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Undercover - Keep it all out of sight
February 5, 2014 5:14 AM   Subscribe

George Monbiot - "...Before I explain it, here’s a summary of what we know already. Thanks to the remarkable investigations pursued first by the victims of police spies and then by the Guardian journalists Rob Evans and Paul Lewis (whose book Undercover is as gripping as any thriller), we know that British police have been inserting undercover officers into protest movements since 1968(2). Their purpose was to counter what they called subversion or domestic extremism, which they define as seeking to “prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy … outside the normal democratic process”(3). Which is a good description of how almost all progressive change happens."
posted by marienbad (50 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Undercover officers, often using the stolen identities of dead children, worked their way into key positions and helped to organise demonstrations. Several started long-term relationships with the people they spied on. At least two fathered children with them.

No matter how many times I read that, I still can't fully process the fact that we have a network of official State Rape Police in the UK. One of these rapists is now a respectable university lecturer.
posted by colie at 5:22 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


Infiltration of Political Movements is the Norm, Not the Exception in the United States.
posted by Miko at 5:28 AM on February 5 [8 favorites]


I think I first read about this in an article in Rolling Stone. The infiltration of leftist groups and instigation of violence is nothing new, but the fathering children and maintaining second families part is really gross.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:33 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I agree. I wasn't trying to pull back focus on that by posting the one I did, just adding to the overall overview of infiltration. But yeah, that's insanely extreme.

It scares me sometimes how many people there are totally willing to lead that kind of double life.
posted by Miko at 5:51 AM on February 5


Yeah the family thing is horrific. I mean people abandon and break up families all the time for personal reasons, but that a spouse's and child's lives should be collateral damage in an official operation is just... how do you recruit people like that? I want to know more about their recruitment and screening process. Are they deliberately selecting for psychopaths?
posted by fleetmouse at 5:51 AM on February 5 [7 favorites]


i've never quite understood the political logic of this sort of outrage-filter: if your radical group is a threat to the established order, then you have every reason to expect the established order would fight back so, this sort of thing validates that you have some potential to change things.

if you aren't being infiltrated by the police, your whole organization is probably a front for the police: see the other NSA.

I mean it sounds like this is getting some people out of jail, which is nice. But, I would be comforted if I thought the outrage was less sincere...
posted by ennui.bz at 6:01 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


I have to disagree with you, ennui.bz. I mean, you could say that "if the authorities aren't torturing you, you're not enough of a threat to the established order." It seems fundamental to me to insist that a government follow the rule of law, even if you believe in civil disobedience to change law and policy. Not being framed by illegal police activity is a pretty basic right and an important condition for social movements to succeed.
posted by Mngo at 6:13 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


i've never quite understood the political logic of this sort of outrage-filter

There's no clearer sign of the abrogation of democratic principles than the criminalization of dissent. It's not outrage-filter; it's an outrage.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:28 AM on February 5 [34 favorites]


i've never quite understood the political logic of this sort of outrage-filter: if your radical group is a threat to the established order, then you have every reason to expect the established order would fight back so, this sort of thing validates that you have some potential to change things.

Well, yes. But in most democratic nations, freedoms of speech and association are enshrined in law as quite specifically not being criminal activity.

So the outrage here is extremely well placed: governments aren't following the rules. That is more or less something every citizen everywhere should be outraged about.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:42 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Are they deliberately selecting for psychopaths?

My assumption is more that sexual access to hot young activist girls is seen as one of the few perks of a stressful and isolating job; maintaining multiple families is where they cross the line into less accepted behavior.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:45 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


Fairly minor quibble, but this from the pull quote in the post:

Which is a good description of how almost all progressive change happens.

Really? Almost all progressive change happens outside of the democratic process? Not much point in democracy then, I guess.

I agree the undercover cops stuff is an abuse.
posted by iotic at 7:06 AM on February 5


Really? Almost all progressive change happens outside of the democratic process? Not much point in democracy then, I guess.

Well, more like, consider gay marriage. The very idea was risible twenty years ago, and now it's quickly becoming legal across the western world. And this was all thanks to activists fighting for it and persuading the public that it was a good idea.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 7:12 AM on February 5


Maybe my understanding of the quote is wrong, but it seems to me that that is something that has occurred within the democratic process. Activism and persuasion are democratic ways of affecting change.
posted by iotic at 7:21 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


There are also the non-legal issues of honour, decency and trust.
posted by srboisvert at 7:22 AM on February 5


Really? Almost all progressive change happens outside of the democratic process? Not much point in democracy then, I guess.

It happens outside of "process" through even less formal, grassroots democratic activities (you know, people talking freely and forming groups to discuss and further their ideas not because they have some set of secondary motives to manipulate the democratic process, but because they actually believe the things).

Democracy means only rule by the people, not any specific system for administering the rule of the people, so many different systems can theoretically be democratic.

And if you think about it for a second, it's perfectly clear why: those imperfect democratic processes didn't put themselves in place; less formal, messy natural democratic forces agitated for them and established them.

These days, the "democratic process" seems to be more often used to suppress actual, natural democracy (which at the most extreme end of the continuum is literally just angry mobs in the street). But the point of it is supposed to be to provide effective channels for directing and using the energy of those natural democratic forces for the betterment of a people.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:22 AM on February 5


Activism and persuasion are democratic ways of affecting change.

If authorities are infiltrating activist groups to thwart them, then the state obviously doesn't see these as part of its democratic process.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:24 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


If authorities are infiltrating activist groups to thwart them, then the state obviously doesn't see these as part of its democratic process.

OK well yes, at that point I would agree. However, to expand the original quote Monbiot has paraphrased from the UK police website:

The term is generally used to describe the activity of individuals or groups carrying out criminal acts of direct action to further their protest campaign. These people and activities usually seek to prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy, but attempt to do so outside the normal democratic process.

Ignoring the "usually" weasel words for a moment, that doesn't really describe "how almost all progressive change happens". Specifically, it seems to me that plenty of progressive change happens without the need for criminal acts.

Just to be clear, this is a nitpick. I don't think the police would have a leg to stand on arguing that the activists for justice in the Stephen Lawrence case were criminals.
posted by iotic at 7:31 AM on February 5


"If authorities are infiltrating activist groups to thwart them" then the police don't see themselves as part of the democratic process.
posted by Mngo at 7:32 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


It seems fundamental to me to insist that a government follow the rule of law, even if you believe in civil disobedience to change law and policy.

The weirdness comes in that a role of governance is to make laws, and that any kind of activism requires necessarily lobbying for and working towards a change in those laws - that is, advocating for something that is currently illegal. One the one hand, yes, this is pretty much the core purpose of democracy. On the other hand, it makes it real, real easy for the the custodians of the existing laws to quickly forget that and say "these people are advocating for things that are illegal, therefore they are a threat to everything we hold dear".

Those laws that you insist the government just has to follow? They were themselves once nonexistent. And they could be nonexistent again in the future. You can't rely on any law as being certain, stable, universal. Beyond that, of course, they are also all subject to politically motivated reinterpretation. Just look at the sad and sorry state of the 4th amendment in the US. Even the "biggest laws of all" - Habeas corpus, international treaties on human rights, etc. - are notoriously flexible and can be safely (or at least temporarily) ignored by those with enough guns and money.

Which isn't to say you shouldn't be angry about governments breaking the law. Of course you should be. That's not going to make them quit it, though.
posted by Jimbob at 7:38 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


The (pork) sword and shield of the State.
posted by acb at 7:42 AM on February 5


Specifically, it seems to me that plenty of progressive change happens without the need for criminal acts.

The democratic process being referred to is the electoral process and the representative system, I think. Just talking to people and forming opinions is not a crime, but it's not part of any formal "democratic process" either.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:44 AM on February 5


I have a second-hand story that may be of interest (a few small details changed). About 10 years ago, a dear friend of my wife was in her first gig as a Bio instructor at a small school, and she got involved with Bio club activities. A year or two in, one of her favorite students and club members got into quite a bit of trouble due to his involvement with the environmental group ELF. He ended up doing a few years of federal time, and my friend corresponded with him during his troubles and after his release, just checking in and seeing how he was doing.

About six years after all of this, our friend is in a bit better position at another school, still loving her job and students, running the Bio club, and she also happens to organize the occasional park cleanup in her community. One day, my wife tells me she’s just had the strangest conversation with our friend, and she’s afraid she may be experiencing paranoid delusions because our friend thinks she’s being targeted by the feds. How ridiculous, right? One of her new students, late-twenties, part-time, former military, has been making the occasional off-hand remark about ELF, and it seems really strange to her. Gotta just be a weird coincidence, no?

A few weeks later, an update: he’s started coming to club meetings, seems to be her most frequent visitor during office hours, and now he’s signed up for the Fall park cleanup. Hmmmmm. At this point, I’m a believer that something is up and look forward to hearing the next update. At the park cleanup, he sticks close by and makes small talk, and at some point he brings up ELF again. She asks him what he’s talking about, and why does he keep bringing up some obscure environmentalist group? He brushes it off: “Well, we’re kinda doing environmental activism here, right? I figured everybody knows about ELF, don’t they?”

Things cool off for a while after that, then out of the blue he brings up ELF or environmental activism again, and she confronts him, telling him she thinks he’s FBI and demanding to know what he’s investigating her for. He tells her she’s imagining things. She recounts every time he has brought up ELF. He denies having ever mentioned the group at all. Things get heated, and he claims that she’s seriously offended him and leaves. He never shows up for another class or club meeting, and as far as she can tell, he never takes another class at the school.
posted by gimli at 8:01 AM on February 5 [32 favorites]


So the outrage here is extremely well placed: governments aren't following the rules. That is more or less something every citizen everywhere should be outraged about.

Yes, but if you were following the rules you wouldn't be protesting in the street or occupying government offices, you would be writing reasonable letters to your elected representative and making sure to vote, yes?

If you are protesting in the streets and think that governments follow the rules, or that societies progress by following the rules then you are dangerously naive. In the sense that your naivete endangers the activists around you.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:10 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Protesting in the streets is very explicitly allowed by the rules.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:21 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Only if there's no rioting. If the police are employing people to ensure that there is at least the possibility if not the likelihood of rioting whenever there's a protest, that means that protest is effectively against the rules.
posted by Grangousier at 8:24 AM on February 5


Really? Almost all progressive change happens outside of the democratic process? Not much point in democracy then, I guess.

Change does not come from the ballot box. Change arrives at the ballot box; it comes from the streets.

Gay marriage never would have made it to the voting stage if it hadn't been for decades of people breaking the laws criminalizing homosexuality. Progressive labor gains, drug decriminalization, immigration, the civil rights movement, voting rights for women: All of these things eventually made it to either the voting booth or court because people broke the law.

Without criminal action, progress dies.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 8:27 AM on February 5 [19 favorites]


The only remotely interesting question is here is what to do with groups that openly utilize passive non-violent civil disobedience. In a sense they are criminal conspirators, but perhaps we're better off as a society not exercising any form of prior constraint here.

Groups that espouse breaking the law (at least in any other way), violent revolution, or support foreign enemies should be infiltrated by cops because they are criminal organizations. More a threat to me and mine than any mobsters, for sure, and should be treated as such.
posted by MattD at 8:29 AM on February 5


One way that the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s managed the zeitgeist was by maintaining a constant state of moral panic over an apparantly seamless progression of Enemies Within: The 1981 rioters; the miners; the 1985 rioters; the New Age Travellers; Rave attendees; anti-roads protesters... who else? At their right hand in all this was the police force, infiltrating and provoking dissent, kicking off camera-friendly violence and then swooping in and crushing the now-indefensible opposition.

Check out footage of the Battle of the Bean Field (I'm at work, and can't find a link), even more shocking than Orgreave or the Poll Tax riot. The British police forces have long been military organisations working for the establishment against dissenting (or even non-conformist, like the travellers) groups.

The violence at the student protest a few years ago has been used as a justification for the ridiculously heavy-handed suppression of protest by the police ever since. I wonder how that started.
posted by Grangousier at 8:33 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


Undercover officers . . . worked their way into key positions and helped to organise demonstrations. Several started long-term relationships with the people they spied on. At least two fathered children with them.

Infiltration of Political Movements is the Norm, Not the Exception in the United States.

I have a second-hand story that may be of interest


Another (very short) second-hand story: The parents of a young friend of mine met in exactly this way in the late 1960s. Something to do with the 1968 Democratic Convention. But it seems she fiipped him.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:37 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


iotic: "Fairly minor quibble, but this from the pull quote in the post:

Which is a good description of how almost all progressive change happens.

Really? Almost all progressive change happens outside of the democratic process? Not much point in democracy then, I guess.

I agree the undercover cops stuff is an abuse.
"

"If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."

~ Emma Goldman

Without the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement I would not be where I am today. Civil Disobedience, the threat of armed revolt - these things helped to change the landscape. Hell, where I live now, it was de facto illegal for someone like me to participate in the democratic process. Voting was not the answer.
posted by anansi at 9:00 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


But it seems she flipped him.

Or did she?
posted by colie at 9:05 AM on February 5


Yes, but if you were following the rules you wouldn't be protesting in the street or occupying government offices, you would be writing reasonable letters to your elected representative and making sure to vote, yes?

Please to be showing me in what democratic nations protesting in the street is outlawed, thanks.

Groups that espouse breaking the law (at least in any other way), violent revolution, or support foreign enemies should be infiltrated by cops because they are criminal organizations.

Like, say, gay rights groups? Who definitely espoused breaking sodomy laws. Come the fuck on.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:09 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Civil Disobedience, the threat of armed revolt - these things helped to change the landscape.

Fair enough, and I don't disagree with that. I didn't want to suggest breaking the law is never part of progressive change. Rather, I'd question that it is a given, as Monbiot seems to suggest, that it is a majority part of it.
posted by iotic at 9:12 AM on February 5


Groups that espouse breaking the law (at least in any other way), violent revolution, or support foreign enemies should be infiltrated by cops because they are criminal organizations.

LOL foreign enemies.
posted by colie at 9:36 AM on February 5


Not what we meant by fuck the police
posted by ckape at 9:37 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


Groups that espouse breaking the law (at least in any other way), violent revolution, or support foreign enemies should be infiltrated by cops because they are criminal organizations.

And inconvenient or troublesome groups which do not espouse violent revolution should be infiltrated by the cops until they do and are a legitimate target.
posted by acb at 9:40 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


While there are clearly some (well-worn) philosophical differences here, I'm not sure all the apparent disagreements really are disagreements.

I wonder if it's clarifying to think of "outraged insistence that authorities follow the rule of law and respect international human rights norms" as a tactic rather than a naive principle? In other words, the fact that I assert that cops should not entrap the innocent or illegally disrupt legitimate free speech and assembly does not mean that I naively assume they will. Quite the opposite.

Also, I think these discussions often fall into an either/or trap. Either disobedience is legitimate, or not. Either voting is worthless, or not.

If you believe in legal democratic action to change society, it's in your interest to insist you not be fraudulently convicted of illegal activities through the actions of corrupt cops, so if you can get people outraged about it, you want to.

On the other hand, if you think only more vigorous disobedience can confront a corrupt system, it's still in your interest to insist that neither you nor the group above can be thus abused.

[And actually, even if you believe that "Groups that espouse breaking the law (at least in any other way), violent revolution, or support foreign enemies should be infiltrated by cops because they are criminal organizations." I think you should also insist that this be done within the letter and spirit of the law and international human rights norms, because if it's done fraudulently and abusively as Monbiot details you are likely to succeed only in convicting the more or less innocent and the stupid, while soaking up a lot of "intelligence" that is useless (or worse) and creating widespread distrust of and contempt for authority.]
posted by Mngo at 9:57 AM on February 5


should be infiltrated by cops because they are criminal organizations

It's also worth remembering that the police generally don't bother to infiltrate far-right groups like the EDL and BNP in Britain, despite the fact that these groups break far more laws than left-wing ones on a regular basis such as incitement to racial hatred, street brawls, etc etc - because the police have no need to do so. Their criminal activities constitute no threat to the power of the state, only to a group of its citizens (such as left-wing activists, poor immigrants, uppity muslims, etc), who the state would rather see 'neutralised' anyway.

This means you do find some pretty nasty and violent criminals regularly getting up to things like assault as a result in these groups (I have personal experience!), while the Marxists who simply explain that the overthrow of the state will have to be achieved at some point by vanguards operating beyond the rule of existing law, as it always has in all human history, are persecuted for their 'criminal' activities.

(However I accept that this is further complicated by the fact that if you actually want to infiltrate a bunch of idiotic drunks like the EDL, you can walk in to a pub and do it within a weekend; whereas left-wing comrades will take much more effort.)
posted by colie at 10:09 AM on February 5 [7 favorites]


There are a few phrases that make me give the speaker the uncomfortable side eye. "Me and mine" is definitely one of them.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:31 AM on February 5


Really? Almost all progressive change happens outside of the democratic process? Not much point in democracy then, I guess.


Civil disobedience is by definition outside the democratic process.

Civil rights marchers broke the law with sit-ins and by blocking traffic.

Nothing wrong with this. Sometimes, when normal channels don't work, activists have to go that route. And at that point, teh authorities have the authority to prosecute them or litigate against them. The criminal infractions involved are usually too minor to warrant a vigorous response, which is all the more reason to be creeped out and outraged by the decision to add undercover agents to these situations.
posted by ocschwar at 10:32 AM on February 5


The Drax 29 had their convictions overturned because one arm of the Crown Prosecution Service did not tell the arm of the Crown Prosecution service prosecuting the activists about the intelligence they had from Mark Kennedy. Because the prosecution, defence and judge were not operating with all the relevant facts the convictions were quashed.
Incidentally, most of them were sentenced to community service, which is supposed to make people who are seen to be acting in an anti-social way to the detriment of society use their efforts for the good of society. In the case of the Drax 29 the community service sentences were allowed to be paid off as fines by those sentenced because it was found that their everyday jobs and community work outside of their jobs already contributed to the good of society. Obviously they paid the fines in the majority because they were all busy people. I wonder if they'll get their fines refunded?
posted by asok at 12:01 PM on February 5


There are some people so frightened and so small I wonder how they even quell their tremors of fear and get out of bed in the morning. Maybe it's to make sure some leftist isn't hiding under the bed.
posted by maxwelton at 7:23 PM on February 5


In the course of my political activities, I've had both an undercover Ontario Provincial Police officer, as well as several undercover Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers attempt to ensnare me in personal relationships.

Having a relative with links to the Department of National Defence alerted me to them, as my activities were in no way were within the police mandate. The real spies tend to get pissed off when cops intrude on their turf.

Not every Canadian is as lucky.
posted by redtotal at 8:34 PM on February 5


GCHQ has been mounting a DDOS against Anonymous. Not investigating, pursuing, or monitoring; just attacking. It's the computerised equivalent of roughing up vagabonds.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:38 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Here's a relevant example from Ontario, which also includes undercover officers having relationships with activists. I guess I'm jaded enough that the state undermining democracy doesn't particularly rankle me, but the rapiness of this kind of thing sure does.
posted by Dr. Send at 10:32 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


One of these rapists is now a respectable university lecturer.

Are you referring to Bob Lambert?
posted by homunculus at 11:06 PM on February 5


I think that sort of behavior is disgusting, but why are people describing it as rape-like? The relationships were based on false pretenses, but they do appear to have been consensual.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:07 PM on February 5


Yes, Bob Lambert is a policeman-rapist who was given money and immunity by the state.
posted by colie at 1:03 AM on February 6


Thanks for confirming, colie.

What a scumbag.
posted by homunculus at 5:23 PM on February 11


GCHQ has been mounting a DDOS against Anonymous. Not investigating, pursuing, or monitoring; just attacking. It's the computerised equivalent of roughing up vagabonds.

The New Snowden Revelation Is Dangerous for Anonymous — And for All of Us
posted by homunculus at 5:24 PM on February 11


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