By Mohamed Elmaazi / Open Democracy

Is it possible to hold undercover policing to account? Not without redistributing wealth and power within society.


“Civil government, in so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” – Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter I, Part II On the Expense of Justice.

It has been observed that when it comes down to it, the police exist to protect those who have wealth from those who do not. Seeking to reform the most egregious of policing practices – especially political policing – without also addressing economic inequality will result in only the most limited and temporary form of accountability.

In the light of recent scandals about undercover policing, it’s important to distinguish between, on the one hand, the state targeting and infiltrating violent organised crime syndicates, and on the other hand, the state infiltrating law abiding social justice organisations to subvert their activities. More than 400 UK based anti-war, environmental, and social justice organisations have been subjected to ‘undercover policing’ in recent decades – and this is better understood as political policing.

Political policing includes spying and data retention, initiating deceitful sexual relationships with women activists, acting as agents provocateurs to entrap law abiding people into criminal acts, spying on grieving family members and even being implicated in murders.

Such practices are not simply the product of a corrupt police force or “rogue” unit within it. Rather, it is the consequence of living in a society whereby those who govern view the ‘greatest threat’ to their power as ultimately coming from their own citizenry. And indeed this view is quite correct. The citizenry of any state do pose the greatest potential threat to the leadership of any given society, if not in the short term then in the long run.

So political policing will not be permanently changed or eliminated, by legislation, inquiries, further regulations, or even improving oversight. History has proven  that as long as economic and thus political power is not evenly distributed within society, even hard-won reforms will ultimately be reversed, undermined or diluted into meaninglessness.

Inquiries such as Pitchford Inquiry into Undercover Policing may have their place – though more than two years after being established by then Home Secretary Theresa May, the inquiry is yet to hear any evidence, thanks to delaying tactics employed by the Metropolitan police.

Inquiries and reformist movements will only take us so far. Political policing reflects long standing state policy, across party lines, over generations, both within the UK and in other countries around the world.

“In our society, real power does not happen to lie in the political system, it lies in the private economy; that’s where the decisions are made about what’s produced, how much is produced, what’s consumed, where investment takes place, who has jobs, who controls the resources, and so on and so forth”Chomsky, Understanding Power

“Guardians of the status quo”

Perhaps the clearest example of the deeply entrenched nature of political policing, within “bourgeois democracies”, is that of COINTELPRO in the United States. COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) involved local and federal authorities infiltrating and disrupting dissident organisations. In theory it started in the 1950s as a series of surveillance and counter subversion programmes designed to “increase fractionalisation” “cause disruption” and “win defections” in the (perfectly lawful) Communist Party USA.

However, COINTELPRO and similar schemes also targeted all manner of other individuals and organisations engaged in lawful behaviour including faith groups, anti-war groups, left-wing organisations, singers, song writers, activists and poets. The Black Panthers in particular suffered heavily at the hands of COINTELPRO falling victim to spying, infiltration, disinformation campaigns, mass arrests, false arrests, fabricated prosecutions, and even murder.

Following revelations of malfeasance and criminality on the part of local and federal authorities, internationally and domestically, a select committee of the US Senate was established to investigate foreign and domestic ‘intelligence’ practices. The findings and conclusions of the Committee were as damning as they are illuminating, and were published in 1976 in the Final report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities[2], of the United States Senate (known as the Church Committee).

The late historian and activist Howard Zinn explained the Church Committee’s conclusion that COINTELPRO “had no conceivable rational relationship to either national security or violent activity. The unexpressed major premise of much of COINTELPRO is that the Bureau has a role in maintaining the existing social order, and that its efforts should be aimed toward combating those who threaten that order[3] [emphasis added].

When he was asked about the discrepancy between the FBI labelling some violent acts as terrorism and other violent acts not, such as the massacre at the American Methodist Church by white supremacist Dyllan Roof, former FBI counter-terrorism Agent Mike German answered as follows:

“So it is surprising, but I think, again, reflects this idea that the government has that if you’re using violence to challenge the establishment, to challenge government policy, you’re more dangerous than if you’re using violence in a way that affects minority communities or reinforces establishment status quo.” [emphasis added]

Mike German, now a fellow at the Brenan Centre for Justice, previously specialised in domestic counter-terrorism and had himself infiltrated far-right and white supremacist groups as an undercover agent. German went on to emphasise the point that:

“As the Church Committee found, the FBI in the Hoover era saw themselves not as law enforcers but as the guardians of the status quo. And…that thinking seems to be reflected in the statement that this act wasn’t political.” [emphasis added]

From the UK to the US and back again

Those familiar with the history of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) and Special Branch in the UK may not find the details of COINTELPRO’s targets, tactics and methods, too surprising. From their creation in late 1960s to their official disbanding in 2008, the SDS under the guise of the Metropolitan Police Service engaged in some of the most egregious violations of civil liberties and human rights over a forty year period.  And the SDS appears to live on in organisations such as the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU).

The best-known examples of state collusion, spying, surveillance and sabotage in the UK – as well as out-and-out murders – may well be in Northern Ireland. Decades long repression by the British state in collusion with loyalist militants guaranteed a fertile ground for heavy, lawless levels of political policing.

Last month, in the biggest Super Grass case to date, former loyalist paramilitary Gary Haggartyy has admitted two hundred terror offenses including five murders. But Haggerty also secretly acted as an agent on behalf of state. Lenience is expected from the Court for his cooperation.

In his article, ‘See no evil’: Collusion in Northern Ireland, Professor Mark McGovern details how during the 1980s Special Branch “withheld intelligence from criminal inquiries in order to ‘protect’ their agents and informers…in the drive to recruit and protect paramilitary informants, criminal investigations were fundamentally manipulated, undermined or prevented”. Perhaps even more alarming was that “senior police, military and political figures were aware that this meant those working on behalf of the state were often involved in serious crime, up to and including murder”. As McGovern explains, “this is not a failure of policy, but its point. It was the space in which a culture of collusion could flourish” [emphasis added].

McGovern encapsulates the establishment view towards political policing when quoting the view of the late Lord Chief Justice Lowry. Lowry, the most senior legal figure in the Northern Irish judiciary, commented that because “police officers are charged with the duty  to  maintain  justice, even  if  guilty  of  serious,  violent  crime, any  sentencewould be imposed on a different and lower scale from that appropriate to terrorists ” [emphasis added].

So much for the ‘Rule of Law’.

From decade to decade and country to country the same rules apply.

This is not democracy

“Republican States, to be sure, are more “democratic” than other kinds of States…But they are nonetheless States—overarching structures of domination in which a few people rule over the great majority. In a structure where power is distributed so unevenly, democracy is impossible. Far from embodying rule by the people, even a republican State is incompatible with popular rule.”

Janet Biehl and Murray Bookchin, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism

Katerina Hadjimatheou, researcher in ethics, surveillance and law enforcement has recently suggested some interesting proposals to aid accountability in the realm of political policing. At a conference entitled ‘Is it possible to hold undercover policing to account?‘ she suggested the police should have to complete risk assessments before they refuse to release information regarding political policing enquiries. This would include the names of undercover officers. The theory being that forcing officers to describe in detail whether genuine security implications were at stake or not in a manner that would be public and open to scrutiny, would result in the police being more forthcoming and transparent.

Her overall argument argument ultimately centred on the so called “dilemma of liberal democracy”. In short, that is the dilemma between the need for secrecy on the part of the state, and transparency and justice for the survival of democracy.

But there is no such dilemma.

And there is no such dilemma because, the United Kingdom (like France, Germany, the US, Canada, et al) is not a democracy.

In his book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy the Dutch author and historian, David Van Reybrouck, explains that until the mid-to late 1800s no one ever referred to any of these countries as being democracies. Until recently, republics and parliamentary states were understood to be “elective” or “electoral aristocracies” NOT democracies. Indeed if we lived in a democracy we would not have the problem of political policing and lack of the Rule of Law that we currently do. The problem is not so much the tension between the need for secrecy and the need for democracy and accountability, as much as it as a problem of a lack of democracy altogether. And once again that lack of democracy can be traced back to who holds wealth, and therefore economic power and political power, within any given society. As the thinker, philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out;

The effect of concentration of wealth is to yield concentration of power. Not only is it extremely unjust in itself, inequality has highly negative consequences on the society as a whole, because the very fact of the inequality has a corrosive harmful effect on democracy”.

A new experiment

In Northern Syria (aka Rojava) an immense, predominately (though not exclusively) Kurdish, experiment in libertarian socialism is underway, which has continued to evolve and grow as the armed conflict in Syria rages on.

Janet Biehl, the political writer and thinker, visited Rojava and translated the recently published book Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan into English, which outlines how this experiment is directly challenging inequality and state repression.

During a recent interview, anthropologist David Graeber explained what he saw and learned when he went to Northern Syria.

“They decided that rather than demanding a state of their own, they wished to simply make borders irrelevant and dissolve away states entirely. And it’s kind of made sense to people in that part of the world. Remember the Kurds are a population who are divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The idea they are somehow carving a government out of that seems unlikely…

“People will say, “‘Well, you know, we’ve come to realize in this part of the world, demanding your own country is basically the same as ‘I demand the right to be tortured by secret policemen speaking my own language’.” It’s not much of a demand. So they’ve come around to this idea of bottom-up direct democracy.”

Graeber continues, explaining “They say this isn’t a state because anybody with a gun is answerable to the bottom-up structures and not the top-down. So the people on the top can’t actually force anybody to do something they don’t want to do.” [Emphasis added]

“Democracy is governance that is not state, it is the power of communities to govern themselves without the state” – Abdullah Ocalan, The Political Thought of Abullah Ocalan

We are seeing resurgence in the growth of grassroots social justice organisations fighting the good fight against all odds. Every day that passes more and more people recognise that the state structure itself, rather than any particular individual or party within it, is the ultimate source of oppression and inequality.

For the crisis of political policing to be brought to an end we should therefore avoid pinning all our hopes on either reformist measures or securing power within the institutions of government (i.e via elections). Those who hold concentrated wealth and power within our society will not vanish because Labour – even under Corbyn –gets elected into office. Of course we are still far away from the conditions necessary for our own libertarian experiment along the lines of Rojava. However, we can still prepare and develop a foundation for such a time until that day comes.

And until that day comes, let the good fight for social justice continue.

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Undercover Research Group
Police Spies Out of Lives

Campaign Opposing Police Surviellance (COPS)
Network of Police Monitors (NETPOL)
The Monitoring Group
Islamic Human Rights Commission
Scotland Against Criminalising Communities
Campaign Against Criminalising Communities

Author’s note: The title is adapted from that of the excellent 2016 conference Subversion, sabotage, and spying: Political policing and state racism in the UK . Although not addressed in this article, state racism is often central to the phenomenon of political policing and has a long illustrious role in facilitating it. This must never be forgotten whenever political policing is to be challenged.

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Mohamed Elmaazi obtained an LLB from SOAS and Masters in International and Comparative law from AUC. He volunteers with the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities and researches for The Real News Network. His research interests include human rights, surveillance and structural racism.