Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark: Corporate and Police Spying on Activists

By Eveline Lubbers
Pluto, November 30, 2012, $29.99

Eveline Lubbers has recently published the book, Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark: Corporate and Police Spying on Activists in which she documents how private corporations — sometimes independently, sometimes in collusion with state police agencies — spy and target dissent, from environmentalists, to anti-globalization protestors and animal rights activists. Aaron Leonard corresponded with her via email to ask her about her investigations.

 Aaron Leonard: You open talking about Mark Kennedy, someone who was an infiltrator of the environmental movement in the UK for seven years. Then you make this point: “The feeling of loss an betrayal on both the political and personal levels tend to hamper crucial investigations by those involved in an attempt to map out what happened in more detail, and to understand the impact and the full consequences of the operation.” Could you tell us who Kennedy was? What are the larger implications of his activity?

 Eveline Lubbers: Mark Kennedy made headlines in early 2011 and the fall-out still continues. Confronted by friends and fellow campaigners in the UK, Kennedy admitted to having been a spy for seven years. Using the name Mark Stone, he had embedded himself in the environmental movement, while widening his scope to protests against the summits of world leaders, anti-fascism and animal rights. His nickname was ‘Flash’ for the money he had at hand. He offered transport to set up climate camps and volunteered his climbing skills to add spectacular effects to for instance the occupation of power plants.

The Kennedy case has had a huge impact, not just for political and legal reasons, also for the damage at the personal level. First it is an exemplary of the infiltrator as a facilitator — providing transport and money — while crossing the thin line towards the role of agent provocateur. It is an extraordinary case, not only for the span of the operation, the many years and the amount of countries in Europe. Just recently the New York Times reported Kennedy spying in the U.S. in 2008.

The coverage in the press was huge, and as a result of public pressure more than a dozen of official reviews are now underway, most of them internal and thus secret. Since Kennedy, more than ten other undercover officers have been exposed — their activities spanning three decades. We know now that although the period of his assignment was extremely long, Kennedy was not just some rogue agent in an operation gone astray. Instead, his was an assignment that was consistent with a practice started in the 1980s, if not earlier. As a result of his involvement, the verdicts of activists have been overturned. More convictions may be declared unjust because undercover officers failed to divulge their involvement.

The Kennedy case reveals the increasingly blurring boundaries between public and private policing and puts the grey area of corporate intelligence in the spotlight. The set of secret police units Kennedy used to work for was founded explicitly to satisfy the needs of companies targeted by activists. What is more, the companies involved — such as electricity suppliers and air companies — also hire former police and intelligence staff to deal with security issues. That none of the official reviews look at the aspect of corporate spying underlines the urgent need for independent research.

Mark Kennedy has done a lot of damage on the personal level as well. During the seven years he was undercover he had various short and long-term relationships with women. It is difficult to understand how this could have happened, within the official hierarchy. It is unacceptable either way. The fact that someone authorized it seems just as impossible as the opposite, that it was allowed to continue for such a long time without permission. And Kennedy was not the only one. Nine out of the eleven spies that have been exposed since have had sex with women they met, some set up home, lived as a couple, some even had children with activists. Two groups of women have now filed complaints against the Metropolitan police, to hold the responsible authorities to account. However, no outcome, no financial compensation or public excuse, will be sufficient to heal the harm done.

There are several levels of violation that need to be addressed, that the women reclaim their rights, the autonomy over their bodies and their lives. With the court case they want to reinstate their right to speak up, as activists and as women or vise versa — without being denigrated in the most horrible way. Infiltration also means violation of community, of trust and private life. Devoting your life to protest, the relationship with a fellow activist fits the larger context of being part of a movement, wherein overall, there is less of a boundary between the working and the private life. Being part of a movement means the sharing of ideas, ideals, the risks of activism, the scary things at night, the confrontations with the authorities, the arrests maybe, the interrogations, prison for some, the pub afterwards, the long nights. Emily Apple wrote about this beautifully. The sharing of all this, means people are sharing their entire life, working hard to make this world a better place — to use a common phrase. Hence, the betrayal is not just in the relationship, not just in the private — as if that would not be enough — it’s also in the political, in the beliefs, and the practical every-day life.

AL: One is impressed by the scope and scale of the cases you write about; it is full of examples — some more familiar than others. How big a phenomenon is this corporate-government spying and why are we seeing so much of it these days?

 EL: This is the most difficult question of all, and I have no answer to it in terms of straight figures and statistics. Because most of these manoeuvers are secret, they remain in the dark (no pun intended). You don’t know what you don’t see. What I can say from the case studies that I worked on, and from the stories that have come to light in the past few years in the UK and the U.S., is this. We are not looking at isolated cases, what has come to the surface is more likely the tip of the iceberg.

I have identified patterns in how police and corporations deal with resistance, with criticism, with campaigners, and how they join forces. The roots of these policies go back to the early days of industrialization, of capitalism, as I document in the book. The present corporate counterstrategies go back to the early 1970s, with corporations today building on the similar plans developed back in the days by those in PR and what is now called risk management. The network of police and intelligence personnel now working in security for corporations or in consulting is more than an old boys network exchanging information. The blurring of boundaries gives way to a joint network with similar agendas of increasing power while getting rid of risk factors, like boycotts or other political barriers.

Why are we seeing so much of it now? I addressed this some in my last book Battling Big Business, inspired by the work of Naomi Klein (who wrote the preface). In short, her No Logo investigated how corporations experienced the growing pressure from their critics over the last few decades. In an effort to manage the adverse publicity their environmental, labour and consumer records so often invite, many giant corporations looked for new strategies to counter the activities of their opponents. Klein identified two important developments that characterize the current time frame. Today, brand identity and corporate image are key to a corporation’s value, over and above its actual products or services. The more companies shift toward being all about brand identity, the more vulnerable they are to attacks on this image; at the same time corporations are becoming less restricted by national laws and unilateral treaties. In some cases, they are more powerful than governments, and must expect to be held to account in the same way.

AL: The McDonald’s case study you do is a bit overwhelming. In that instance the corporation sent two detective agencies, unbeknownst to the other, to infiltrate London Greenpeace. It reminds me of how in the late 1960s the New York Police infiltrated Gene Roberts and Ralph White into the Black Panthers and they only learned of each other’s existence as agents during the famous Panther 21 trial. The differences in your case study though is this is a corporation. Could you talk about the McDonald’s case and why the corporation was so aggressive?

EL: McDonald’s is famous for being strong in threatening its critics. The company has a long history in sending legal letters to anyone remotely tainting the fast food giant’s reputation. The BBC, Channel 4 and even Prince Charles have been at the receiving end of such letters, and chose to apologize in public rather than taking a stand. Thanks to Dave Morris and Helen Steel, the two activists who refused to excuse themselves and went to court instead to defend their pamphlet criticizing McDonald’s, we know a lot more about the company’s counterstrategies. The McSpy chapter has, like you say, a lot of details on the effects of a massive spying operation infiltrating such a small group — but that is not all …

We know a lot more today. One of the spies exposed just before Secret Manoeuvres went to press, is Bob Lambert. He was an undercover police officer working for the Special Demonstration Squad, and he infiltrated London Greenpeace before the corporate spies. He was a member of the group that drafted the pamphlet the group was eventually sued for, ‘What’s wrong with McDonald’s.’ After he disappeared (leaving behind three girlfriends, one of which with his child), he moved on to supervise other undercover police officers. One of them infiltrated London Greenpeace in the same period the corporate spies invaded the group.

This brings up questions that have not been answered yet: the entire operation might have been a joint project to use London Greenpeace as a stepping stone to get to more radical activists in the Animal Liberation Front. Lambert claimed his covert action put two activists in jail for setting fire in three Debenham stores for selling fur. The activists have since claimed that as a member of their secret cell, Lambert was responsible for the third fire. McDonald’s head of security back in the days testified about his long career with the police and his good contacts with Special Branch. We have not gotten to the bottom of this yet!

AL: You write, “A corporation does not spy on its critics just to know what is going on; it does so to be prepared to defend itself.” It seems that gets at something basic. This is not just about collecting information, but aggressively undermining opposition and dissent. How do you see this?

EL: Indeed, that understanding is crucial to my work. Secret Manoeuvres is an investigation into intelligence gathering on activist groups and the covert strategy that transnational corporations (TNCs) use to undermine criticism. The case studies illustrate unwillingness among those corporations to change damaging business policies and give an indication of the lengths to which companies under attack are prepared to go to evade public protest. They point to a general intolerance for dissent, and a refusal to allow public scrutiny.

While many of the activist groups spied upon in the UK in the past few years campaign against TNCs such as power companies, the involvement of private spies has not been investigated. Likewise, the fundamental question of why the state would want to counter action on climate and rather defend vested business interests, and the implications of such for protest in a democratic society, needs to be answered. The underlying question is how such counterstrategies function in safeguarding the interests of TNCs in the context of a globalising world, and the implications for democratic accountability of business agendas and practices. Consequently, research into this aspect of corporate power needs to be situated within the wider context of globalisation, governance and democracy.

AL: In your conclusion you write about the need, “To develop activist intelligence and covert corporate strategy as a field of research.” [206] In this book you seem to be approaching this as both a scholar and an activist. Why do you see this type of work as important?

EL: My aim is to create awareness of secret manoeuvres, of corporate counterstrategies. As an activist I have always tried to find ways to improve security while at the same time avoiding unnecessary paranoia. This was not easy.

For many activist groups and NGOs openness and inclusivity are highly respected principles, as the need for new members usually is an essential condition for survival. Measures of caution are often experienced as superfluous secrecy or as counter–productively creating paranoia.

In a broader context, these experiences show that infiltration as a strategy to undermine corporate critics has damaging effects regardless of the sensitivity of the information gathered. Essentially, the fear of being publicly associated with infiltration is harmful in itself. At the personal level people are hurt, while at the organisational level the work of the groups is disturbed. The fear of press–coverage keeps people from making a serious assessment of the actual damage of an information gathering operation. Moreover, the perception of publicity as counter–productive leads to a form of self–censorship. The reluctance to expose detailed findings implies abandoning the opportunity – waiving the rights – to hold corporations accountable for their practices of abusing power. Few political organisations who have been victim of infiltration are willing to take official action that might disclose the extent of the operation.

This seems to have changed over the past few years — in the UK at least. The reluctance of going public has been overcome by the severity of the matters at hand, or so it seems. It is largely through the investigations of people directly involved with infiltration that so many spies have been exposed recently. With the help of extensive coverage – in the Guardian most of all – public pressure has been build up to a level unknown before. And yet more is to come out.

Still, I have the feeling that a deeper understanding of the issues at stake is missing, is barely touched upon. That’s were academic research comes in, putting the events in context, understanding the reach of it. To start with we need a growing collection of detailed and evidence-based case studies including independent reconstructions of the activities of the infiltrators and their supervisors. From there we can start mapping the network of police units, corporate intelligence and security personnel behind the infiltration operations.

I see my role as an active one, chasing evidence where most of it is secret, bringing together the work of investigative reporters, whistle blowers, and people spied upon. Why? To empower activists, to engage in the debate, to help prepare the right questions in official investigations — to stand up for a vibrant democracy, or what’s left of it, that’s what scholars should do.


Eveline Lubbers is a Research Fellow at the University of Bath, and an independent investigator with SpinWatch. She is the contributing editor of Battling Big Business: Countering Greenwash, Front Groups and Other Forms of Corporate Bullying. Her writing up to 2005 is collected at evel.org. She blogs about her present at SecretManoeuvres.org. Follow her on Twitter @evelinelubbers


Aaron Leonard

Aaron Leonard

Aaron Leonard is a writer and journalist. His book, Heavy Radicals – The FBI’s Secret War Against America’s Maoists: The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980,...