The Empire Strikes Back

Faced with the growing success of direct action the British state is replying with raids, conspiracy charges and surveillance. Is this a taste of things to come?

"In the last five years, the Metropolitan Police has had to deal with 510 separate policing operations classified as being concerned with environmental groups - and the trend is upwards." - The Police Review, 21 March 1997.

 

The Recent Past

As illustrated by the above quote (it works out at an action every 3/4 days, and these figures are for London alone) the last few years have seen a huge growth in, and increasingly effective actions by, the radical ecological direct action movement. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than by looking at the events of the last twelve to eighteen months. The success of the Whatley Quarry action in December 1995, the Newbury campaign (both early in 1996 and the more recent occurences at the anniversary rally), the M41 Reclaim the Streets action of July 1996, the Liverpool actions in September of the same year, and the large actions so far this year - all have seen a change, not only in the face and direction of the movement itself, but almost as importantly, in the way the state regards and treats our movement.

With the relative failure of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJA) 1994 to halt direct action, whether it be hunt sabotage or anti-road protests, the state, and the economic interests that support it, have employed a number of other methods to try to halt the massive increase in direct action that has taken place since the CJA was passed. They have used complex and wide ranging methods (and these are just the ones we know about) and it is beyond the scope of this article to go into all of them, so I will just cover a few of the more obvious manifestations of repression.

The most prominent, widely talked about and feared of these tactics has been the growing use of conspiracy charges against people involved in direct action. Conspiracy charges are worrying for a number of reasons, not least being the severity of the sentence one is likely to incur if eventually convicted.

One of the first groups in our movement to be on the receiving end of such charges were people allegedly connected with 'Green Anarchist' magazine, who, together with two people from (again, allegedly!) the animal liberation movement, faced 'Conspiracy to Incite Criminal Damage by Publication' charges after a series of raids in early 1996. The old adage that 'the first targets of a succesful movement are its publications' proved to be true with 'Green Anarchist' magazine - which draws together animal liberation and radical ecological theory and practice into a most unpalatable mix for the state - hit with these charges.

As well as helping to provoke an increase in militancy in the direct action ecology movement, what may be most worrying for the state in this context is the prospect (however distant) of the more generalised opposition to authority which can develop from a widespread breakdown in respect for the forces of oppression (masquerading, of course, as the forces of law and order).

Green Anarchist have by no means been the only people hit with conspiracy charges. Some of those arrested after the Street Parties in the summer of 1996 have faced them as well - notably in London and Birmingham. After the storming of the Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ) offices in central London in July another activist was arrested and threatened with conspiracy charges. In December 1996 people from the Somerset area were raided in connection with the sabotaging of the Whatley Quarry railway track in September, accused of conspiracy and subjected to very strenuous bail conditions. Finally, the run-up to the 'Reunion Rampage' at Newbury in January 1997 saw a number of people arrested for digging up the Transport Minister's front garden - they too were threatened with 'Conspiracy to Commit Criminal Damage' charges.

Although this may seem like an intimidatingly long list, most, if not all, of these cases have actually been dropped before they have even come to court. Despite this they seem to have had at least some of the desired effect of scaring people involved in direct action into ineffectiveness. This is not helped by certain people within the movement that seem to shout "conspiracy" at every available opportunity. This is exactly the effect that the state would like these threats to have, one of fear and inactivity, and it is for this reason that we must be careful not to overeact and play to their agenda.

Raids of private addresses, as well as offices, have also been on the increase over the last year or so. This has continued recently with a number of EF! and animal liberation activists raided in connection with the 16th May 1997 action at Shoreham Harbour, Sussex. These raids can be seen primarily as information gathering exercises, both for prosecutions and general collation of intelligence, and also as a way to intimidate activists into inaction.

The other more obvious manifestation of state repression has been the huge growth in surveillance, both overt and covert, by the police and security services, as well as by private detective agencies. The sight of police Evidence Gatherer (EG) teams on actions and demonstrations is now commonplace, as are the green hatted Brays Detective Agency employees at anti-road actions and evictions. Indeed there is not even any real pretence that this information is not for state use with the state admitting that it has spent 700,000 on companies such as Bray's in order to identify us. (The Guardian, 28th May 1996)

An interesting development in this area has been the fairly recent formation of the Public Order Intelligence Unit (POIU), also known as the Forward Intelligence team (FIT) in London. Based at Scotland Yard this unit, seemingly consisting of around ten to fifteen police officers, was formed after the series of riots in the summer of 1994 surrounding the resistance to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. "[W]orking in uniform, [the POIU/FIT's] job is to build a rapport between themselves and street activists so that people likely to provoke disorder can be identified in an event." (The Job [A Police Newspaper] Issue 708, Volume 28 - 7th July 1995) One of their main functions seems to be the identification of 'key' individuals that are likely to provoke, and participate in, public order situations, whether they be ecological direct action, football crowds or far right gatherings, so they can predict, and help prevent, these situations happening. In practice this remit seems to translate into mainly overt intelligence gathering, both with video and stills cameras as well as profuse note taking, although they have also been used to point out people in crowds for snatch squads to arrest. They are usually in uniform, but have also been spotted at some events in plain clothes, and even on mountain bikes!

They seem to be primarily focused on London, but have also been seen at large actions and demonstrations outside the capital. In London they have focused a certain amount of attention on Reclaim The Streets and in practice this has involved having a presence on all RTS connected events, as well as the major demonstrations in the city.

Whilst this surveillance has not actually translated into much action on their part there should be no doubt that the information gathered by them does, officially or unofficially, cross departments into Special Branch, (the largest SB department in the country is in the same building at Scotland Yard as the POIU/FIT), or MI5. It may even be possible that one of the major functions of the POIU/FIT is in fact to act as intelligence-gatherers for Special Branch/MI5, (thereby freeing up their agents for more sensitive tasks), as well as the rather more obvious one of dealing with public order situations.

The Animal Rights National Index (ARNI) was set up in 1983 to monitor militant animal liberation activity, but since the early 1990s it has expanded to cover the radical ecological direct action movement as well. Indeed Special Branch now boasts that it has identified 1,700 activists that come under this category. (Sunday Express, 14th January 1996) The information has most likely been gleaned from work carried out by private detective agencies - notably Bray's in Southampton, police (POIU/FIT especially) and Special Branch operatives - through overt methods such as arrest records and monitoring attendance at actions and demonstrations, along with more covert means such as mail and telephone interception.

Tie this in with information obtained from the numerous raids over the last few years and you realise that it is fairly easy to believe this figure. The type and detail of information held on ARNI databases is staggering: alongside the obvious name, address, date of birth and photographs, it records details such as known aliases, haircut, vehicles driven, school reports, friends, family, all previous jobs, bank and building society details and movements such as sightings at actions and demonstrations. A recent example of ARNI information being put into use was the intelligence briefing spotted on the back seat of a police car [!] at the 'Shut Down Milford Haven!' action on Saturday 15th February 1997. Entitled 'Earth First!: Its History, Tactics and Activities' it included a chapter on the title page called 'key activists'.

Most of this information is gathered, as mentioned before, by overt survelliance of the type employed by Brays, EG teams and the POIU/FIT teams. However some of this information cannot be obtained by these methods alone, thus requiring more covert methods, including infiltration into groups.

The use of infiltrators and informers in radical groups is widely documented in history, and whilst often dismissed by the ignorant in the direct action movement as pure fantasy or paranoia, it is fact that some people have been approached by various factions of the police and/or security services to provide information on active direct action groups and the individuals involved in them. Most recently someone was approached in Lancashire and asked to pass on information about the Ploughshares group active in their area. They refused and went public with the offer. In addition to this others have been approached, including activists from groups in Brighton and London, with one person in London Reclaim The Streets being told that if he provided the desired information he would 'win' his forthcoming appeal.

While this all seems optimistic, in that we know about people that have been approached and refused, we can be sure that there are some people that have accepted the offer and are now active informants for the state. Now here's a frightening quote for you: according to Gordon Winter, a former BOSS (South African Secret Service) agent; "British intelligence has a saying that if there is a left-wing movement in Britain bigger than a football team our man is the captain or vice captain, and if not, he is the referee and he can send any man off the field and call our man on at any time he likes." ( Lobster 26, December 1993.) While it is unlikely, for various reasons, that the state has (yet?) achieved as deep a penetration of our milieu as it did of the left/the unions, and it's important not to get silly about this, it IS something to bear in mind. The experiences of London Greenpeace, as revealed in the McLibel trial, are very relevant here - both because of the high level of cooperation between Special Branch and McDonald's private detective agency, and because the infiltrators outnumbered activists at some of London Greenpeace's meetings!

Infiltrators into radical direct action groups, and even not so radical groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of The Earth, seem to fall into two main categories. There is the classic 'deep cover' long term infiltrator that is a very active member of the group and 'lives the life', and there is the 'shallow cover' infiltrator that is more likely to just turn up at occasional meetings and actions to try and glean intelligence about individuals, the group and further actions. From looking at the past experiences of others, the former are more likely to be Security Service personal (MI5) or Special Branch, whereas the latter are far more likely to be 'normal' police, even though they may be Drug Squad officers that are used to looking less like police when undercover than others are.

To the writer of this article it seems that by far the bulk of information gathered by state agencies about direct action groups, and the individuals involved in them, is actually freely available without need for infiltration. As a start all publications that originate from the movement will be read, analyzed and filed, as well as related information such as articles in the mainstream and alternative press.

As a supplement to this, notes and photographs - including video film - taken by cops and others at actions and other gatherings will be used in building up comprehensive pictures of friendship networks, group dynamics such as who is the most active, who holds what political theories and sympathises with other groups or causes. These two ways of intelligence gathering are the main sources for the information collated by the police and security services. Occasionally boosted by telephone tapping and attendance at meetings and actions, it is possible to build up a fairly comprehensive picture of most, if not all, of the information that they want and need.

Having said this, as we can see from the fact that some people have been approached to be informers, state agencies are always looking for new avenues to enable them to gather more information that is not freely available to all. To stop this happening we constantly need to be aware of these potential weaknesses and try and limit their ability to exploit them.

Telephone tapping is an oft talked about yet little understood subject. The stereotypical image of a police or secret service employee sitting by a tape recorder is little more than ridiculous in the present day. Far more likely is the use of the Key Word Recognition System (KWRS) developed over the past decade. This system recognises selected words, scans them from conversations, records them and then searches through previous communications looking for similar words.

Indeed, to illustrate this, look at the case of the Kuwait City telephone exchange. When British soldiers went into the city in 1991 after the Gulf War they found a recently installed KWRS, put in place by British Telecom, that was programmed to recognise 2,000 keywords. Tie this in with the fact that General Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, the centre of all government communications, has the ability to listen into 6 million telephone lines at any one time and you realise that they not only do have the ability to listen in to all our communications, both electronic and telephone, but that it is most likely that they do so on a regular basis.

It is not only this country's surveillance technology that is used - for example the presence and possible use of the US National Security Agency's 'listening post' at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire. Interestingly, the permits granted by the Home Office for 'legal eavesdropping' have more than doubled over the past year.

If anyone doubts that they listen in on our telephone communications, you only have to listen to what they themselves say. In The Observer of 28th June 1992 it was reported that a group of "current highly placed intelligence operatives from GCHQ" stated that they were unable to "remain silent regarding... the gross malpractice and negligence within the establishment in which we operate." They were complaining about the routine interception of Amnesty International and Christian Aid's communications. The Observer went on to report that by typing in a 'key word' the secret services were able to scan communications and home in on any from of communications where this word appears.

Mobile phones are often seen by people as more secure than other telephones, but in reality they are the only type of phone for which a 'bugging' warrant is not required, as they are classified as radio communications. In addition to this it is possible to track peoples' movements through their mobile phone signals - according to recent press coverage, this makes it possible to track people to within 50 feet (and records of movements are kept by the phone companies for up to 2 years!)

Bugging of houses is also another possible factor that we may well have to contend with in the future, especially with the introduction of the Police Act (1997) which allows police chiefs to authorise surveillance, previously done by High Court judges. The incidence of 'fishing trip' covert searches of houses will probably also increase under this Act.

What Can We Do About It?

To overcome these attacks on our movement the first obvious thing to address is security, both of groups and individuals, as hopefully this gives us the ability, if not to thwart some of these assaults then at least to slow them down and make it harder for them to operate.

Aspects of security can take many forms and it is not possible to deal with them all in this article, but I will mention a few of the more significant ones briefly.

The tapping of telephones has been briefly covered under the previous sub-heading and although ways to get around this method of surveillance are fairly obvious, they need to be repeated again and again for people who still make the same mistakes - do not say anything over the phone that you would not say to a policeman! In addition to this, any senstive information should not even be said near a telephone, as with a digital exchange even when the handset is in the cradle it is possible that the phone can act as a receiver and pick up noise within a certain area.

With the growth in the use of technology such as the internet by radical groups the danger of the state taking advantage of these channels increases. The same rules for telephone communication apply to the internet and e-mail, although an encryption programme such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) can help with security of e-mail communications. (Be warned that PGP may well not be as unbreakable as often claimed, so total trust in it would be misplaced.)

Computers, as has been witnessed by numerous groups who have had theirs seized in raids, are a security liability. Information stored on them, even when it has been deleted, can leave a shadow that it is possible to 'read'. The only way around this is not to write anything at all on computer that is remotely incriminating. It is possible to obtain software that not only deletes files but also wipes them so no shadow is left. Even so the most sensible suggestion seems to be just not to write anything that requires this treatment on any computer if at all possible.

Whilst talking of technology and its possible uses for us (if any) a few people are currently discussing the possibility of secure telephone communications using a software package called Pretty Good Privacy Phone (PGP Phone). This package scrambles communications, broadcasts them along telephone lines and then unscrambles them at the other end. Although at first glance this seems to be ideal for us it is the opinion of this writer that the PGP phone is a wasted effort. Not only would I feel no more secure in discussing action details down a PGP phone than a normal phone, but if there is anything more likely to result in a bugging device being planted in your front room than you talking to another activist using telephone encryption I have yet to think of it!

The more obvious measures to protect security should be commonplace in their useage. Disguising your identity on actions should be second nature by now, and other simple things such as giving false names when stopped and searched (even when arrested if you can get away with it) and having bail addresses sorted out before going on an action will go a long way towards making life harder for them. Addresses that are published for group contact points should be made as hard as possible to trace back to individuals and for this bookshops seem to be a better bet than PO Boxes, as these have to be registered to an address. A monomarks box in London (called BM Boxes) is probably the most secure, but these do tend to attract automatic attention from the authorities.

With any information that may be incriminating make sure it is destroyed as soon as practically possible. Maps, plans, lists of telephone numbers and names are, if found, likely to addd great weight to any charges against you or others charged, as well as being useful intelligence for the state to have access to. Destroyed does not mean ripping up and putting in the bin, but burning and then disposing of the ashes.

As said earlier, I will refrain from going into to much depth about possible security measures that we can take, as not only is there not room in this article, but there are numerous well written books on the subject that are far more comprehensive and useful than this piece can ever hope to be. (See Further Reading and Related Interest book list at the end of this article.)

Of course any look at individual and group security cannot be looked at in isolation, but must be addressed alongside tactical considerations. To overcome the measures that we have had levelled against us we need to be constantly thinking about, and then adapting to suit, our tactics and organisation. We need to be addressing questions such as: is what we are doing effective? Is it the most effective way, in terms of time and energy spent, that we can do things or are there other ways that are better? Are the risks of imprisonment we face worth it in comparison to the impact of the action on the target? Our tactics and way of organising ourselves come into all these questions and need to be addressed if we as a movement are to expand our size and influence and become even more successful.

There are complex and in-depth measures that the state uses to disrupt successful movements and one way that they do this is by the use of the facilitation/repression tactic. This is a two pronged approach that involves the repression of the more radical elements of a movement whilst facilitating the moderate end by giving it small concessions and 'victories'. Local Agenda 21 is a prime example of this facilitation which, whilst diverting from direct action, ties up previously active groups in paperwork and bureaucracy [sounds like the production of Do or Die to me!], and ultimately achieves nothing. At the same time as 'offering' intiatives such as this they clamp down on the more militant wing using the tried and tested means of conspiracy cases, severe prison sentences, raids and surveillance. The ultimate goal is to divide the broad based movement into a more militant smaller group that can be easily alienated from its support base and then destroyed. This works, as can be seen by looking at the animal liberation movement, now generally perceived by the public as terrorists. A look at the mainstream press will show you that the same thing is starting to happen with the radical ecological direct action movement.

The infamous John Harlow 'Summer of Hate' article in the Sunday Times (3rd July 1994) is a classic example. On 27th March 1996 an article in The Guardian purported to say how the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) were asking for the anti-terrorist squad to monitor the activities of militant greens. The relevance of this article can be seen, not in the light of trying to get us monitored by the secret services, as we know we are already, but rather in trying to create the climate of fear and compliance amongst the population at large that will enable the state to destroy us without fear of a massive backlash. The Welsh press coverage in the run-up to the Milford Haven action was a classic example of this, with the added element of trying to whip up anti-'English rentamob' sentiment.

There are other active direct action groups that we can learn from, especially the hunt saboteurs and animal liberation groups. The way the hunt sabs organize themselves, with local affinity groups that are self-financing and fully autonomous, with their own transport and communications, is a way to be looked at, adapted and used if it is appropriate for us. One thing that is severely lacking within our circles is, ironically, transport, with the organisation of any action seemingly having a fair proportion of its time taken up with sorting out movement of people from one place to another.

If every active group could sort out a van with a CB radio, mobile telephone and scanner, as some hunt sabs groups do, these problems would be much reduced. As well as this we could have individual, group, regional and national phone tree networks that could enable us to call actions at short notice, thereby circumventing the recent problems of surveillance and repression of a few 'key' organisers.

Whilst looking at tactics and strategy for the future we must be very careful that we do not divide the movement. If some sections of the movement feel it is better that they work on a different tactical level, then all the better if it is effective, but we must not allow divisions to artificially appear between us all. If there is an active underground it is still part of the broader movement and we must acknowledge it as such, rather than distance ourselves from it, as is all so easy to do to take pressure off the more 'legitimate' parts of the movement.

After all this talk one thing becomes clear; it is crucial that we all realise that we are engaged in a war and we must act as such. Although we must never lose our sense of humour, spontaneity and feelings of love that underlie every action taken in defence of the earth and its inhabitants we must treat certain aspects of the struggle with the seriousness that they deserve. These aspects include building a decent prisoner support network, constantly questioning ourselves and our actions, creating solid affinity group structures, and learning, quickly, the value of individual and group security. If we fail to do this it will only be ourselves and our friends that suffer, with an increasingly large number of people going to prison, and maybe, if the experiences of other radical groups are anything to judge by, much worse.

All this talk of surveillance, security, prison and state repression can engender feelings of alienation and disempowerment in people quite easily. If I have done that in this article I have failed in what I set out to do. An objective view of what the facts are is necessary if we are continue and succeed as a movement. Whilst the powers of the system we wish to overturn can seem monolithic and all encompassing, we only have to look at some of the actions that have happened in the last few years to realise that not only can we beat them, but that we do so very frequently! (And sometimes in the most absurd ways imaginable!)

To continue doing this our movement must always be looking to the future for ideas as to how we can adapt our tactics to stay one step ahead of those that want us to fail. A crucial part of being able to do this is increasing the numbers of people involved in all forms of direct action. Whilst small groups of people have succeeded in slowing the destruction of the earth, as a look at history illustrates, we must not be under any illusions that this small number of people will ever be able to do any more than that. What is needed to not only slow, but eventually stop and reverse the destruction is the involvement of a large percentage of the numbers of people on the earth. In the very near future, if we are to have any sort of earth worth living on at all, we must learn to link partial fights and struggles against particular aspects of techno-industrial society into a wider war that, whilst engaging in fragmentary battles, can maintain the vision of, and work towards, the overall goal of total ecological and social change.

"Despair is the worst betrayal, the coldest seduction is to believe that the enemy will at last prevail."

- Marge Piercy.

Further Reading And Related Interest

"Agents of Repression" by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall. (South End Press: Boston 1989) - very detailed account of the FBI's war against all forms of dissent in the US, notably against the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement (AIM).

"At War With The Truth" by Larry O'Hara. (Mina Press: London 1993) An account of an attempted infiltration of the Green Anarchist network by Tim Hepple.

"Ecodefence: A Field Guide To Monkeywrenching" (Third Edition) edited by Bill Haywood and Dave Foreman. (Abzugg Press: California 1993 ) - especially chapter 9 on Security.

"Turning Up The Heat: MI5 After the Cold War" by Larry O'Hara. (Phoenix Press: London 1994) - especially chapter entitled 'The Gallery Enlarged: Green Targets Enter The Frame.'

"War At Home: Covert Action Against US Activists and What We Can Do About It" by Brian Glick. (South End Press: Boston 1989) - useful account of how in the FBI worked to destroy radical movements.

"Without A Trace: To Live Outside The Law You Have To Be Honest" by Anonymous (Self Published) - one of the best accounts available of state surveillance, repression and the ways around them.

"Ozymandias' Sabotage Skills Handbook: Volume 1 - Getting Started." (First Edition 1995) - has excellent security section written from a UK perspective. Find it on the internet at: http://www.cafeunderground.com/Cafesite/Rooms/Ozymandia/handbook_1.html [ Not working at 8/8/02 - see http://www.reachoutpub.com/osh/ or try searching http://www.google.com/ for the title. ]

 

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