’ she said, staring into the lens. ‘We need more clowns in this country! More clowns! Bla!’
Their first destination was the constituency office of the pro-war Labour MP Hilary Benn. ‘Can we go in and clean the office?’ one clown asked an office employee.
‘Please, please, please!’ shouted the other clowns.
By the time uniformed police arrived, workers in the constituency office assured them it was a peaceful demonstration and nothing to be worried about. The constables laughed when the clowns ran outside, stood in a line and bent forward, wiggling their bums at the building. Of course, the police had no idea that one of the clowns was a fellow officer of the law.
Next, the clowns went to a recruitment centre for the armed forces. Watson took part in a game of cricket outside, using a feather duster as a bat, and then sat down in the street and sucked a lollipop. Later, the invasion of Leeds finished with the clowns sat beside a tree in a park.
One clown played guitar. ‘Where is my mind?’ he sang. ‘Where is? My mind?’
Watson had climbed the tree and was wearing a steel colander on her head. She looked down at her friends and said in a squeaky voice: ‘Tickle the tree! Tickle the tree!’
Life for undercover cops in the NPOIU could be quite different to the adventures of the Special Demonstration Squad. Veterans from the SDS might have winced at the idea of clowning around in the street, but the NPOIU’s determination to monitor all kinds of protest activity meant this kind of surveillance was on the rise.
Watson was one of the first in a team of 15 spies who would be sent undercover in one six-year period. She initially appeared in May 2002, attending a local campaign to conserve a patch of woodland near Worthing on the south coast. Watson introduced herself as a care-home worker from Bournemouth, doing shifts at care homes for the elderly. She slipped one of the campaign organisers a piece of paper containing her email address, but was never seen there again.
It was a full year before Watson made her second appearance, this time at the Aldermaston women’s peace camp, which had been running a sustained campaign against nuclear weaponry since the mid-1980s. She quickly befriended Kate Holcombe, who was another novice showing an interest in the monthly camping events outside the atomic weapons establishment.
‘She sort of appeared from nowhere one day and said she had been very bothered about the war and nuclear stuff and she could not sit by and do nothing any more,’ she says of Watson. ‘She felt she had to get up and start protesting about it.’
Watson was an intell
In 2004, after a few appearances at other anti-war protests and peace events, Watson told friends that she needed to get away from an ex-boyfriend. The spy was never explicit about it, but some friends were given the impression she may have had an abusive partner. ‘The story was the relationship had ended badly and she didn’t want to talk about it,’ says one friend. Watson said the agency she worked for had a number of promising placements in care homes up north. She was moving to Leeds, a city that would become her home for three years.
Despite its rich protest history, Leeds at the time lacked an epicentre for radical campaigning. There were some squats and meetings were occasionally held in community halls and school gyms, but no space dedicated to activism. Watson quickly became involved in a group planning to create a new hub for activism in the city. Action for Radical Change had received a £10,000 grant to rent a space that would be used to organise protests. When they decided to convert a former pork factory into a community centre called the Common Place, Watson offered to become its founding director and treasurer. Her name still adorns the company documents. An activist who helped set up the centre recalls the police spy sitting through boring meetings about whether stocking cow’s milk would offend vegans. ‘It was all of this tedious, dull stuff,’ he says. ‘There was a two-hour discussion about whether we wanted to call ourselves “The Common Place” or just “Common Place”.’