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Police Scheme to Monitor Political Activists

John Simkin

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As demonstrations go, it was more of a lighthearted affair than a threat to the nation.

About 600 climate change campaigners had gathered outside the Drax power station in North Yorkshire. They had chosen to demonstrate there because the huge plant is the UK's biggest emitter of carbon. The protesters were mainly families with young children, accompanied by clowns, cyclists, baton twirlers and, according to some reports, a giant ostrich puppet.

It was not completely without incident. Two protesters climbed a lighting pylon at the edge of the site and four others broke through the fence. About 30 others were arrested for public order offences.

Under the heading of "not much a fight, more like a festival", the Guardian reported that the predicted battle between the police and activists wanting to close the plant down had not materialised.

It was the type of demonstration which has been going on for decades in Britain. But the police appear to have had another, completely different view of the 2006 protest.

After the demonstration, the first in what has become an annual gathering known as Climate Camp, North Yorkshire police conducted a review along with government officials. Internal papers obtained by the Guardian show they called it "the first time domestic extremism took place against national infrastructure in the county".

The term "domestic extremism" is now common currency within the police. It is a phrase which shapes how forces seek to control demonstrations. It has led to the personal details and photographs of a substantial number of protesters being stored on secret police databases around the country. There is no official or legal definition of the term. Instead, the police have made a vague stab at what they think it means. Senior officers describe domestic extremists as individuals or groups "that carry out criminal acts of direct action in furtherance of a campaign. These people and activities usually seek to prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy, but attempt to do so outside of the normal democratic process." They say they are mostly associated with single issues and suggest the majority of protesters are never considered extremists.

Police insist they are just monitoring the minority who could damage property or commit aggravated trespass, causing significant disruption to lawful businesses. Activists respond by claiming this is an excuse that gives police the licence to carry out widespread surveillance of whole organisations that are a legitimate part of the democratic process.

They also warn that the categorisation carries echoes of the cold war, when the security services monitored constitutional campaigns such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid Movement because alleged subversives or communists were said to be active within them, although they said the organisations themselves were not subversive.

The domestic extremist term was coined by police involved in tackling criminals involved in animal rights groups sometime between 2001 and 2004. Many of these activists were prepared to resort to violence to promote their aims, most notoriously digging up a grandmother's grave.

The police were successful in jailing many of the animal rights campaigners who were committing crimes. However, there are fears the police's domestic extremism apparatus, which evolved to counter sometimes violent criminals, is now looking for new targets to justify both its budgets and its existence.

There are three little-known organisations at the heart of this apparatus. They work in tandem under the direction of Anton Setchell, who is national co-ordinator for domestic extremism for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo).

The main branch is the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), essentially a giant database of protest groups and protesters in the country.

Housed at a secret location in London, its purpose is "to gather, assess, analyse and disseminate intelligence and information relating to criminal activities in the United Kingdom where there is a threat of crime or to public order which arises from domestic extremism or protest activity".

Police in England and Wales collect intelligence on individuals and then feed it to the NPOIU which, Setchell said, "can read across" all the forces' intelligence and deliver back to them "coherent" assessments.

Setchell said the "fair proportion" of the intelligence comes from Special Branch officers and police who monitor and photograph demonstrations.

Sensitive information from informants in protest groups and covert intercepts are handled by a section of the NPOIU called the Confidential Intelligence Unit.

The NPOIU database consists of entries indexed by descriptions of people, nicknames or pseudonyms.

Originally it was confined to animal rights groups, but was expanded in 1999 to "include all forms of domestic extremism, criminality and public disorder associated with cause-led groups". It contains some information supplied by companies that hire private investigators to spy on protesters, sometimes by infiltration.

Setchell argued that there were robust safeguards to protect the human rights of individuals on the database. He said it was possible that protesters with no criminal record were on the databases, but police would have to give a justified reason.

"Just because you have no criminal record does not mean that you are not of interest to the police," he said. "Everyone who has got a criminal record did not have one once."

The second part of Acpo's triumvirate, the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Netcu), helps police forces, companies, universities and other bodies that are on the receiving end of protest campaigns.

Netcu's job is to give "security advice, risk assessments and information that can minimise disruption and keep their employees safe". Its head, Superintendent Steve Pearl, says his 16-strong unit works with police forces across the country, keeps detailed files on protest groups, rather than individuals, and liaises with thousands of companies in aviation, energy, research, farming and retail.

Netcu was set up in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire in 2004 by the Home Office which, Pearl said, was "getting really pressurised by big business – pharmaceuticals in particular, and the banks – that they were not able to go about their lawful business because of the extreme criminal behaviour of some people within the animal rights movement."

Pearl denied the unit was engaged in mission creep but admitted that environmental protesters had now been brought "more on their radar" as they had been "shutting down airports, and shutting down coal-fired power stations, more recently stopping coal trains, hijacking coal trains and ships in the river Medway."

The third leg of the trio, the National Domestic Extremism Team, was set up in 2005 and consists of detectives who help police forces around the UK.

Initially, the team focused on animal rights activists, but has fanned out to look at any crimes "linked to single issue-type causes and campaigns", Setchell said.

The team draws on intelligence from the NPOIU database and, the Guardian has learned, is located on the seventh floor of 10 Victoria Street in central London, a building previously occupied by the Department of Trade and Industry.

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Here are a couple of responses to the above article:


Henry Porter

The shocking Guardian report into the surveillance operations run by the police National Public Order Intelligence Unit makes it clear that the right of free protest in Britain now hangs in the balance, and that the very expression of opinion and attendance at meetings is enough for an individual to be categorised as an enemy of society.

Anyone now who feels strongly about climate change or the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is now liable to be labelled a "domestic extremist" to be photographed and monitored and to be subject to automatic tracking by the number plate recognition system. There are few stories that capture the parlous state of Britain's democracy like this one, and I suggest none that portray the government's institutionalised contempt for rights and its casual attitude to unfettered growth of police powers.

The outrage that will be expressed in the wake of the investigation by Paul Lewis, Rob Evans and Matthew Taylor, which is to run over the next two days, will mean nothing unless we manage to change attitudes across the board. We now live in a society whose values and instincts have been so skewed by Labour's corrosive rule that it is possible in one week to watch the leader of a fascist organisation promoting his cause on BBC TV – and the next to learn that legitimate protesters with mainstream views are regarded as "domestic extremists" and harried by the police using anti-terror laws when their cars pass through the field of automatic number plate recognition cameras.

We seem to have lost the ability to navigate these issues with anything resembling common sense, which no doubt suits the authorities. They seem to desire more and more control over the individual and the expression of his or her political views.

What is so disturbing is that this blanket surveillance has grown without proper statutory basis, let alone supervision. Laws that were designed for one thing – for instance, preventing terror and harassment – have been deployed by the police, who seem to have forgotten that it is their job to protect freedoms and rights, rather than to act as a force of repression.

The automatic number recognition camera system was built and installed without debate in parliament, without a minute of formal scrutiny and, as many of us predicted, we now find it has become a means of stalking innocent citizens.

But of course innocence is a concept that has been steadily eroded by the authorities in the last decade. It is of vital significance that when Anton Setchell, national co-ordinator of domestic extremism operations for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), was asked for his reaction he said: "Everyone who has got a criminal record did not have one once."

There you have it: everyone is a potential criminal – or domestic extremist – and so everyone becomes a legitimate target for police surveillance. The remit becomes infinite and with the advances of technology also possible.

Police officers who should be patrolling housing estates and getting to the root of such things as Britain's gang crisis are frivolously deployed making surveillance albums of protesters and stopping old men on their way to express their views at an anti-war demonstration.

This is not just about freedom and free expression, it is also about the lack of leadership in the police. Rather than tackling the tough problems of law and order it seems police would prefer to intimidate and bully those who have a right to express their views, indeed a duty to do so in a properly functioning free society. Well, you can see that it is a lot easier to shove a camera in someone's face at a demonstration, or stop people on anti-terror laws, than to address complex threats to society – but how much damage is being done by this neglect?

This is also a story of function creep and drift. The policy to extend monitoring and surveillance in Britain to this suffocating degree has been developed behind closed doors by two bodies that consistently prove themselves to be the enemy of traditional rights, the Home Office and Acpo. To all intents and purposes both operate secretly. Because Acpo is a limited company it is not even subject to freedom of information requests.

The relationship between the two bodies and the way that policies are decided in committees that mirror each other should become the subject of intense scrutiny by parliament, which has so far shown itself to be utterly powerless in setting parameters for the surveillance of legitimate demonstration and protest.

I'll say it again – unless public opinion moves on issues like this and politicians show some principled leadership, we will lose the qualities that define Britain as one of the world's oldest free societies. It would be a tragedy to allow this to happen simply through inattention.


Mark Thomas

I was sent the now notorious "police spotter card" through the post. It's an official laminated card for "police eyes only" and labelled as coming from "CO11 Public Order Intelligence Unit". The card contained the photographs of 24 anti-arms trade protesters, unnamed but lettered A to X. My picture appeared as photo H. You can imagine my reaction at finding I was the subject of a secret police surveillance process … I was delighted. I phoned my agent and told him I was suspect H. He replied: "Next year we'll get you top billing … suspect A."

The Metropolitan police circulated the card specifically for the Docklands biannual arms fair in London to help its officers identify "people at specific events who may instigate offences or disorder". Which is such a flattering quote I am thinking of having it on my next tour poster. While being wanted outside the arms fair, I was legitimately inside researching a book on the subject, and uncovered four companies illegally promoting "banned" torture equipment. Questions were later asked in the Commons as to why HM Revenue & Customs and the police didn't spot it. Though, in fairness, none of the torture traders featured on the spotter card.

What exactly was I doing that was so awfully wrong as to merit this attention? Today's Guardian revelations of three secret police units goes some way to explain the targeting of protesters and raises worrying questions. The job of these units is to spy on protesters, and collate and circulate information about them. Protesters – or, as the police call them, "domestic extremists" – are the new "reds under the bed".

Many of those targeted by the police have committed no crime and are guilty only of non-violent direct action. So it is worth reminding ourselves that protest is legal. Sorry if this sounds obvious, but you might have gained the impression that if three police units are spying on and targeting thousands, then those people must be up to something illegal.

The very phrase "domestic extremist" defines protesters in the eyes of the police as the problem, the enemy. Spying on entire groups and organisations, and targeting the innocent, undermines not only our rights but the law – frightfully silly of me to drag this into an argument about policing, I know.

Protest is part of the democratic process. It wasn't the goodwill of politicians that led them to cancel developing countries' debt, but the protests and campaigning of millions of ordinary people around the world. The political leaders were merely the rubber stamp in the democratic process. Thus any targeting and treatment of demonstrators (at the G20 for example) that creates a "chilling effect" – deterring those who may wish to exercise their right to protest – is profoundly undemocratic.

No police, secret or otherwise, should operate without proper accountability. So how are these three units accountable? Who has access to the databases? How long does information remain in the system? What effect could it have on travel and future employment of those targeted? How closely do these units work with corporate private investigators, and does the flow of information go both ways? Do the police target strikers?

A police spokesman has said that anyone who finds themselves on a database "should not worry at all". When a spokesman for the three secret units will not disclose a breakdown of their budgets, and two of the three will not even name who heads their operations (even MI6 gave us an initial, for God's sake), then the words "should not worry at all" are meaningless. Indeed, when the police admit that someone could end up on a secret police database merely for attending a demonstration, it is exactly the time to worry.

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