Originally posted at my blog spin.off , while working on the book.
Letter to the editor of the Guardian, 28 October 2009.
In an excellent three day series revealing an intimate cooperation between the police and corporations under fire in gathering intelligence on activists, the Guardian published spotter cards used to identify protesters. One of the cards holds a picture of Martin Hogbin, portrayed as an activist accused of being an infiltrator, but denying it.
This denial invites contestation, with facts confirming that indeed he did supply information to British Aerospace (BAe). The following overview is based on publicly available information, most of it online. It shows that Martin Hogbin infiltrated the Campaign Against Arms Trade from 1997 until 2003. He started as a volunteer, and worked at CAAT’s office in London as a paid campaign coordinator from 2000 until his suspension and subsequent resignation. He was a spy from the beginning until the end. The evidence consists of the results of the internal investigation of CAAT’s Steering committee sustained by sections in Evelyn le Chêne’s spy files, the findings of the Information Commissioner and legal documents substantiating that BAe indeed hired Evelyn le Chêne to spy on CAAT.
The Sunday Times revealed in September 2003 that BAe used a private intelligence company to spy on CAAT, called Threat Response. Britain’s largest arms dealer received daily reports on activists’ whereabouts from Evelyn Le Chêne, a woman with considerable intelligence connections. The Sunday Times’ Insight Team laid hands on a large collection of these spy files through a whistleblower.
Confronted with the details of betrayal and the leaking of essential information, CAAT had the difficult task to find the spies amongst them. In an attempt to discover who provided Evelyn le Chêne with information, CAAT staff checked the office email log and discovered records of suspicious activity in his email account. Since early 1999, Hogbin had been forwarding large numbers of emails to either his home address, or one specific email address.
Hogbin agreed that he had sent the emails, insisted they were to go to an ex-CAAT volunteer, but went to an unrelated address by mistake. He blamed the email program’s address book, but his explanation lacked credibility, CAAT Steering Committee concluded, hundreds of emails can not go to the wrong address ‘by mistake.’ Two days after the initial internal investigation implicated him as a suspect, Hogbin resigned and left.
Next, CAAT had the difficult task to relate concrete details in spy files to specific members of the campaigning team. Although Hogbin declined to cooperate with the investigation, the intention of CAAT’s researchers was to find information that could exonerate him. They were unable to find any. The report detailing CAAT’s internal investigation presented several cases where Hogbin ‘appears to be one of a small group where we can with reasonable confidence eliminate most or all other possible sources within that group, or when he was one of a small number of people with access to private information reflected in Le Chêne’s file.’
The CAAT report refers to the long and detailed report on a trip to Farnborough, dated a day after the event. Apart from Hogbin, only three other people were present; the information and the frequent references to the content of private conversations in the file could not but originate from one of them. The others were cleared of suspicion in a complicated process of assessing the spy files and interviewing the people involved, after which the committee decided it was fair to attribute this spy report to Hogbin. The description of the trip included a lot of detailed planning of action: how to get in, where the BAe complex would be hit, the non-violent role of the Steering committee, and the leaflets to be published. Information like this offered the security staff of BAe the opportunity to take countermeasures in order to minimise the effect of the protests.
The CAAT report details how several other entries in the spy files could be traced back to Hogbin and his work at the office taking care of banking affairs. The Steering Committee concluded that Martin Hogbin played a pivotal role in providing BAe with information.
After the internal investigation had been finished, it was hard for the organisation to decide what legal action to take. Pressing charges against the spies or BAe was an option with limited opportunities, as there are no laws against infiltration. Invited to do so, CAAT filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner. He found that ‘a former member of CAAT had been forwarding information to an email at a company with links to Le Chêne.’ The careful phrasing was justified in the legal context; technically, anyone could have forwarded the emails from Hogbin’s account. With Hogbin having admitted the forwarding, however, the findings formed a confirmation.
(Ironically, the Data Protection Act 1998 prevented the Information Commissioner from giving CAAT details of the company concerned. The Commissioner also decided not to take any action. Though confidential, the information forwarded in the emails did not meet the narrow definition of ‘personal data’ as set out in a precedent setting Court of Appeal decision. Thereby the case was not covered under the 1998 Data Protection Act. The period to which the intelligence reports relate, 1995-1998, falls under the 1984 Act. Since neither Le Chêne nor any company run by her ever registered under the Act, the only possible charge would be that of non-registration.)
A final piece of evidence surfaced in CAAT’s court case challenging the Government’s decision to halt the investigation into BAe’s involvement in corruption. Early in 2007, it was revealed that after the exposure, BAe had hired yet another company to spy on the protesters. Amid legal documents in the corruption case, was a file marked ‘Consent Order’ in which BAE Systems admits to hiring Paul Mercer and before that, Evelyn Le Chêne.
Despite the evidence built up, some people continued to trust Hogbin. For most people it is hard to believe that someone they have been working with for such a long time, on such a personal basis, could be collaborating with ‘the enemy’ – essentially betraying his fellow activists, and friends. At the CAAT office, he was a well-respected colleague and a much-liked member of the small staff. People thought they knew him well, including his family and children. Hogbin, in his fifties, seemed like an open and honest person, devoted to the cause. He made no secret of his past career at the South African arms manufacturer Denel; his apparent change of views only added to his credibility.
To avoid publicity on the matter, CAAT Steering Committee decided not to publish results of their internal investigation until the Information Commissioner had finished his research. Therefore, CAAT’s report originally concluded in January 2004 was not published until July 2005, almost two years after the exposure in the Sunday Times. The delay in communicating the findings that confirmed Hogbin’s work as a spy nourished the belief in his innocence.
Eventually, it was Mark Thomas who managed to convince a broader audience. His Martin and me column in the Guardian describing his growing doubts about Hogbin got wide circulation on the internet. At first, Thomas had believed his friend Hogbin when he claimed the accusations of him spying were bollocks. It would feel like an act of treachery, Thomas wrote, to look at the file of evidence CAAT said they had on Hogbin. When he finally did so, in 2005, it dawned that Hogbin indeed was a spy. However, it took him another two years to confront Hogbin and to write about the denial, the doubts and the destruction of a friendship. Infiltration and covert action can do a lot of harm, not just on the political front, but also on the personal level.
Now, all that needs to be found out is whether Martin Hogbin is still spying, and if yes, whom for.
The infiltration of CAAT is one of the case studies in my PhD research into what I call activist intelligence and covert corporate strategy, in other words, corporate spying on critical activists. Apart from analysing how BAe used the gathered intelligence to undermine CAAT, the case study describes the effects of the exposure.
In 1998, with buro Jansen & Janssen, I investigated a related case in the Netherlands. Someone calling himself Adrian Franks infiltrated European networks of activist groups. Evelyn Le Chêne’s private intelligence agency turned out to be the parent company of Adrian Franks’ French consultancy. Moreover, Evelyn and Adrian were mother and son.
The Threat Response Spy Files offer further analyses of the covert corporate strategy based on the gathered intelligence.