On Spycops

Sunday National, 3rd October 2021.

The court’s decision to jail Wayne Couzens for life for the murder of Sarah Everard has dominated headlines this week. You may not have heard of a second – hugely significant – judgment from a second court this week, which also held the Metropolitan Police to account for their treatment of women.

Kate Wilson was an activist involved in a range of protest groups. She cared about climate change, environmental activism, Reclaiming the Streets. Having finished her studies at university, Wilson moved to Nottingham in 2003 and met a man called Mark Stone at a community space in the city called the Sumac Centre.

A range of activist groups used the Sumac Centre to meet and organise. Their ideological concerns were wide-ranging. Animal rights. Anti-war. Anti-fascist. Anti-globalisation. Stone presented himself as just another committed environmentalist, working in common cause with the issues she cared about. They struck up a working relationship, attending the same demonstrations, becoming a dynamic duo who organised the agenda and logistics for big events, including protests around the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit. Stone showed every sign of being a committed fellow traveller. Their shared convictions blossomed into a more intimate relationship, which was “deep, close, loving and affectionate” – at least on Wilson’s part.

She thought they were partners – a partnership which continued until she moved to Barcelona in late 2005. But their relationship did not end there. They maintained what she understood was a close friendship. When she visited the UK, she would stay with him. Stone visited her in Berlin and Barcelona. He wrote her loving correspondence. He tried to persuade her to rekindle their romantic attachment. Stone even kept in touch with her family while she was abroad.

In October 2010, Wilson would discover Mark Stone had deceived her into this relationship. It was all a lie. Mark Stone was just a legend for a boy. His real name was Mark Kennedy, his true identity an undercover police officer. Kennedy’s undercover deployment lasted from July 2003 to February 2010. Throughout this period, he exploited the intimate relationships he formed to send intelligence to the authorities about what these activist groups were planning and the political activities of his lovers. He betrayed their trust comprehensively. He made lies of their lives, lies of their relationship with him, lies of their activism, lies of what he persuaded these women were their shared convictions.

His cover was blown by “Lisa” – another social justice activist he had induced into an intimate relationship. She has written powerfully about the “the total life-changing shock” of discovering that Stone was “a fictional character” invented by the state to spy on her, her friends, and the political causes she cared about. “The person that I thought was somebody who was a bit of a maverick, a lone wolf, a bit of a rebel character, turned out to be somebody who had joined the police force when he was nineteen, and had been married since his early twenties, and actually had two kids,” she reflected.

This week, Wilson won a major victory action at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. In a judgment which is sharply critical of police surveillance tactics, three judges ruled that Wilson had been subject to a “formidable list” of human rights violations as a result of Kennedy’s activities and the course of intrusive surveillance the Metropolitan police authorised him to undertake. The court held she had been the victim of inhuman and degrading treatment. Her private and family life had been violated. Her freedom of expression too, and her rights to freedom of assembly and association – further aggravated by discrimination against women in respect of these fundamental rights.

But it wasn’t just Kennedy’s conduct which attracted criticism. The tribunal also decided that the intrusive surveillance of these activists should never have been authorised, and the fact that it persisted so long reveals “disturbing and lamentable failings at the most fundamental levels” in the police service.

This decision has huge significance for women who shared Wilson’s experiences. Wilson was just one victim of Kennedy’s manifold deceptions. Evidence presented to the tribunal suggests that at least ten other women were persuaded into sexual relationships with him during his deployment, each one oblivious to his true identity and true purposes as an undercover cop, digging through their bedclothes for evidence to report back to his superiors.

Each one of these women was a victim of a gross violation of their dignity and integrity by an agent of the state. It is difficult to conceive how living through ten years of betrayal and lies must feel. Wilson describes it as having “turned her life upside down,” “cynically used and sexually violated,” “deeply distressed and psychologically traumatised.”

And Kennedy wasn’t the only spycop to embark on sexual relationship with his intelligence targets. Some of these undercover officers even fathered children with their targets, before disappearing from their lives. These women have spoken eloquently about the pain and grief this has caused. “I feel like I’ve got no foundations in my life,” one victim said, having discovered the true identity of the father of her child. “It was all built on sand.” The past is stolen from you. Your life isn’t what you thought it was. It is state-sponsored gaslighting.

You might be thinking: surely Kennedy’s superiors must have known what was going on? Surely they must have been in a position to read between the lines of his intelligence reports, to see how their asset was behaving, the relationships he was forming?

The tribunal’s decision is damning on this point also. Although there is no evidence that undercover officers were encouraged to strike up sexual relationships as a “deliberate tactic,” given the scant oversight Kennedy was subject to during his almost decade-long deployment, the judges concluded that senior officers knew or turned a blind eye to the activities of covert human intelligence sources. The approach was “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

But the tribunal stressed that “this is not just a case about a renegade police officer who took advantage of his undercover deployment to indulge his sexual proclivities, serious though this aspect of the case unquestionably is.” And that is this judgment’s wider significance. It goes to the root of whether the covert penetration of campaign groups by police officers is remotely justified.

The Sumac Centre where Wilson met Kennedy was described by police intelligence as “a centre used by persons involved in extremism relating to animal rights, environmentalism, anarchy, anti-weapons and war issues and anti-globalisation.” This sinister series of beliefs, they argued, justified planting a spy in their midst. This was a long-term intelligence-gathering operation, supposedly justified by concerns about “public order.”

It was not suspected that any of the people Stone was sent to spy on were committing criminal offences, or planning to. The police’s limp justification for Kennedy’s presence is that it allowed them “to ascertain the numbers of those involved and the likely tactics, so that proportionate and appropriate police response can be assured for the safety of all concerned.”

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal called out that justification for the humbug it was. The decision to embark on intrusive surveillance of these activists was “fatal flawed,” and couldn’t be justified as necessary in a democratic society. The Centre was not “a criminal organisation” – it was just a “place where various groups congregated. Most were entirely above board, neither engaged in nor contemplating any criminal activity.” Indeed, most were groups exercising their basic rights to assemble, to organise, to share ideas – and yes, to protest too. We’re a world away from an organised crime gang or terrorist cell here. These were groups of citizens, exercising their basic democratic rights. And for daring to engage in these lawful activities, the police invited themselves into their campaign rooms and bedrooms.

You can only admire the grit Kate Wilson has shown in bringing and persisting in this case, demanding justice, forcing the Metropolitan Police to answer for the conduct of its officers and its decision to embark on this astonishingly intrusive invasion of her life. During significant parts of this case, Wilson was left legally unrepresented, forced to surmount all the obstacles the lack of professional advice throws up. The tribunal paid its own tribute to her. But for Wilson’s “tenacity and perseverance,” they said, “much of what this case has revealed would not have come to light.” Now isn’t that a disturbing thought?

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