“Eco-warriors”: harmless tree-huggers, or national security threat?

Is environmentalism really just a euphemism for “domestic extremism”?

The recent allegations of misconduct by undercover police officers have provoked serious discussion regarding the dubious tactics used to infiltrate groups of radical environmentalists, or “domestic extremists”. PC Mark Kennedy, for example, has been accused of abusing his position by engaging in sexual relations with a number of his fellow female activists whilst posing as hard-core environmentalist, “Mark Stone”. Over the course of seven years, a tattooed and longhaired Mr Kennedy succeeded in forging a wide, tangled network of personal – and sexual – relationships. He was so successful in this respect that about 200 people attended the “three-day bender” that was the joint celebration of his 40th birthday. It is no wonder, then, that Anna, 26, felt “violated” upon learning the true identity of the man she trusted enough to sleep with over 20 times:

“I knew he was seeing other people at the same time and there was never any type of romance involved.”

Romance or no romance; the legitimacy of such a tactic is clearly debatable, and it is surely a cause for major concern that members of the police force could legitimately use sexual intercourse as a tool to extract information. It is equally disturbing that there are no clear guidelines for undercover officers regarding sexual relations. Jon Murphy, on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), told a Guardian reporter that undercover police were absolutely forbidden to sleep with their targets and to do so would be “grossly unprofessional” and “morally wrong”. He went on, however:

“I am not naïve, and I fully understand and accept that from time to time that there is an inevitability that that kind of thing will happen.”

Indeed, researchers at the University of Leicester have found that undercover agents utilized sex as a means of obtaining confessions in at least two cases in the 1990s. In both cases, the Crown Prosecution Service sanctioned the conduct of the officers involved. Of course, it is important to remember that the very nature of the job requires undercover officers to build trust and make connections among potentially hostile or dangerous groups. It is perhaps not altogether surprising to learn that sex has been used to do this, especially considering how effective it might be in forging close, personal ties. What is shocking, rather, is the fact that there is an obvious disparity between the official rhetoric of Acpo and its practices at ground level. This inconsistency has severe implications for those involved on both sides of these kinds of delicate operation, and it is extremely important that we question the legitimacy of such an approach. Our judicial system, it seems, is ready to condone such acts of seduction, even when those being monitored are vulnerable young women who pose no particular threat to national security.

It is hugely significant that Mr Kennedy was not employed by any police force. He was working instead on behalf of Acpo, a private firm subcontracted by the government to handle the policing of domestic “extremist” groups. What was originally a small advisory body has now grown into a large, weighty bureaucracy with a huge budget, and disproportionate autonomy. Given that it is a private company, Acpo is not obliged to comply with freedom of information laws. This means that it is very difficult to force bosses to take responsibility when operations go wrong. Although it is true that undercover officers are required to submit regular, highly detailed reports of their actions to their superiors, it is frankly quite sinister that there is nothing in place to ensure that the workings of this corporation are disclosed to the public. When it comes to the ill-defined notions of “national security” and “domestic extremism”, it seems as though these bureaucracies are able to abide by their own codes of conduct without having to remain accountable for anything morally dubious.

Morality and wider implications aside, this case also highlights the negative attitude of the government towards groups of active environmentalists. Whilst it is true that some organizations might take a more militant approach, it is quite worrying that such a large amount of taxpayers’ money is being spent monitoring them. The annual cost of Kennedy’s deployment has been estimated at around £250,000, with the only concrete result being a dropped court case against six activists charged with conspiring to shut down the Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station in 2009. Whilst one can easily judge with hindsight, the sheer lack of proportion of any kind on the part of the police is striking, and it seems as though the militancy of the individuals under surveillance for the past seven years was grossly overestimated. Plotting to break into and shut down a power station that was evidently causing great damage to the Earth’s atmosphere is hardly the same as conspiring to detonate bombs across the country’s capital. Yet it seems as though the authorities are happy to label these environmentalists as “domestic extremists”, thereby equating them with militant, Muslim extremists with links to global terror networks. One does not need to be an expert in matters of counter-terrorism in order to realize that there is indeed a stark difference between the London Underground bombings and the hijacking of a power station.

Mr Kennedy was exceptionally thorough in his attempts to infiltrate a number of protest movements across Europe. He helped activists hang a banner against BP in London, and transported equipment to an eco-camp in Stirling, Scotland in 2005. After participating in protests against the G8 Summit, he flew to Iceland to protest against the construction of a dam. Indeed, his enthusiasm in his campaigning and subsequent expressions of remorse after being exposed to his activist friends seems to indicate sympathy for the movements he was involved in. Certainly, a number of people have raised concerns in the press that Kennedy became so deeply involved in the environmentalist scene that the Kennedy-Stone boundary was blurred, causing the officer to “turn native”. This is significant not simply in terms of his dubious conduct, but also with regards to the nature of the perceived threat of these activists. It would be foolish to deny that protesters always eschew violence as a means of achieving their aims. It would be equally wrong to deny that groups occasionally resort to less-acceptable, perhaps illegal, tactics. Mr Kennedy was, for example, involved in an incident that saw 29 activists hijack a train delivering 1000 tonnes of coal to Drax in 2008. As illegal as these methods are, it is completely ridiculous to plant spies for such long periods among groups that might potentially do something as drastic as occupying a UK power station.

In the context of the deep cuts being made across the public sector, it is slightly sickening that such a phenomenal amount has been wasted on an operation that has resulted simply in a dropped court case. If estimates are to be believed, then a total of £1.75 million was spent keeping Mark “Stone” active on the environmentalist scene for seven years, and there is reason to suppose that he was not alone. The exposed former undercover agent apparently suspected the presence of at least one other officer during his stint as a militant eco-warrior. Again, this clearly highlights a loss of all proportion when it comes to the classification of threats to national security. In the light of the past month’s revelations, it really would not surprise me if we were soon to learn about undercover officers posing as students plotting to demonstrate against tuition fee increases. If there is anything at all to be learned from this, it is that the government ought to be focusing on more pressing issues, not targeting peaceful groups largely exercising the purely democratic right to protest.

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