Reclaiming Rights Rather than Rules & Regulations

A long report on the Committee meeting Green MP Caroline Lucas organised in the Houses of Parliament, Tuesday 6 November.

The use of sex & deception by police infiltrators. The difficulties of phrasing and framing what this is about. Plus some added contemplations.

A grand tour of Parliament House it takes to find the room where the Committee meeting is held. At first is seems it’s going to be quite a private party, with just those who already know present. Due to confusing over which building, Members of Parliament arrive late, people of the press and others interested as well. All together there were some 40 people in the room for the meeting organized by Green MP Caroline Lucas. Chaired by Helena Kennedy we get to listen to the voices of three of the women involved, interviewed for a BBC in File on 4 documentary.

Powerful voices trying to put into words what has happened to them. It’s not so much the level of emotion, but rather the recognisability of their stories: it could have happened to you. Or me, for that matter. It is difficult not to identify yourself with them.
The struggle to deal with the array of feelings, of having found the love of your life, the worries when he suddenly disappears, the distress he seemed to be in, the longing and getting over lost love. To find out that your lover was in fact a police officer, someone on a mission, someone who has used you in every possible way.

As a film script it would be a bit over the top. But this is real. One of the women tried to trace her lost lover and went to the Registry Office, only to find out that he had used the name and details of a child that died at a young age. This was a man to share her live with. She did not even know his name. Pursuing some of the clues she had, and confirming the findings that people who deceive often construct their covers of factual bits & pieces, she managed to find his marriage certificate which had him down as a police officer. Which confirmed the suspicion built up over the years.

Understandably, large words were used Tuesday in Parliament by those present to underline their condemnation of what they had heard.

State-sanctioned Abuse,

Grievous Bodily Harm

Grossly Unacceptable.

Caroline Lucas, who had called the meeting, decried the lack of debate about this issue. The phone hacking scandal, with a level of infiltration of the private life of people that – although intrusive – can not be compared to the issues at stake here, gets all the attention. The Met paid a visit to Lucas the day after the complaints were files to assure her that the case had top priority. She has not heard from them since. Keir Starmer, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, may worry about the safety of convictions in cases were evidence gained by infiltrators may have been used – or may have been withheld from Court as happened in the Radcliff-on-Sour case.  However, he claims there are no resources to systematically review all possible cases.

Rob Evans from the Guardian was invited to give some background on undercover policing (his book with colleague Paul Lewis is supposed to come out early next year). He emphasized the elaborateness of undercover operations, of how much time, effort and thus money it costs to organize each alibi: a watertight profile, a complete fake identity, the paperwork, the house, the job, everything needed to secure the credibility of the phony persona. Why would the police go through so much trouble, for such a long time? Programmes to gather intelligence about protests have run since 1968, the Special Demonstration Squad existed for 14 years. Followed up by units under Association of Chief Police Officers (APCO), such as National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) supervising Mark Kennedy.

Evans summary of what we are dealing with here, is another indication of how difficult it is to get to the heart of it:

1. It’s public money paying for all this, while no crime is solved or even fought.
2. It leads to miscarriages of justice and wrongly convicted activists,
3. Infiltrators had themselves prosecuted under their false names, which is in fact lying in Court and
4. Some undercover officers cross the line and become agents provocateurs. In the case of Bob Lambert a lot of damage was caused (350.000 GBP at the time).

Is that really all there is to say about it?

The next speaker was Harriet Wistrich from Birnberg Pierce, who is representing eight claimants (@Jules Carey has another four) deceived into having relationships by undercover police officers. She explained the legal claim is all about the extent of the damage, for the harm caused, which is of course difficult to translate into financial figures – if at all. The women are also bringing claims for deceit, assault, misfeasance in public office and negligence. They seek to highlight and prevent the continuation of psychological, emotional and sexual abuse of campaigners and others by undercover police officers. However, Wistrich emphasized, this is not just about being deceived in a relationship. These women are robust political personalities who carry on fighting, while having to deal with underlying issues of trust and face the reality of what has happened to them.

The legal steps aim to hold the Met to account, however, so far, the police has chosen for a obstructive position. They’re fighting the case every step of the way, even refuse to confirm or deny whether the people involved were infiltrators as such. They are attempting to have the case tried behind the closed doors of the Investigative Powers Tribunal set up to evaluate operations under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). This would deny the claimants the right to hearings, to witnesses, to appeal or to get access to evidence. However, Jules Carey, the lawyer of the others, pointed out that the Tribunal has no power in the many cases of infiltration (like Mark Kennedy) that ran from the three “domestic extremism” units ruled by the Association of Chief Police Officers, because ACPO is not an authorised body under RIPA.

The first set of hearings, scheduled for late November (on two days between the 21-23th), will thus be devoted to the procedures to be followed. If the Met had its way, this could be the only public hearings in the entire case.

The irony is almost hilarious – if the issue was not so serious. The women who have come a long way to take legal steps in order to hold the police to account would be forced back into a secret court.

Helena Kennedy, chairing the meeting, was very outspoken in her condemnation of undercover officers using sex and deception. Her long-term experience as a barrister (Doughty Street) inspired her many comments, mainly making comparisons with infiltration in criminal cases. Her experience, and she emphasized that several times, was that of strict oversight, regular reporting, and no way that sexual involvement with targets would ever be authorized or allowed. Undercover officers would be pulled from the case immediately if only the risk of such encounters would appear.

If only we had rules…

I have several problems with this line of thinking, let me explain why. The reasoning goes like this. In general, infiltration in criminal cases are for a shorter period, which implies there is less of a risk of sexual relationships. Criminal investigations are aimed at gathering evidence rather than intelligence. The advantage is, that evidence will eventually be used in Court, which implies a moment of public scrutiny. This is supposed to act as a correcting framework to keep infiltrator on duty in line. All of this might be truth, but…

– Most of the information collected by undercover officers gets stored as ‘intelligence’ rather than as evidence – and thus remains unscrutinised.

– The use of evidence collected by infiltrators tends to be presented in Court without blowing the cover of the undercover – which has serious consequences and increasingly results in people being convicted on ‘secret evidence’ – so to say.

– There are indeed examples of long-term operations in criminal investigations too, some of which went terribly wrong as well – with police officers ending up as drug traffickers or dealers higher up in the food chain. Too much to go into right here right now.

– Exactly this train of thought was used in the only official review of the Mark Kennedy case that has been published so far, and which I criticised here (“This review is so riddled with failures, summing them all up seems a waste of time. The review is shocking for what is being addressed as much as in what has been omitted. … [It] confirms that any hope for introspection and real change is probably in vain.”)

– Using infiltration in criminal cases as an example of ‘good practice’ as opposed to infiltration to collect intelligence implies that there is a good way to do undercover policing. That, if only we had rules, regulation, oversight and control, the issue would be solved.

Indeed it is incomprehensible that breaking in to a target’s house to place bugging devices requires the signature of the Secretary of State and the bugging itself needs to be warranted which implies oversight as well, while for moving in with a target– a far more serious intrusion – and sharing her bed no regulation is in place.

Beyond this point, there is nothing but speculation – and not just in Parliament.

Collateral damage of institutionalised sex

Mark Kennedy, for instance, was undercover for seven years and had various short and long-term relationships. It is difficult to understand how this could have happened, within the official hierarchy. It is unacceptable either way. The fact that someone authorized it seems just as impossible as the opposite, that it was allowed to continue for such a long time without permission. It can’t have happened without anyone in the system knowing, was the general feeling at the Committee meeting. This let to further speculation. If it was – and is – indeed tolerated, then why? Is it considered an accepted strategy to gather intelligence? Is it giving in to (hu)man nature, to fulfil apparently unavoidable (male) needs that require satisfaction relentless of the circumstances? And where does this put the women involved, their feelings and the damage done? Again, we find ourselves in search of the words to comprehend what is at stake. Collateral damage of institutionalised sex, someone said.

A conclusion rightly made, which reduces the women, however, to something that I hardly dare to write down, to less than victims, marginalised to items of flesh and blood, readily at hand. (And it could have been you, or me, don’t forget).
Is this where we want to put the women involved? Or ourselves, for that matter, as an act of solidarity, as feminists and fellow-activists? Victimize ourselves at the end of the line? No! No, no…

This line of questions does not really get us anywhere. Maybe this is caused by the fact that most of those questions involve matters of legal definitions or rules & regulations. Launching legal action requires laws that have been violated. As a result we drawn into the discussions whether the long-term intimate relations could be qualified as rape or not. Does finding an answer to this question helps the case in any way?

On June 13th 2012 Green party leader Caroline Lucas secured a Parliamentary debate about rules governing undercover policing which, as Hansard records, teased out the confused and contradictory position of the establishment.

Several months ago Jon Murphy, chief constable of Merseyside and head of crime business area for the Association of Chief Police Officers, claimed: ‘It is never acceptable under any circumstances for them [undercover police] to engage in sex with any subject they come into contact with. It is grossly unprofessional.’

In Parliament on 13th June, however, Nick Herbert, Minister of Policing did not rule out the possibility of such behaviours, claiming that if there was a ban on sexual relationships, targeted groups could test potential spies and uncover their true through their refusal to have sex.

This is a ludicrous argument, the women write at their website Police Spies out of Lives, rightly so:
That suggests they would have no other reason to refuse – such as suggesting they had a partner elsewhere, or that they didn’t fancy the person asking, or any other number of reasons that get given in every day life when people get asked to have sex or go on a date.

Reclaiming Rights

Apart from the fact that no one in his or her normal mind would think of using sex to put someone to the ‘Herbert-test’, the question is – once again – completely beside the point. As Jules Carey, the lawyer of four more women pointed out, we are talking about people with high moral standards, who dedicate their lives to make this world a better place. Likewise, the mother of one of the women spoke of her daughter as a principled person, devoted to political activism and direct action. She also said that it was not just about the sexual relationship, Mark Kennedy was welcomed into her family as a friend, attending the 90th birthday of her mother for instance, and she really liked him. She was devastated to hear that he was in fact a police spy, and angry for what has happened.

My problem with the meeting in Parliament was that the main focus was on the lack of authorisation, oversight and accountability. Such might give the impression that would proper control be in place, everything would be OK and none of this would have happened.

To reduce the issue to rules & regulations, the lack thereof or the need therefore, might be necessary to frame the debate in Parliament or the get the cause into Court, but it is not enough.

If anything, these discussions, the search for the right wording, the quest for framing if you wish, remind me most of all of the time and effort it took to get the sexual abuse of women on the agenda as an official crime of war.

Launching legal action is a first step, not just because of the difficulty of finding the laws or legal terms that have been violated. It is largely a symbolic action. No outcome, no financial compensation or public excuse will be sufficient to heal the harm that has been done. Likewise, the Committee meeting in Parliament served as a way to bring the issue to the attention of the government and the wider public (although the concurrency with American Elections did not really help, media-wise).

Which is good, don’t get me wrong, it’s great that it is being done. The nagging feeling that remained afterwards, though, is that not everything was addressed – not properly. So much more to say, and to think about.

In fact, of course, this is about women reclaiming their rights, the autonomy over their bodies and their lives. And their right to speak up, as activists and as women or vise versa – without being denigrated in the most horrible way.

This case – in the end – is about how we, as a democracy – deal with dissent.

And, by way of afterthought…

Does it make things worse, a weird question that comes to mind, that sex was involved? The only sensible thing to say about this, is that the aspect of intimate involvement provides an opportunity – or at least makes it less difficult – to take legal steps at all. It remains next to impossible to estimate the damage, should it become clear which rules have been violated.

The betrayal is not just on the personal level, although it is the intimate and sexual part that seems to be the most shocking to satisfy the sensation-sensitive parts of the public. The double-life let by some of the police men involved, married with children while having moved in with their activist partners as well.

For the women here, or for most of them, I would think from my own experience, it’s not just about the sexual involvement. Devoting your life to protest, the relationship with a fellow activist fits the larger context of being part of a movement, wherein overall, there is less of a boundary between the working and the private life. Being part of a movement means the sharing of ideas, ideals, the risks of activism, the scary things at night, the confrontations with the authorities, the arrests maybe, the interrogations, prison for some, the pub afterwards, the long nights. Emily Apple wrote about this impressively beautiful.

The sharing of all this, means people are sharing their entire life, working hard to make this world a better place – to use a common phrase. Hence, the betrayal is not just in the relationship, not just in the private – as if that would not be enough – it’s also in the political, in the beliefs, and the practical every-day life.

With the betrayal on so many levels, one can only begin to understand the trauma caused. Trauma not restricted to those who have had the intimate relationships. Their cases, in a way, represent the damage done to a larger part of the movements involved, all those people who thought they had friends and mates – only to find out they were betrayed by the state.

Still that’s not all, though this is where it links to the need for further research.

From the chronology of the stories that have come out to date and the police men involved, we know that it continued for years – several decades in fact. We know of undercover officers that moved on to become supervisors of a next generation that did exactly the same. It makes you wonder whether the intimate relationships and sexual involvement was not just accepted practice, but in fact part of the strategy to get ‘deeply penetrated’ (No pun intended, Gary T. Marx pointed at the loaded language surrounding infiltration, as I discussed here last week).

The research needs to get beyond the rules or the lack thereof. We are only beginning to understand how big this is, and what was behind it.

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