Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police, page 8
It all seemed terribly unfair. McDonald’s was using its financial muscle to browbeat political activists into apologising and retracting their criticisms of the multinational. The defendants were in desperate need of help, which arrived, mercifully, in the form of a square-jawed young barrister called Keir Starmer. Named after socialist icon Keir Hardie, the human rights lawyer was radical and idealistic and willing to offer his services. Years later he would become Director of Public Prosecutions, one of the most senior positions a lawyer can occupy in England and Wales. Starmer could not represent the London Greenpeace activists in court, but he was prepared to give them advice, free of charge, on how to conduct their defence.
As the pressure mounted, three activists decided it was hopeless trying to take on McDonald’s and backed down, apologising to the restaurant chain. But two others, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, dug their heels in. For much of their legal battle, the duo would often go to Starmer’s chambers and consult him privately about their strategy. They would then return to other London Greenpeace members and relay his advice.
One of those privy to the private guidance Starmer was giving the activists was Dines, the group’s treasurer for some years. ‘He was present at virtually all the meetings of the group at that time,’ says one key activist. ‘He was very much part of the group.’ He took part in their discussions in their office, pub or each others’ homes.
The SDS had once again secured itself a front-row view. One of its spies – Lambert – had helped write the notorious leaflet that so enraged executives of McDonald’s in the first place. Now another SDS spy, Dines, was secretly watching the repercussions unfold.
It is not known whether intelligence picked up by Dines, including the confidential legal strategy the activists were receiving from Starmer, was passed on to McDonald’s. However, that seems highly probable. The McLibel trial revealed that Special Branch and McDonald’s were at various points colluding and exchanging information about London Greenpeace. Morris and Steel eventually sued the police for unlawfully passing intelligence, including information about their home addresses, to McDonald’s. The Met apologised and agreed to pay the pair £10,000 in an out-of-court settlement. It was the price police paid to keep secret uncomfortable details about its co-operation with McDonald’s.
Certainly within the SDS, Dines’ deployment, including his infiltration of London Greenpeace, anti-fascist campaigners, and anti-poll tax protests would have been considered a triumph, and there was particular praise for the mullet-haired spy. Lambert provided a glowing tribute to the operative, commending his apparently taxing stint in the squats. ‘[Dines] emerged from four years deployment (1987–1991) bruised, battered, and outstandingly successful,’ Lambert wrote in a confidential SDS report. ‘His professionalism and spirit [were] unquenched, despite enduring the most arduous working conditions in the history of the SDS.’
It was gone midnight when police found the abandoned Ford Sierra on the seafront of the West Sussex town of Worthing. The owner was nowhere to be seen. Officers feared the driver had crashed the car in Marine Parade and then run into the sea; an act of desperation by someone running out of options. They quickly alerted the coastguard and instigated an emergency search. All the available lifeboats were launched to search for the missing man. They were joined by a helicopter that hovered over the shore, its darting, searching beams lighting up the black sea.
Together, rescue teams on the boats and the helicopter frantically criss-crossed an area of sea four miles off Worthing Pier, as police with torches scuttled along the beach, barking dogs in tow. The commotion continued for two hours, disturbing what would ordinarily have been a peaceful Sunday night in a quiet town in the south of England. Eventually, the search for the owner of the abandoned car was called off. There was no sign of anyone alive and there seemed to be little point in continuing to look. Lifeboats and the helicopter returned to base, as forlorn police retired from the beach. Their feelings of dejection would have been amplified if they had known that the missing owner of the crashed Ford Sierra was an officer serving with Special Branch.
Mike Chitty was quite unlike the clean-cut, sensible men from the suburbs of London who normally swelled the ranks of Special Branch. He was tall and slim with a thick head of curly hair and soft eyes. Among police colleagues, his hobby of driving racing cars was well-known. He once won the Caterham Seven car race at Brands Hatch. The victory was captured in a photograph in which he was congratulated by rock star Chris Rea. In the 1970s, he worked in Bermuda’s Special Branch, where he was snapped posing with a gun after winning a shooting contest against the Royal Navy and the US Marines, during a visit by Princess Margaret. Chitty was an indepent thinker who apparently liked to carve his own path in life.
That was one interpretation. An alternative view, contained in the assessment of one disapproving manager, is that Chitty was the victim of his own ‘predilection for cannabis, a carefree lifestyle, heavy rock music and laid-back women’. But somewhere in the echelons of Special Branch, managers saw potential in Chitty. In the early 80s, he was asked to make SDS history, becoming the first police officer ever tasked with spying on the Animal Liberation Front, paving the way for other spies, such as Bob Lambert. But it seems Chitty never quite lived up to expectations. Now, on a cold night in March 1994, the crashed car by Worthing Pier symbolised all that had gone wrong with this particular spy operation.
In the centre of down-at-heel Streatham, south London, lies a grand, pale building which has housed the neighbourhood’s library since 1890. The two-storey building is a fine example of classical municipal architecture. It was in this prosaic setting that Chitty made his debut as an SDS operative posing as an animal rights protester.
He attended meetings at the library with a few dozen animal rights campaigners involved in what they called the South London Animal Movement (shortened to SLAM). It was an archetypal gathering of activists, mobilised by some of the prominent issues of the 1980s: combatting vivisection, the fur trade and, in a more local campaign, objecting to Battersea Park Zoo.
‘It was like a group of friends really, like a close-knit bunch of friends. We would go leafleting in the week, and then to a demonstration on the Saturday,’ says Sue Williams, a one-time SLAM member. ‘There was quite a big social side to it: cooking food, meeting up at someone’s house and drinking copious amounts of beer.’
Chitty, who grew a beard for his deployment, first turned up in the spring of 1983. He introduced himself as Mike Blake. ‘I liked him,’ says Williams. ‘He was quite a nice bloke, quite laid-back, quite chilled.’ In his 30s, Chitty looked a bit older than the other activists, most of whom were around 10 years younger. He once tried to chat up Williams with a ‘cheesy line’ at a fancy-dress party.
‘I remember thinking, “Oh no, he’s old enough to be my dad” or something,’ she says. Chitty lived in a tiny bedsit in Balham, a short bus journey from Streatham Library and within easy distance of the homes of other SLAM activists. Over time he started taking part in demonstrations and handing out leaflets on the street. Like many SDS officers, he had a vehicle, and one weekend drove five campaigners to Blackpool in Lancashire to protest outside a circus.
During the long drive back to London, Williams recalls how the activists got ‘some beers and went camping’. Another time, Chitty drove some of them to Devon to join a camp protesting against government plans to kill badgers. ‘We had a nice camping holiday with Mike in the summer,’ she recalls. ‘We went skinny dipping in the river.’
A photograph shows Chitty and four other younger activists; he has his arm around the only woman in the group. The beard around his square chin has white tinges. He is wearing a sleeveless red T-shirt and blue beret. His appearance gives a hint of Wolfie Smith, the well-known revolutionary character from the 1970s sitcom, Citizen Smith.
Throughout the three years Williams knew Chitty, she always found him a curious char
Robin Lane, another SLAM activist, says: ‘We all thought he was a bit mysterious. He never seemed to have a proper job or particular line of work. He said he was a driver or mechanic, or some sort of odd-job man.’ Lane found Chitty inscrutable, even though he socialised with him more or less weekly in the mid-1980s.
Chitty never talked much about politics and, unusually for this group of friends, did not look after animals. ‘He was not an animal person,’ says Lane. ‘He did not have any pets. He was not particularly active, just did the odd demo, did the odd [bit of] leafleting. He was not a real hard-core campaigner like I was.’ Williams, who personally steered clear of unlawful forms of protest, was also struck by how inactive Chitty was politically. ‘He did not really do that much. He was just there.’
While he never seemed a particularly vigorous campaigner, Chitty appears to have enjoyed his covert life. He had friends – some of whom became girlfriends – and became fond of one woman in particular. One person with knowledge of his deployment says Chitty had ‘a lack of interest in his home life’ – an apparent reference to his wife.
When he had achieved a transfer from Bermuda to London, Chitty had spent his first year doing boring administrative work in Special Branch, vetting individuals who were applying to become British citizens and monitoring arrivals and departures at Heathrow Airport. In 1982, when popular support for Margaret Thatcher’s government was beginning to grow in the aftermath of the Falklands War, and the animal rights movement was gaining traction, Chitty was looking for another transfer. He arrived at a job interview, thinking he was applying to join the surveillance team that followed suspects on foot and in cars. Halfway through he realised that it might have something to do with undercover policing. Not long after that Chitty found himself introduced to the strange world of the SDS and was given a new identity to get inside the ALF.
It was a mission that, for one reason or another, Chitty never seemed to quite pull off. The main part of the problem was that Chitty only immersed himself in the moderate end of the animal rights movement, or in the words of one Special Branch source, ‘in relatively tranquil waters’. They were not the dangerous cells of ALF saboteurs and vandals the police had really wanted him to keep tabs on.
The closest he seems to have got was his friendship with Robin Lane, who was one of the spokespeople for the ALF. Lane says police were often raiding him and he has no doubt he was a police target. In 1988, he was jailed for conspiring to incite others to commit criminal damages.
Lane said he and others never discussed ALF activities with Chitty, who was always considered to be on the periphery. There was little suggestion that Chitty himself wanted to be involved in illegal direct action. ‘I don’t think he was picking anything up really,’ Lane says. All told, Chitty’s undercover deployment appears to have been a relatively unremarkable tour of duty. In May 1987, he told his activist friends that he was leaving England for good to start a business in the United States.
Unlike most SDS officers, the real adventure for Chitty began once his deployment ended. When he returned to Special Branch, colleagues recall how he found it difficult to adjust to desk work and routine intelligence gathering. Within a few years, he was redeployed to a new role protecting VIPs.
It was a job that gave Chitty more freedom than other Special Branch officers and it enabled him to keep a remarkable secret from his superiors for several years. Unbeknown to the senior command at Special Branch, Chitty regularly slipped away from his bodyguard duties outside of London and drove many miles across country.
There, he would change out of his work clothes, swap into another car, and drive on. It was the strange ritual by which he shed his police officer identity to return, temporarily, to his previous life as the animal rights activist, Mike Blake. He lived the life of Mike Blake, on and off, for more than two years after his deployment was supposed to have come to an end. Chitty was like a mole who had burrowed deep into the earth before surfacing into an uncomfortable daylight. He stayed above ground, blinking in the sunlight for a few moments, before returning to his comfortable underground world.
Special Branch became aware that something was not quite right through the expenses he was claiming. An observant colleague noticed something odd about the number of miles Chitty was clocking up in his car. Compared to his partner in the bodyguard unit, Chitty was driving far greater distances. The details of his receipts raised further questions.
Chitty was found to have purchased fuel from a petrol station in Redhill in Surrey, near his home, at the precise time he was supposed to have been on duty in Wiltshire. In June 1992, Chitty was confronted by a manager over the alleged discrepancies in his petrol expenses. He provided no explanation or defence. Instead, Chitty is said to have shouted angrily at the senior officer, breaking down in tears before being escorted home. An internal inquiry was launched and Chitty was put on sick leave and had his gun taken from him.
Special Branch chiefs were faced with a puzzle. One of their officers, formerly a spy, had been caught claiming expenses miles from where he was supposed to have been deployed but was unable to account for the discrepancy. Chitty had then more or less fallen apart.
They needed to find out exactly what Chitty had been up to. It was essential they chose the right Special Branch detective to discreetly study the rogue officer and work out his secret. Their answer was Bob Lambert, the ambitious former SDS man who had the advantage of having once served alongside Chitty.
Lambert was by then one of the SDS’s stars. His undercover tour had achieved legendary status among the ranks of the squad. The intriguing case of Mike Chitty was a chance for Lambert to prove that he had the managerial skills and cunning required for a future leading the unit. It worked. In 1994, Lambert returned to the SDS as the squad’s head of operations.
However, it seems that the assignment to solve the Chitty enigma was not just a professional challenge for Lambert, it may have been personal too. Just a few years earlier, Lambert and Chitty had served together in the field, working alongside each other as animal rights campaigners. Both men were dispatched to infiltrate the ALF at about the same time, Lambert’s deployment beginning just a few months after Chitty turned up at Streatham Library.
The similarity in their missions invited comparison and the SDS was notoriously competitive. Lambert believed that he had succeeded where Chitty failed. In Lambert’s view, while Chitty was enjoying the social scene, living it up with a bunch of largely harmless animal rights campaigners in south London, he was making every sacrifice to inveigle his way into the murkier waters of the ALF.
It was Lambert, not Chitty, who ultimately succeeded in jailing two animal rights activists for setting fire to department stores. At the end of their deployments, the two men seemed on different career trajectories. Lambert was soon made a detective inspector and tapped up for senior roles; Chitty was still only a detective sergeant.
Of course, other thoughts may have been playing in Lambert’s mind. Chitty was swimming in the same circles as Lambert at the same time. How much did Chitty know about the lengths Lambert went to in order to establish his cover identity? Was he aware of Lambert’s secret child and the way in which he had infiltrated the arson attacks on Debenhams? From Lambert’s perspective, Chitty may have been a spy who knew too much. He had an incentive to work out Chitty’s motivations in order to preserve his own secrets.
Rarely, if ever, have details of these hushed, internal Special Branch inquiries been made public. Lambert’s investigation into Chitty is laid bare in a highly confidential 45-page report stored under lock and key in a Scotland Yard archive. It is a top-secret report, headed with a stern warning that the document ‘must be passed by hand under secure cover at all stages and retained in the SDS office’. It makes for compelling reading.
Written by Lam
It is a document that should be interpreted with caution. Very possibly, Lambert’s report is little more than the jaundiced opinion of a manipulative SDS spy with his own secrets to hide. It certainly reveals much about the cunning of Lambert, who spent several months gaining the trust of Chitty, under the guise of a caring friend.
Setting the context of his report, Lambert strikes a philosophical, even whimsical, note. He writes like an old sage. ‘Like all families, the SDS has, over the years, rejoiced spontaneously in the successes of its members,’ he said. The majority of the ‘ex-hairies’ had returned to Special Branch ‘without fuss or favour; enlightened if not necessarily enriched by the undercover experience’.
A ‘significant minority’ had left the police for successful jobs elsewhere; one had recently become a lawyer and another a psychoanalyst. But the SDS had also ‘no doubt, quite typically’ struggled at times, Lambert said. It was important to face up and come to terms with those failures. ‘If we accept, as Ray Davies put it in “Celluloid Heroes” (The Kinks, 1971, RCA Victor), that success walks hand in hand with failure, then perhaps we have a duty to tend to our casualties as well as fête our heroes.’