Friend or Frenemy?
Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police
By Rob Evans And Paul Lewis
Faber and Faber, 2013, 352 pages
It would have been a monumental act of civil disobedience, on a scale never before seen in the United Kingdom. The almost-event would have occurred in 2008, just as climate change activists were turning to more radical forms of protest. This particular action was designed to capture the world’s attention: The plan involved more than 100 activists whose goal was to shutdown the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, one of Britain’s largest emitters of CO2. They would occupy the plant for seven days as a select group of skilled climbers scaled one of the four chimneys to position themselves inside the shaft, which would force the company to shut off its furnaces. All the while they would be broadcasting updates from inside the chimney using a mobile Internet device. Organizers estimated they would prevent the emission of 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide.
Such a high-risk plan naturally required elaborate precautions. Only five individuals initially were involved in orchestrating the protest. The inner circle would eventually expand to 12, but everything they did was tightly guarded. They never met in the same place twice, burned incriminating evidence, and spoke to no one outside the group about their plans. But there was one variable they had not considered: that among the inner circle was a police spy. “They had prepared for every eventuality,” Rob Evans and Paul Lewis write in Undercover, “except perhaps the possibility that they had already been rumbled.”
Undercover is the result of years of reporting by Evans and Lewis for The Guardian, long before the paper scored its biggest coup with the Edward Snowden revelations. In an age of Big Data and sophisticated surveillance like the NSA’s Prism program, it might come as a surprise that undercover spies are still such a key part of gathering information. In the US we have learned only recently of the extent to which the Muslim community in New York City, Occupy Wall Street, and climate change activists have been the target of police spying. Undercover gives us the British version, and though short on analysis, it is a valuable contribution to the growing field of post-9/11 surveillance studies.
One of the central figures in the story was the sixth member of the group plotting the Ratcliffe-on-Soar action, a man who went by the name Mark Stone. (His real name is Mark Kennedy.) Fellow activists knew him simply as “Flash” because he always seemed to have cash on hand. He had been an active member of the radical environmental movement for seven years, establishing long-term intimate relationships with two fellow activists. The real Mark Kennedy, meanwhile, had a wife and two children in Ireland.
One of the activists planning the Ratcliffe protest told Evans and Lewis that Mark was “known as the man when it came to activist skills. He was always up for it and at the center of everything and just completely trusted and sound.” So it was that Kennedy was brought on as the sixth member of the team. He drove the activists to the power station on an early reconnaissance mission. Months before activists gathered in an elementary school in Nottingham on the eve of the planned protest, Kennedy had informed his superiors of the precise time and date of the occupation. As Evans and Lewis write, “This was intelligence gold dust.”
The action was foiled. A team of police officers stormed the school just after midnight and arrested 114 activists. Kennedy had facilitated “the largest pre-emptive arrest – for any type of crime – in modern policing history.”
Kennedy was just one of roughly 70 undercover police spies who belonged to the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. Created in 1999, the unit’s focus was “domestic extremism” and its primary targets animal rights activists and the environmental movement. In the first decade of the twenty-first century the unit’s budget would double, consuming close to $50 million in public money.
So what happens when a spy like Kennedy is unmasked? In Kennedy’s case, he hired a publicist and sold his story to the Mail on Sunday, arranged for a series of carefully managed interviews, and even sued the Metropolitan police for “failing” to protect him from falling in love.
Although he expressed remorse for his actions, Kennedy’s career path hasn’t changed. He is currently employed as a consultant for the Texas-based Densus Group, a private security firm. If the private sector proves to be too tame for Kennedy, he could return to his life as an undercover agent. According to Evans and Lewis, he’s expressed an interest in working for the FBI.