Defective Inspectors

As the security services seek to justify their existence, harmless activists are being treated as terrorists

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 29th August 1996.

There was an uninvited guest at the street party organized by traffic protesters in Brighton last weekend. An inspector with the Metropolitian Police’s Forward Intelligence Team, he seemed to know rather more about the rest of the guest list than the organizers did. Before the party began, local police conferred with him, then darted into the crowds to pull out known activists. Only when the officers stopped relying on the inspector’s advice and started picking up people who just looked as if they might be involved did they start making mistakes – one of the 80 people arrested was a man handing out leaflets about dianetics.

The inspector was well-placed to know who to grab. His unit has been monitoring environmental protesters all over the country. In June and July it used a house opposite the London offices of Reclaim the Streets to watch activists’ movements. Whenever anyone left on a bicycle, a car and a mountain bike would follow. When the campaign’s minibus pulled out, four cars took off behind it. Six weeks ago, the Forward Intelligence Team raided the office and removed its computers.

Environmentalists subjected to crude and often clumsy observation of this kind say they find it taxing but not particularly alarming. They are far more concerned about the sort of surveillance that’s often suspected but seldom proved. As the direct action campaigns develop, they are accumulating more and more evidence to suggest that environmental protest is becoming the state’s “necessary enemy”, replacing miners, communists and terrorists as a justification for lavish spending on domestic intelligence.

It’s easy for campaigners to get paranoid, to imagine a spook in every gathering and a bug on every phone. The direct action movement seethes with rumours, some of which have only the most tenuous connections to reality. But a combination of announcements and leaked reports from police bodies, changes in practice and the occasional slip-up suggests that the notion that peaceful environmental protest is becoming part of a job creation scheme for spooks is more than just a figment of overwrought imaginations.

In March, the Association of Chief Police Officers, while admitting that no terrorist offences by greens have taken place, and failing to furnish any evidence to suggest that they were likely to occur, decided to start using the Anti-Terrorist Squad to gather intelligence on environmental activists. Already, even the most law-abiding greens complain they are being made to feel like potential bombers. During the Big Green Gathering at the end of July – a sort of gymkhana or county show for environmentalists – police used powers granted by the new Prevention of Terrorism Act to strip-search people coming onto the site.

At the end of 1994, Special Branch announced that it was changing its priorities to concentrate on environmental activism. Earlier this year, Contract Journal carried extracts from a Special Branch report, suggesting, again without accompanying evidence, that environmental activists might be preparing for “suicide attacks” on road builders. To avert this and other peculiar possibilities, the report had identified 1700 campaigners. During the McDonald’s libel trial, one of the company’s vice presidents testified that Special Branch had been passing him information about potential protesters.

In court last year, activists who had planned a demonstration against an opencast mine near Leeds asked a police officer how his force had managed to arrive at the protest site before the protesters. He replied that the police had found the details on the Internet. But neither the date nor the location had been posted on the Net – these details, the activists believe, could only have been obtained by bugging or infiltration. Several campaigners complain of hearing previous conversations played back to them when they pick up the telephone, or getting through to Group 4 headquarters while trying to phone a friend.

15 months ago, 40 MoD police burst into Greenpeace’s offices and, guarding the staircases and corridors, downloaded the organization’s computers. They were looking, they told staff, for criminal evidence. But no one has been charged with an offence, and the data has yet to be returned. Employees are beginning to suspect that the raid had more to do with future activities than past misdemeanours. At Newbury, private detectives have been filming people at art exhibitions and noting down conversations in pubs. Even so, campaigners claim that this sort of surveillance alone cannot account for some of the information included in the 100-page dossiers issued this month by the Department of Transport to support injunctions against them.

There can be little doubt that environmental campaigners, being “a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose” now qualify for MI5’s attention, under the terms of the new Security Services Bill. Whether or not this will make much difference remains to be seen. During the IRA ceasefire, while the monitoring of domestic subversion should have declined sharply, the number of warrants for phone tapping approved by the Home Secretary doubled.

Were there evidence that green campaigners had become a genuine terrorist threat, all this attention would be justifiable. But environmental protest in Britain is avowedly non-violent. Campaigners routinely break the laws designed to contain them, such as the aggravated trespass and trespassory assembly provisions of the last Criminal Justice Act, and sometimes commit obstruction, a breach of the peace or even criminal damage. But that’s about as far as it goes. To apply the tactics of counter-terrorism to people organizing openly on behalf of popular causes is about as measured a response as using 50 horses and 30 hounds to kill a fox.

In a sense it’s a great compliment to the effectiveness of a comparatively small number of people. But, as well as providing work for unemployed spies, this surveillance is also a deeply worrying indication that the state is so ill at ease with itself that it can brook no questioning of its wisdom.

But the ability to challenge the state’s authority, reclaiming politics from the politicians, is good for the state, as well as society. Society is like an amoeba: it moves from the margins, not from the centre. Cut off from its margins, the state can only sclerotise and shrivel, becoming ever less responsive to change. Heterodoxy and subversion are the ushers of progress.