Britain’s secret political police

16 March 2021 — Declassified UK

 A shocking story of how a special squad of Britain’s Metropolitan Police, in collusion with MI5 – the domestic ‘security’ service – secretly infiltrated hundreds of UK political and campaign groups, and the question of whether the spying continues. As told by Asa Winstanley, who has personal experience.

Asa Winstanley

  • “The man we’d thought had been our friend had actually been a spy for the state all along”
  • Industrial-levels of police infiltration of progressive campaign groups began during anti-Vietnam war movement in 1968
  • Metropolitan Police admits for the first time to Declassified that it spied for MI5
  • Justice campaigns led by families of people killed in police custody were a particular target of so-called “spycops”. The victims were mostly black men
  • Undercover police spied on Labour politicians and nearly every group to party’s left
  • Some women, who were tricked into romantic relationships, say it was like being “raped by the state”
  • Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter believed to be the most likely targets of current undercover police infiltration

In December 2018 I received a text message that changed my life.

“Do you know anyone involved in [the] UK group of [the] International Solidarity Movement?”  it read. A public inquiry had released the name of “an undercover officer who apparently infiltrated them – Rob Harrison”.

Long buried memories slowly began to surface. I knew that name.

In my mid-twenties I had indeed been involved with the International Solidarity Movement, known as ISM, first as a volunteer in Palestine and later with their UK chapter, ISM London. Rob had been a friend – or so I’d thought. We’d drunk in the same pubs, I’d danced to the records he’d spun as a DJ at fundraisers and we’d endured the same interminable meetings together.

But all along he’d secretly been an undercover British police officer, leading a double life and reporting who-knows-what to the authorities.

I swiftly turned to my old emails and found dozens from “Robert Harrison”. He’d even offered to drive me to the airport on one trip to Palestine. Luckily, I had declined.

There was no doubt – it was the same man. The man we’d thought had been our friend had actually been a spy for the state all along.

Looking back at that text message now, I think I was in shock and experienced some sort of trauma. I processed all this by snapping into professional mode – it would make a great story. And I was well placed to tell it. I called around some of my old comrades.

I reported on it for The Electronic Intifada, removing myself from the story as much as possible. That was my way of handling it at the time.

 

  • ‘Rob Harrison’, an undercover Met police officer who infiltrated the pro-Palestine activist group International Solidarity Movement. (Photo: Electronic Intifada)

Tip of the iceberg

To this day, I still don’t know the real name of the police officer we’d known as activist “Rob Harrison”. I understand that the Undercover Policing Inquiry looking into the affair has decided to keep it mostly secret so far.

Before the inquiry released Rob’s cover name, he was known to various internal inquiries by a Metropolitan Police cypher: HN18.

But HN18 is just the tip of the iceberg.

Britain’s intelligence agencies have for decades infiltrated, spied on and sabotaged a wide range of political activist groups among their own people, considering them “subversives”.

HN18 was only one of 118 known undercover police officers sent to infiltrate more than 1,000 political, environmental and campaign groups up until 2008 alone. Each was specially trained and had an entire “legend” (a believable backstory to go with their fake persona) as well as matching documentation, including drivers’ licences, passports, and bank accounts.

The so-called Special Demonstration Squad was a project of the Special Branch, the covert political wing of the Metropolitan Police – the UK’s largest police force.

Beginning by targeting the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in 1968, the squad soon expanded its remit far beyond the anti-war movement. They were known as “The Hairies” – because they grew their hair and beards to fit in – or as SDS, apparently a police in-joke referencing the left-wing US group which used the same acronym.

Over the next 40 years, the SDS targeted groups spanning the entire scope of the British political left, as well as black justice campaigns and environmental activists.

The SDS wound down in 2008, but its activities were continued by a very similar undercover “domestic extremism” unit, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). Founded in 1999, it initially reported to the Association of Chief Police Officers, a national policing body.

These various police intelligence units are known to activists as the “spycops”.

A woman being carried off by three policemen during an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in London. The Met’s undercover Special Demonstration Squad began by targeting the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in 1968. (Photo: Express Newspapers / Getty Images)

MI5

But a raft of new documents released by the public inquiry since it opened hearings in November last year makes clear that SDS activities were coordinated from the outset by MI5, Britain’s main domestic intelligence agency.

And in a statement to Declassified UK, the Met has for the first time admitted to spying for MI5, saying it had been “gathering intelligence to assist the Security Service” and that this had been approved and funded by the Home Office.

Dónal O’Driscoll, a leading researcher and activist with the Undercover Research Group has spent years uncovering the truth about the spycops, after having been spied on himself. Thanks to the documents, “we now know from the earliest days of the SDS, there was close cooperation with MI5”, he told Declassified UK.

His group is a collective of former activists targeted by the spycops, and their research has proven invaluable to journalists.

According to O’Driscoll and his team’s still-ongoing count, about 70% of SDS documents released by the inquiry to date are marked as having been copied to “Box 500” – the police and civil service euphemism for MI5.

Some of the earliest SDS documents, revealed by the public inquiry, prove MI5 involvement at the highest level.

One is the minutes of a meeting that took place at MI5 headquarters in London in September 1968, a few months after the foundation of SDS, involving no less than nine MI5 personnel (presumably senior officers) including one who chaired the meeting.

SDS founder Chief Inspector Conrad Dixon represented the spycops while a civil servant represented the Home Office.

Little more than two years later, another Home Office mandarin, James Waddell, wrote to Special Branch’s commander, Peter Brodie, encouraging them to continue, and expand, the activities of “one of the Squads of Special Branch” – a reference to the SDS.

“There is an extremely frank and intimate day-to-day working liaison between the Squad and the Security Service [MI5],” Waddell wrote. “Meetings are periodically held with them to discuss mutual problems, identify areas where cover can be improved and modify where necessary the plans of both organisations.”

He concluded that MI5 “value greatly the work the [Special Demonstration] Squad is doing.”

Waddell also authorised further funding for the SDS. He noted that its spying had helped in “dealing with meetings and demonstrations”, giving the example of the activist campaign to “Stop the ’70 Tour”.

Future Labour minister Peter Hain was one of the leaders of this campaign to stop apartheid South Africa’s cricket team from touring the UK in 1970. Despite being targeted by MI5 and the spycops, the campaign was successful, with the tour cancelled a few months later.

In a statement to Declassified UK, the Metropolitan Police did not deny that their spycops had acted in collusion with MI5 – or that the programme strongly resembles a secret political police.

The spokesperson said that part of the SDS remit was “gathering intelligence to assist the Security Service” in order to defend the UK “from actions of persons judged to be subversive of the security of the state”.

It added that “the SDS was known to, approved of, and initially funded by the Home Office in this period; and areas of its reporting was provided to the Security Service”.

O’Driscoll says this is the first time the Met has publicly admitted to spying for MI5.

Thames House, MI5’s headquarters since 1994, in Westminster, London. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Who was spied on?

Who were, and may now be, the spycops’ targets is a question to which the answers are incomplete, even after the beginning of the public inquiry. Another set of SDS meeting minutes from 1968, the first year of the unit’s existence, gives some insights.

“Although there has been no real major violent demonstration during the past few months,” it states, there was still a need “to have the best information possible about revolutionary and subversive organisations in our midst”.

Yet most of the “subversive” groups targeted by the spycops were non-violent. Armed groups like al-Qaeda or the IRA were not under the SDS’ remit and are covered by MI5, MI6 and military intelligence.

Peter Francis, the only spycop to date to have turned whistleblower, stated at the public inquiry that “those targeted by the SDS were perceived to be subversives”.

But, he added, this term was drawn so widely as to encompass anything against the “policies and the convenience of the government of the day, as well as the commercial interests of the private sector”.

The spycops’ understanding of what constituted the “extreme left” grew more extensive over time. The Undercover Research Group’s database of those so far known to have been targeted and infiltrated is breathtakingly wide-ranging.

Those targeted include: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, London Greenpeace, the Socialist Workers Party, the Anti-Nazi League, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Anti-Internment League, the Independent Labour Party, Housmans Bookshop, Sinn Féin London, the Troops Out movement, the Young Liberals, the Women’s Liberation Front as well as the Wombles and a wide range of other anarchist groups.

The database reads like a Who’s Who of the British radical left over the past half century. Almost everyone to the left of the Labour Party was targeted. Indeed, even Labour itself was not exempt from the British political police’s campaign of surveillance and sabotage.

Left-wing MPs Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and Dave Nellist are all reported to have been targeted by the spycops, as well as former government minister Peter Hain, due to his involvement in the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

The organised working class was another primary target. Unions targeted include Unison, the Fire Brigades Union, the Communication Workers Union and even the National Union of Teachers.

Almost all of the British spycops’ known targets were from the broad political left.

Data gathered by the Undercover Research Group shows that only five known SDS spycops  infiltrated far-right groups (including the British National Party and Combat 18). And even these deployments appear to have been very short.

In their statement to Declassified UK the Metropolitan Police did not deny targeting almost exclusively left-wing and black groups for infiltration and sabotage. They also did not deny suppressing democratic popular protest or targetting Labour.

They admitted spycops “were deployed into and reported on a wide range of activist groups, including those involved in social, environmental, justice and political campaigning”.

Justice campaigns led by the families of people killed in police custody were a particular target of the spycops. These victims of police brutality were mostly black men.

The Undercover Research Group’s database lists 58 known individuals and groups involved in justice campaigns that may have been either infiltrated or otherwise targeted by the spycops. The public inquiry has officially recognised 41 of these justice campaigns, run by “relatives of deceased individuals”.

Jeremy Corbyn leaves Trafalgar Square after speaking at a rally on 11 January 2020 in London, England. Undercover officers are alleged to have monitored the former Labour leader for two decades. (Photo: Hollie Adams / Getty Images)

Protecting violent racists

Perhaps most notoriously, the spycops targeted the family of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Whistleblower Peter Francis went public with information in 2013.

In press interviews he revealed that he had been dispatched to infiltrate the Stephen Lawrence campaign in order to find “dirt” to use to “smear” parents Doreen Lawrence (now a Labour peer) and Neville Lawrence, as well as Stephen’s friend Duwayne Brooks (the main witness to the attack).

Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993 by a gang of white racists who had been known to the police, and one of whom was part of a family with links to organised crime. Instead of finding the killers, the police immediately set about treating the family of the black victim as if they were somehow suspect.

Francis later said he had come under pressure from his superiors to “hunt for disinformation” to use against those who were campaigning for justice for Stephen Lawrence.

“Throughout my deployment there was almost constant pressure on me personally to find out anything I could that would discredit these campaigns,” said Francis. As part of his missions, he spent four years posing as an anti-racist activist in the mid-1990s.

“It makes me really really angry,” Doreen Lawrence said at the time of Francis’ revelations. She added that the police had been trying to “undermine us as a family”.

Francis’ revelations also showed that the SDS was about more than just surveillance, it also sought to stop the campaigns. “Once the SDS got into an organisation it effectively finished,” he said.

Doreen Lawrence attends the 25th Anniversary Memorial Service to celebrate the life and legacy of her son Stephen Lawrence at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 23 April 2018 in London, England. (Photo: Jeff Spicer / Getty Images)

Agent provocateurs

Most of the targeted groups were entirely non-violent, indicating the political nature of the spycops’ surveillance.

There were some exceptions. Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action were quite open about their willingness to get into punch-ups with the far-right from the 1980s onwards in order to counter growing fascist street mobilisations.

At the most serious end of the spectrum, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) carried out fire bomb attacks on department stores in an anti-fur campaign in the 1980s. In this case there are still questions as to whether the spycops were the instigators of such violence.

In 2012, Green MP Caroline Lucas alleged in parliament that senior SDS officer Bob Lambert had planted one of the incendiary devices used to bomb three branches of Debenhams in Romford, Luton and Harrow, in July 1987. The coordinated attack in the early hours of 12 July resulted in serious damage but no casualties. The ALF called it “economic sabotage”.

Police investigations ultimately resulted in convictions of two ALF activists for the Luton and Romford bombings. But the culprit behind the Harrow bomb was never caught, and Lambert – after being exposed as a spycop some years later – admitted to having infiltrated the ALF cell at the time, undercover as “Bob Robinson”.

AFL activist Geoff Shepherd, who served four years and four months after being convicted of setting one of the devices, later pinpointed SDS officer Lambert as being behind the Harrow bomb.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Bob Lambert placed the incendiary device at the Debenhams store in Harrow,” he said, according to Lucas’s statement to the House of Commons. Lambert denied planting the bomb.

The Met Police statement to Declassified did not deny their spycops had engaged in agent provocateur behaviour, or tried to direct non-violent groups into taking violent action. It said the public inquiry will “consider whether individual undercover officers participated or were involved in criminal activity during their deployments and whether this was authorised”.

The Met added it would “provide every assistance to the inquiry”.

Caroline Lucas addresses a rally on 14 November 2018 in London, England. (Photo: Jack Taylor / Getty Images)

The far-right

Another example of undercover incitement of violent crime concerned Carlo Soracchi. Also known as HN014, Soracchi infiltrated the Socialist Party  – formerly known as the Militant Tendency in Labour – in the early 2000s under the false name “Carlo Neri”.

Soracchi also infiltrated trade unionists in the building industry. At the public inquiry’s first hearings in November last year, former builder and union activist Dave Smith made a stark allegation about Soracchi.

“We accuse Carlo Neri of being an agent provocateur,” he said, “of deliberately attempting to entrap union members by inciting them to commit arson”. He added: “The spied upon activists wanted nothing to do with the proposed attack: they are trade union and anti-fascist activists, not terrorists.”

According to Smith, Soracchi had attempted to convince trade unionists to set fire to a Catholic charity shop, which he alleged was a front for an Italian fascist’s international fundraising network.

Soracchi’s information about the shop’s links to Italian fascists was correct. Astonishingly, London-based fascist politician Roberto Fiore, the man behind the shop, was separately alleged to be an MI6 agent.

MI5 (which coordinated with Soracchi’s unit the SDS) has historically been a bitter rival of MI6, jockeying for influence and competing for power. But it’s unclear if Soracchi knew Fiore had been an MI6 agent.

According to Dónal O’Driscoll the spycops’ tactic of “encouraging more militant actions” was common. He cites the less well-known example of another spycop, HN81 or “Dave Hagan”, who targeted the Lawrence family and Duwayne Brooks between 1996 and 2001.

O’Driscoll says that the campaigners began to suspect “Hagan” of having ulterior motives. “One of the reasons they were suspicious of him was he was trying to get them to do more confrontational protests”, he told Declassified.

O’Driscoll has written that HN81 tried to push one of the groups he infiltrated down a road they were not willing to travel.

HN81 “encouraged the group to divert down a route on a protest that would have led to unnecessary confrontations. Was he trying to justify an otherwise utterly unjustifiable deployment? Or did he try to escalate things to justify a clampdown on protests exposing police racism and brutality?”

Duwayne Brooks (left) and Neville Lawrence arrive at the High Court on 28 July 2015 in London, England. A public inquiry had opened into the use of undercover police in England and Wales. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)

‘Raped by the state’

Most shocking of all, senior spycop managers seem to have had a deliberate strategy of tricking women into relationships in order to help them spy on activist groups more easily.

Many of the women affected say this policy amounts to being “raped by the state”.

Bob Lambert, who was an important senior SDS officer, fathered a child with one activist while in London Greenpeace. He disappeared, returning to his wife who’d known him as a police officer (but not that he had a secret second life). The families of the undercover officers are also participating in the inquiry.

The police have often maintained the attitude that this was not a deliberate policy and was the case of a few bad apples or unfortunate mistakes. But there are far too many such cases for that to be a convincing argument.

The SDS “tradecraft manual”, released in 2018, advises forming “fleeting, disastrous relationships” while the testimony of the first spycop to be outed, in 2010, claimed that his managers knew everything.

Mark Kennedy told the Mail on Sunday that he had deceived two women into relationships while undercover, admitting “yes, that was wrong”. Kennedy revealed he had had a cover officer “whom I spoke to numerous times a day… He was the first person I spoke to in the morning and the last person I spoke to at night. I didn’t sneeze without a superior officer knowing about it. My BlackBerry had a tracking device. My cover officer joked that he knew when I went to the loo.”

HN18, who we knew as “Rob Harrison”, also tricked at least one woman into a relationship. “Maya” (not her real name) is a core participant to the inquiry (as am I, in my capacity as a former ISM London activist).

Maya was not in the ISM; she just happened to live in the same housing co-operative in Lewisham, London as some of their activists. HN18 apparently targeted her as a convenient excuse to turn up unannounced.

According to Maya’s opening statement to the public inquiry in November, written by her lawyers, HN18 subjected her to intense psychological abuse for years.

“Rob applied pressure on her from the beginning, becoming angry at the suggestion that she did not want to commit herself to him too quickly,” the statement says. “Rob subjected ‘Maya’ to significant emotional abuse and coercion. He engaged in controlling behaviour, including behaviour calculated to cause ‘Maya’ to suffer feelings of guilt and low self-esteem.”

When HN18’s posting ended, he abruptly disappeared from her life. “Maya” was devastated by Rob’s sudden departure. “She started using hard drugs, including crack and heroin, as a means of coping.”

But that wasn’t the end of the nightmare. He continued to contact her over the years, appearing again in 2014.

“His appearance had changed significantly: he had cut his hair short and had begun wearing suits.” He persuaded her to break up with her partner of five years who she was living with at the time, “expressing a desire to resume their relationship and to have children together”.

They had unprotected sex in February 2015. But the next day, “Rob disappeared and with the exception of one email he sent to her in 2016, he has never contacted ‘Maya’ since.”

All this time Maya still did not know that “Rob Harrison” was an undercover police spy. It was not until March 2019, when she was informed of the harsh reality by a friend who had been a member of the ISM. “She has struggled to come to terms with the fact that an important part of her life was based on a lie. Her mental health deteriorated sharply.”

HN18 has yet to respond to Maya’s account of events. He is not due to give evidence to the inquiry for years. But according to the inquiry, “he does not dispute” having been in a relationship with her.

In 2015, the Metropolitan Police made a high-profile apology to seven of the women who had been targeted by spycops in this way, after settling a civil case with them out of court.

The Met admitted the relationships were “abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong” and should not have happened.

But they did not admit the forming of relationships was a generalised strategy, saying only that “a number of undercover police officers” had done so and that there had been “failures of supervision and management”.

Since then, many more targeted women have come forward and are still waiting for justice.

Former spycops called as witnesses to the inquiry – whose faces and voices were removed from the live feed of the first phase of the inquiry during their testimonies – seemed to brush off the damage they’d done.

In November’s hearings, one former SDS officer caused shock among activists by comparing the women targeted by his unit to a “product” that undercover police may have found it necessary to “sample”.

Undercover police officer HN18, who was known as ‘Rob Harrison’, tricked a woman into a romantic relationship. (Photo: Electronic Intifada)

Total surveillance and smear campaigns

Listening to the online stream of the public inquiry in November, I was struck by the particularly cruel and all-encompassing nature of spycops operations. The most seemingly banal details of the lives of left-wing “subversives” were deemed to be of interest by Britain’s secret political police.

Veteran anti-war activist and grandee of the Trotskyist left, Tariq Ali, was the first witness. The Counsel for the inquiry presented him with a range of SDS documents showing spying on aspects of his life. These included intimate personal details on Ali and even on Phil Evans, the cartoonist who had illustrated his book, Trotsky For Beginners.

One secret SDS document from 1980, which was released in redacted form by the inquiry and discussed during Ali’s November testimony, noted that Evans was “employed by a publishing firm called Engineering Today Ltd, 53-55 Frith Street, W1”.

The cartoonist, the secret report continued, “conveys his politics by means of cartoons submitted to left wing publications…the subject’s girlfriend remains [REDACTED], also a member of the SWP [Socialist Workers Party], who is a primary school teacher employed by the London Borough of Newham”.

The report went on to list the girlfriend’s address, names of her landlords and names of others who lived at the same property.

“It’s grotesque,” Ali responded. “And mentioning his girlfriend, which is equally irrelevant, is just improper. I mean, so what?”

But even more sinister was a 1968 Special Branch document revealing an apparent attempt to smear Ali by fabricating an “intimate contact” with a man. The document was written only the year after homosexuality had been legalised in the UK when public attitudes were very different to today, so the fabrication could have had very serious consequences.

“It is total fiction,” Ali said in his testimony. “I have never been gay or bisexual. Though I do admit that if this information were released today, it would increase my popularity given the current change in climate. But, I mean, it’s bizarre.”

Like many Special Branch documents released by the inquiry, the report on Phil Evans noted that its information had been “received from a reliable source” – almost certainly a veiled allusion to an SDS undercover police officer.

A handwritten note on the 1968 misinformation document reporting Ali’s supposed “intimate contact” urged that the reader should “Send [a] copy to Box 500” – MI5. A handwritten check mark indicates this task was done.

What were the spycops reporting to MI5? That they had successfully carried out MI5 instructions to smear Ali? Or that they had done so on their own initiative?

It’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure.

Tariq Ali (middle) stands as English actress Vanessa Redgrave speaks at a demonstration outside the American Embassy, London, at an anti-Vietnam War rally. (Photo: Fox Photos / Getty Images)

The UK’s Cointelpro

The all-pervasive nature of spycops surveillance brings to mind similar government programmes against domestic dissent across the Atlantic.

Throughout much of the Cold War, domestic intelligence and police agencies in the United States operated various programmes dubbed Cointelpro– “counterintelligence” programmes.

This was a euphemism for a massive national programme – begun under notorious FBI director J Edgar Hoover – of police infiltration, spying on and sabotage of political parties and popular movements, especially the Black Power movement.

As Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall put it in their 1990 book The COINTELPRO Papers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation “has since its inception acted not as the country’s foremost crime-fighting agency – an image it has always actively promoted … but as America’s political police force engaged in all manner of extra legality and illegality as expedients to containing and controlling political diversity within the United States”.

The book contains a wealth of leaked and declassified Cointelpro documents, including the floor plan of Chicago Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton’s home, sketched by an FBI informant, which the Bureau and police used to help them murder the young Marxist-Leninist leader in 1969.

There’s no evidence that the spycops have ever been involved in assassinations. But the politically-motivated targeting of “subversives” was very similar.

Another major concern was the seemingly total lack of democratic oversight for the spycops’ activities. Senior government ministers claim not to have been informed of their activities.

When in 1997 home secretary Jack Straw announced the Macpherson Inquiry into police misconduct around the Stephen Lawrence murder, then spycop (now whistleblower) Peter Francis says he thought at the time Straw should have been informed.

But when Francis came clean about having spied on the Lawrences, Straw told the press that he had not been told about undercover operations. “I should have been told of anything that was current, post the election of Tony Blair’s government in early May 1997,” he said.

Tom Fowler was spied on by a spycop posing under the name “Marco Jacobs” while the two were in the Cardiff Anarchist Network between 2004 and 2009. He and O’Driscoll say they do not trust Straw, claiming he wanted to protect his reputation.

O’Driscoll says there was a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach by ministers and civil servants. “What you’re looking at is total malfeasance in office”. It was a “dereliction of duties” he says. Ministers were “supposed to have oversight” of the spycops – “essentially an extremist unit. Yeah, they just absconded on that duty”.

American President John F Kennedy at the White House with his brother, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, and head of the FBI J Edgar Hoover, under whom the political subversion Cointelpro programme was set up. (Photo: Keystone / Getty Images)

Monolith

It was in 2010 that the wall of secrecy protecting this intelligence monolith began to slowly crumble. Activists exposed one of their own, “Mark Stone”, as a police spy with the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, which carried on the work of the SDS.

His real name was Mark Kennedy. Activists posted his name along with photos on the Indymedia UK newswire after confronting him with the evidence they had found.

A woman who had been in a long-term relationship with the man she thought had been “Mark Stone” led a group of her friends in confronting him after finding his real passport in the name Kennedy.

That set the ball rolling. Two reporters, Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, at The Guardian – despite the paper’s later neutralisation by Britain’s national security state – doggedly followed the story. In 2013, they published Undercover, one of the best books on the spycops.

Evans and Lewis discovered that many SDS officers had stolen the identities of dead children – a ruse to ensure a real birth certificate could be found should activists begin to suspect and investigate.

Names of spycops – both cover and real – slowly began to be outed by activists and journalists. In 2014, prime minister Theresa May announced a public inquiry. But it took six years of preparation, caused mostly by police delays, before the first hearings took place, in Covid-stricken London last November.

The police response over the years has been denial, delay, obfuscation and – when presented with incontrovertible evidence – attempted justification. In defiance of the public inquiry, the police also started systematically destroying files relating to the spycops soon after the inquiry was announced.

Rob Evans remains on the case – recently reporting on the activists who have been asking Keir Starmer to clarify whether he was involved in a cover-up of the spycops while director of public prosecutions from 2008-13.

Campaigners attach a banner to the entrance of the High Court on 28 July 2015 in London, England. A public inquiry had opened into the use of undercover police in England and Wales. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)

Is it still happening?

It remains an open question as to how British police units are today carrying on this work. One activist is convinced it’s still happening.

“You only have to listen to the background music to know that they’re obviously [still] doing that kind of thing,” says Tom Fowler. “Why only earth would they be passing legislation about it [otherwise]?”

The spycops targeted “literally anybody [who] mobilised on the street,” he says, adding that the most likely targets today are Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion.

O’Driscoll says that the internal evidence he’s seen shows that regional counterterrorism units continue to have the same ‘domestic extremism’ units as Special Branch.

“I think they do still exist,” he says of the spycops. But “the form in which they take place has evolved and adapted.” Today, he thinks, “it will be smaller spying of the usual Special Branch kind” with increased emphasis on the internet.

In 1968, O’Driscoll says, spycops “were going along to meetings, just taking notes of who was there… [but] nowadays they just have to go on Facebook”.

Shortly before the opening of the public inquiry, Boris Johnson’s government pushed the “Covert Human Intelligence Sources” bill through Parliament.

The bill effectively legalises all the criminality the spycops engaged in, though its defenders argue the bill is not retroactive. Labour MPs were whipped by their leader Keir Starmer to abstain on the vote although left-wingers including Jeremy Corbyn rebelled, voting against. The bill has now become law.

Keir Starmer, then director of public prosecutions, on 25 February 2010 in London, England. (Photo: Lewis Whyld-WPA Pool / Getty Images)

Intelligence gathering

On ostensibly leaving the Special Branch, ex-senior SDS officer Bob Lambert became an academic looking at counter-terror policing. He founded the Muslim Contact Unit in 2002 to combat al-Qaeda’s influence in London by “establishing partnerships with Muslim community leaders”, Lambert claimed.

But questions remain as to what extent the Muslim Contact Unit promoted genuine cooperation with the Muslim community or whether Lambert was still “intelligence gathering” – this time on Britain’s Muslims rather than on the left. At least one other known former SDS officer – Jim Boyling – joined the unit with Lambert.

In their statement to Declassified, the Met police said that the National Public Order Intelligence Unit existed until 2011. But according to O’Driscoll, although the unit was ended, its functions were transferred over to “counter-terror” police forces.

In January 2020, a police “counter-terrorism” document listed a wide range of peaceful campaign groups as “extremists” who need to be monitored.

Those listed included Extinction Rebellion, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Anti-Fascist Network, the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The document was produced by the Counter Terrorism and Policing National Operations Centre. In a previous incarnation, this is the very same unit responsible for the unit’s spycops.

The edifice of secrecy is being rebuilt. Britain’s political police live on.

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) told Declassified: “Undercover policing remains a vital tactic in the fight against serious crime and terrorism, and it plays a critical role in gathering evidence and intelligence to protect people from harm. Sometimes it is absolutely the only way to keep people safe.

“The MPS is assisting the Undercover Policing Inquiry [UCPI], which is looking at how undercover policing has been conducted in the past 50 years. As part of its work, it will closely examine the work of the Special Demonstration Squad [SDS], a former MPS undercover unit that was in existence between 1968 and 2008.”

It added: “The work of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit [NPOIU] is also a focus of the UCPI. The NPOIU was in existence between 1999 and 2011, was governed by the MPS for parts of its tenure and had a similar remit to the SDS nationally.

“The MPS will support the UCPI as it explores whether specific undercover operations and deployments were justified, properly authorised and managed.” DM

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist and an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.

Declassified UK is an investigative journalism organisation that covers the UK’s role in the world.

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