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Spies R Us

A new official report on undercover police fails to deal with the real issues

On 2 February, the police oversight body, her majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary (HMIC), published a report on national police intelligence units. This was a response to the outing of a number of police spies – including Mark Kennedy – who infiltrated protest groups on a long-term basis, forming sexual relationships with protesters, and some even having children with them, using their false personae. (See PN 2528, 2530.)

The main target of the report was the national public order intelligence unit (NPIOU), also known as the ‘domestic extremism unit’, which ran these spies. The report had been due in October, but another scandal broke – an NPIOU spy, Jim Boyling, was found to have lied in court by testifying under his assumed identity, with his handlers’ agreement.

The report criticises vague definitions of ‘domestic extremism’ relied on by the police, such as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values’. HMIC recommends that the association of chief police officers (ACPO) and the home office ‘should agree a definition’ of extremism focused on ‘serious criminality’, rather than taking in just anyone who demonstrates. It is not clear why ACPO and the home office should be given this task, given their record.

Otherwise, the review is concerned with imposing ‘controls’ on domestic extremism units rather than with the practice of police undercover surveillance. Moreover, these controls are all checks to be carried out within the police force. Thus, undercover operations, surveillance and keeping files on people will have to be cleared by police at superintendent level or above, and some wiretaps will need agreement by the home secretary, but it’s not clear this would involve much more than rubber-stamping.

No outside control

There’s nothing about submitting such operations to outside scrutiny by magistrates, local authorities, parliament, police authorities, or police commissioners.

HMIC does recommend that the office of surveillance commissioners, appointed from people holding ‘high judicial office’, which currently has oversight over snooping by local council and benefit fraud officers, should also oversee undercover police surveillance, but the Network for Police Monitoring suggests that this ‘oversight’ would be largely formal. Looking on the bright side, the HMIC report cites examples of actual criminality that domestic extremism police units have discovered. It doesn’t find many.

The most recent are a neo-Nazi convicted of making bombs in 2010, and ‘the hijacking of a coal train’ in 2009 (see PN 2499-2500). Elsewhere, ‘a network of anarchist groups set up to disrupt the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles,’ is cited as a positive intelligence outcome of Mark Kennedy’s deployment. This 2005 operation resulted in many convictions, but mainly for minor public order offences such as highway obstruction. Hardly ‘serious criminality’.

In fact, NPIOU surveillance of demos at least seems to have nothing to do with ‘criminal intentions’; anyone taking part in a demo, or indeed covering it as a reporter, seems to be fair game for police photographers.

The review insists that Mark Kennedy was a rogue agent who ‘defied’ his instructions and went ‘beyond’ what his handlers ordered. But there seems a pattern of behaviour common to Kennedy and to other NPIOU spies – such as sleeping with activists they were spying on, taking a prominent role in groups they were infiltrating, and maintaining their covers when giving evidence in court.

David Polden is PN news editor.