As politicians of all shades flail about in the wake of the financial and economic crisis, the growth of the neo-fascist British National Party and Parliament’s loss of authority, secret units of police are carrying out their time-honoured function – to spy on anyone who does not fit into (their idea of) the status quo.
An investigation by a team of Guardian journalists reveals that no fewer than three secret units run by the totally unaccountable Association of Police Officers (Acpo) are being funded to the tune of £9m by the Home Office. Their function is to gather intelligence, operate a chain of databases, and warn those who might be “on the receiving end” of protests. (The £9m is, of course, in addition to the hundreds of millions spent on the operations of the state intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6.)
Following the climate camp protests around the Drax power station in Yorkshire in 2006, police and government officials invented a new term – “domestic terrorism”. This categorisation was first used when New Labour and the police characterised animal rights campaigners as “terrorists” between 2001-2004. But now the term, which is not legally defined, is used as a blanket justification for gathering and holding details and photographs of individual protesters and activists on massive police databases. According to the investigation:
• The National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) collects and processes information collected by police forces around England and Wales. It is fed intelligence by surveillance units such as Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) and Evidence Gatherers.
• The nationwide system of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), which can place a marker against a car, is used by “interceptor teams” to monitor attendance at protests and stop individuals.
• “Spotter cards” are used by the CO11 Public Order Intelligence Unit. Comedian and campaigner Mark Thomas discovered his face on one accidentally dropped at a recent Docklands arms fair.
• The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Nectu) is used to keep files on groups and share information with big business. Initially set up in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire to curb animal rights’ activists, it works with police forces and companies
• The National Domestic Terrorism Team, set up in 2005, liaises between detectives and police forces.
As Thomas points out, “the very phrase ‘domestic extremist’ defines protesters in the eyes of the police as the problem, the enemy.” And, that “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.”
The first comprehensive history of Britain’s domestic intelligence service MI5, just published, The Defence of the Realm, documents how the secret forces of the state have always made those fighting for basic rights a target for surveillance, and often arrest and detention. Those who lead such movements, including political organisations and active trade unionists, are always the first in line.
A quarter of a century ago, Prime Minister Thatcher denounced the National Union of Mineworkers and its leaders as “the enemy within”. The Tory government of the day unleashed all its power to destroy a single trade union. There is no doubt that the ruling classes are still haunted by that era.
Only today, it is not a Tory government but New Labour which is funding secret activities by the police. Not that whatever government comes to power next spring is likely to disband any of these new police units – on the contrary. This state is tooling up for a period of massive social unrest.
Mark Thomas concludes: “This is exactly the time to worry.” Too right. But not only to worry, we would add, but to work for the deconstruction of the existing state and its intelligence agencies.