Cat among the radicals
May 15, 2010
For four years,
Officer A lived a secret life among anti-racist activists as they fought
brutal battles with the police and right-wing groups. Here he tells of the
terrifying life he led and the psychological burden it placed on him. Tony
They got drunk together, stood shoulder to
shoulder as they fought the police and far-right activists, and became so
intimately acquainted with each other's lives that in the end they were
closer than brothers. But it was all a sham.
Hidden among the close-knit
and highly motivated group of violent far-left activists was a serving
police officer, operating deep undercover, whose presence was intended to
bring the group to its knees.
That man, known only as Officer A, has
now come forward to give his account of the years he spent working for
Scotland Yard's most secret unit, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), on
a mission to prevent disorder on the streets of London. For four years in
the mid-1990s, he lived a double life six days a week, spending just one day
a week with his wife and family.
Week after week, year in and year
out, he lived and breathed the life of a hardcore Trotskyist agitator with a
passion for heavy drinking, a deep-seated hatred of the police and a
predilection for extreme violence. It was a persona that took him to the
heart of some of the most violent groups in the capital at a time when
tensions between extreme left and extreme right were at their peak.
never had any respite when I was back at home. I simply couldn't relax,''
Officer A says. ''The respite for me was being back in my undercover flat,
because that was where I was supposed to be. Even if my targets were not
there, I felt more at ease.
''I had a really good time with my
targets and enjoyed their company enormously - there was a genuine bond. But
I was never under any illusion about what I was there to do. They were not
truly my friends. The friendship would last only up until the point when
they found out what I really was. I was under no illusion about what would
happen to me if they did.''
The SDS started life in 1968 after
anti-Vietnam war protests turned violent in London, outside the US embassy.
No one had been prepared for the unprecedented level of violence directed at
the police. It was a wake-up call to senior police, who realised they needed
a new way to gather intelligence about the hate-filled ''subversives'' they
now had to deal with.
Known as the ''hairies'' because they had to
look like the agitators they were mixing with, the 10 undercover officers
who made up the unit were given new identities, flats, vehicles and
''cover'' jobs while working in the field for years at a time. Officer A had
joined the Metropolitan Police in 1986, straight from school.
distinguished himself during cadet training and his two-year probation, he
joined Special Branch after four years in uniform and spent three years
working to counter Irish terrorism before being recruited to the SDS.
''The day you join the SDS, you have a big leaving do. Although you're
still a police officer, being in the SDS means you won't be seeing any of
your police friends for at least five years. During your deployment, your
only official link to the Met is your payslip,'' he said.
officers use the same methods Frederick Forsyth detailed in The Day of the
Jackal to choose their new identities. This involves applying for the birth
certificate of someone who died at an early age and using this to fabricate
a cover story. ''That first step gives you a name, a flat, a vehicle and a
life story that makes it all real.''
Before being deployed in the
field, SDS officers are taken into a room and interrogated about every
aspect of their cover story by two experienced operators. If they pass this
test, they are then told the cautionary tale of how an SDS officer's cover
was blown when his targets asked him to explain the death certificate for
the cover name he was using and had to jump from a second-floor window to
At the time of Officer A's deployment, other SDS officers had
infiltrated opposing right-wing groups such as the British National Party
and Combat 18, as well as other far-left groups. It was a time of extreme
racial tension and violent clashes with the police, and rival political
parties were rife. Officer A took part in a violent protest in south-east
London, against a BNP-run bookshop that served as the party's headquarters.
Intelligence he obtained revealed that the demo was to be far larger than
had been expected and that a particularly violent faction was planning to
storm the bookshop and set fire to it, trapping any BNP members inside.
As a result, police leave was cancelled for that weekend and more than
7000 officers, including a large mounted contingent, were deployed. Instead
of being spread out along the entire route, police focused on blocking the
main roads leading to the bookshop and forcing the march along a route that
would take it away from its target. A violent confrontation ensued with a
group of hardcore protesters - Officer A among them - attacking the police
lines in an attempt to break through. Dozens of police and protesters were
injured in the clashes.
''I didn't have any qualms about what I was
doing,'' Officer A says. ''My role was to target subversives and prevent
disorder. The consequences of that day would have been far worse had the SDS
not been involved.''
At that time, some of the SDS officers were
known as ''shallow paddlers'' because they spent only limited time with
their targets. Others, like Officer A, were ''deep swimmers'' who immersed
themselves in the role. During one operation to infiltrate an Animal
Liberation Front cell, one officer is said to have lived in a squat for 18
months, virtually 24/7.
As months turned to years, Officer A's
personal life was beginning to suffer, and his relationship with his wife
and children was under particular pressure. One major cause of stress was
that he was spending so much of his time fighting with fellow police
officers and was now on the wrong side of a riot shield. ''It was a total
headbender,'' he said.
Once inside the groups they were ordered to
infiltrate, it was relatively easy for SDS officers to rise to the top
because they were often prepared to work long hours on boring administrative
jobs. Often they tried to become membership secretaries or treasurers, where
their position gave them access to the records and secret agendas that were
so useful to the security services. Typically more efficient than those
around them, operatives had to strike a balance to ensure they did not end
up running the organisations they were trying to destroy.
Having won the
trust of several high-profile anti-fascism and anti-racism activists on the
far left, Officer A was ideally placed. Over the next two years he worked
his way up to become branch secretary of Youth Against Racism in Europe, a
leading anti-racist organisation that was a front for the far-left group
Getting alongside these new targets called for a different
approach, Officer A says. ''You get given a file on your target that tells
you everything you need to know. You become that person's brother. You know
everything that makes them tick. You know how much they like to drink, you
know where they like to drink. You know what kind of music they like, you
know what kind of women they like. You become the brother they never knew
they had. None of it is ever said to the target, it's far more subtle than
that. The first time they get in the car, it will be just the right kind of
music playing. The first time a redhead walks by it will be: 'God, I'm
really into redheads.' It's all done fantastically cleverly.
your target is a man, it is just a matter of becoming his best friend. If
your target is a woman, that becomes impossible. SDS officers would get
together for regular meetings and you always knew if something was going on.
If someone started talking about getting good information from a female
target, we all knew there was only one way that could have happened. They
had been sleeping with them.''
He himself had slept with two members
of his target group. Although not officially sanctioned, such activity among
SDS officers - both male and female - was tacitly accepted and in many cases
was vital in maintaining an undercover role.
''You can't be in that
world full-time for five years and never have a girlfriend or boyfriend.
People would start to ask questions,'' Officer A says.
pressures continued to grow. ''At first, I could convince myself that my job
was about fighting subversion, but once I began targeting the groups set up
to win justice for those who had died in police custody or had been victims
of racism, it was clear that what the loved ones of the deceased wanted was
justice. My presence in the groups made that justice harder to obtain. The
remit was to prevent disorder, but by providing intelligence you rob these
groups of the element of surprise. If every time they have a demonstration
the agitators are prevented from causing trouble, they are less effective.
Once the SDS get into an organisation, it is effectively finished.''
The strain of living a double life was also taking its toll. ''I couldn't
get out of role. Even after 18 months, I was having trouble leaving the
undercover persona behind. One time I was out swimming. Someone said
something derogatory and my angry persona took over. It was an immediate
reaction. There was blood everywhere.''
Before deployment, every SDS
officer was visited at home to ensure they were married. ''They introduced
that rule after one officer refused to come out of the field. It turned out
he just enjoyed being with his contacts so much that he was willing to give
up his police salary and everything that went along with it in order to stay
with them. Now you have to be married on the basis that, if you have
something in the real world to come back to, you are less likely to want to
remain in role. That's the theory.
''When I came back to Special
Branch, I had to suppress who I was. I was no longer the same person. I
hated the job and everything about it.''
Officer A was later
diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He sued the Met
and received an out-of-court settlement. The Metropolitan Police, meanwhile,
has refused to comment on any matters connected to the SDS.