The Fifteen Questions we work with

typewriter partPeter Salmon and Eveline Lubbers / Undercover Research Group,
Originally posted as a blog story, 2 November 2015

As we noted in a recent blogpost on how we work, we have a list of questions that we have developed from close study of the undercovers exposed so far. If someone comes to us with a suspicion about someone in their group, we put these questions to them, to see whether their suspicions are well founded. If many boxes are ticked, there are strong grounds for further investigation.

Here we set out the questions we work with, putting them context (thanks for people taking part in our meeting at the London Anarchist Bookfair for their input). Some questions are specifically related to the undercover tradecraft. Others are things about what infiltrating officers get wrong, or what we’ve picked up from our own analyses.

  • Is their background missing?

Generally, the undercover has very little in the way of background story. They will often have a

‘legend’—where they are from, why they left. Details will generally be quite sparse, and there is very little overlap between their previous world and their activist one. It is rare to meet friends (or see their photos) from their ‘previous’ life, even though they may be discussed or the suspect claims he goes to see them. Undercovers will also have a lack of presence in the public record, though this is not always obvious until one starts investigating them seriously.

Caveat: it is known that several undercovers did bring other people through— generally these are considered ‘background artistes’ used to help bolster an undercover’s story. For example, Lynn Watson introduced several boyfriends to activist friends. Generally these other people have only appeared once or twice, and at times have been noted for their unusual or provocative behaviour.

  • Are their politics missing, underdeveloped or stereotyped?

Related to the first question, in most cases undercovers have had very little to say in relation to the politics of the movement they are infiltrating. Although they are indeed interested in listening to others (though some eschewed any interest in the name of cynicism), they contribute little on that score and generally avoid or head-off such discussions. Where they demonstrate interest, it is often superficial and the books and background material they have are standard, popular stuff showing little depth or breathe.

Caveat: clearly this can be applied to a lot of campaigners, but in some groups it is a reason for standing out.

  • Has anyone ever met their family?

Related to the first question, in most cases undercovers have had very little to say in relation to the politics of the movement they are infiltrating. Although they are indeed interested in listening to others (though some eschewed any interest in the name of cynicism), they contribute little on that score and generally avoid or head-off such discussions. Where they demonstrate interest, it is often superficial and the books and background material they have are standard, popular stuff showing little depth or breadth.

Caveat: clearly this can be applied to a lot of campaigners, but in some groups it is a reason for standing out.

  • Does their job take them away for periods at a time?

It appears that many undercovers have jobs that require them to be away for extended periods, up to several weeks at a time. These jobs would also supply them with money, vehicles and excuses to put receipts ‘through the books’. Depending on the nature of the job, most are reluctant to bring activists into contact with their employers. E.g. Lynn Watson was a care-worker, but when friends asked about working with her agency, she kept them at bay.

  • Did their home look un-lived in?

A common theme is how un-homely or not lived-in their houses were, though — again — not in every case. There would be materials around that indicated ‘political activist’, but they are the exception rather than the norm, looking more staged than anything. There would also be a lack of personal touch and possessions. The most noted case was Lynn Watson’s house which had overdone Class War posters and little in the way of personal touch.

  • Do they have a vehicle?

Most exposed undercovers had vehicles and were very willing to use them for the purposes of campaigning, including doing reconnaissances and actions. The vehicles would vary in type and model, and include vans. Sometimes the undercovers claimed the car came through their work.

  • Do they have above-average driving skills?

Something commented on a lot of undercovers is their above average driving skills, which is not unsurprising given a Special Branch or other police background.

  • Would you consider them to be someone who goes out of their way to be helpful?

The charm, friendliness and general kindness of the undercovers is regularly noted upon. They come across as ready to go out of their way to help. In particular, they are happy to give lifts to and from campaigner’s homes.

  • Do they have ready access to money and are they generous with it?

They are often ready to help people out with money, such as waive petrol costs or buy rounds of food or drink. Sometimes they will claim that expenses are already covered in some way—through their work for instance. They are not necessarily flash, but seem to have ready access to cash.

  • Do they focus relationships on key people?

It is not uncommon for them — after getting involved in a group — to ‘make a beeline’ for key people and become very close to them personally and in campaigning. This often leads to them being been seen as ‘second in command’, etc.

  • Do they ever exhibit noticeable out-of-character behaviour?

A number of undercovers have been known to do something quite out of character that either disrupted an action and alerted police, or was distinctly far from the norm of the group. Examples are: inexplicable carelessness (Jim Boyling sabotaged a blockade during a Reclaim the Streets action by ‘forgetting’ to keep a window closed, so that the car was easy to remove by the police), or doing things beyond the group’s normal mode of behaviour (encouraging activities that put other members at risk, or taking them into unplanned confrontations).

Related to this is spreading stories about more serious involvement in radical action elsewhere to give the impression they are ‘up for it’, though this would differ from how they normally present and actually behave in given situations.

  • Have you spotted oddities?

A number of distinguishing features we have encountered in our research that are worth noting if you come across them:

  • Documents are held in names other than that they are known by (sometimes can be explained away; not all discrepancies are without good reason).
  • Organisational skills at odds with their persona.
  • Not having the skills they claim, especially where it is within their alleged job (Mark Jenner, for instance claimed to be a professional joiner but was unable to fit a kitchen). Related to this is not knowing enough about something they claim to be into, particularly a football team.
  • A focus on cleanliness and order that puts them at the far end of the activist spectrum, or at odds with it (e.g. Mark Kennedy having his hair styled at professional hairdressers).
  • Characteristics that indicate some formal training (e.g. how they do their boots).
  • Reacting to surprise situations in ways that indicate training (e.g. Jenner reacting to noise outside by dropping in the correct moves for reacting to a bomb explosion).
  • Owning a very expensive bit of equipment that is somewhat out of characteristic for them or their milieu (top of the range phone, watch).
  • Doing something that seems to be signaling to someone else.
  • Have there been weird things around court cases or lack ofpolice interest?

Sometimes undercover officers have inexplicably been dropped from a court case, or they choose to have a different solicitor from everyone else. Or you may have experienced a noticeable lack of police interest during the period the undercover was part of your group, or people would not be arrested when it would be otherwise be expected. It is now known that the undercovers’ handlers were turning a blind eye to illegal activities on occasions, and would go out of their way to keep the undercover from going to court.

Caveat: The opposite might be true too: there are several examples of undercovers turning up in court using their false names to give evidence for instance—these have led to overturned convictions eventually.

  • Did they suddenly disappear and cut off all contact?

This question is a section in itself as the ‘exit strategy’ is one of the most important aspects of the tradecraft for those investigating a potential undercover. In every case we are aware of undercovers have served a term of four to five years, then left relatively abruptly. It is quite telling how time and again two strategies are used, sometimes in combination:

a) they go abroad, or

b) act out some kind of mental breakdown, including actual tears.

More importantly, they disappear completely, totally cutting themselves off from their activist social life. In several cases, not attending funerals or coming to other events related to people they were once very close to has given rise to suspicions.

Sometimes, the situation has been more complicated, because the undercover continued to tangle up their personal life and their professional undercover one, which is called ‘going native’. Mike Chitty, for instance, returned after supposedly having left for Canada to socialise with activist friends, while he continued his job in the protective service—a different section of Special Branch. Kennedy came back after he had left the police, and tried to use his activist contacts to set up shop as a corporate spy selling the information he gathered.

Can you help us kill these myths?

We are aware that some people believe or have believed undercovers had a code of conduct, that there were things they would not do. We flag these rumours up here to help put an end to them.

Some people say undercovers should never:

  • commit illegal activities;
  • have sexual relationships with people they were targeting;
  • deny they are police when asked directly (some would even joke about it).

We now know that all of these things have been done regularly by undercover officers.

Important caveats.

If you find someone whose story ticks a number of these boxes, it does not necessarily mean you are dealing with an undercover officer. It merely means that your suspicions warrant further digging and investigations. These questions are a starting point, not a way to prove a case.

We strongly discourage people from spreading rumours based on suspicions alone, and we recommend following up suspicions with serious research as quickly as possible. Gossiping without confirmation does much harm and can destroy groups from within, regardless of whether or not there is any actual infiltration.

It is important to remember that while there might be commonalities among the way undercovers operate, there are also as many differences, particularly around what they seek to achieve: some directly facilitate a group, while others seek to destroy it, for instance.

We also note that there are many good reasons for people to fall into the same categories without being an undercover, our framework is not fail-safe. For example, there are pretty valid reasons for not having contact with your family, or for people to disappear. Suffering from burn-out is also a common a reason for activists to withdraw (if you or someone you know is affected by burn-out contact Counselling for Social Change for support—see below).

Furthermore, not all undercover stories are exactly the same, there will be variations: so not fitting the pattern does not necessarily put someone in the clear either. Apart from that, other forms of infiltration (by security services or corporations, or through informers) will show very different patterns. If you have any questions or concerns or want to run unusual situations by us, do get in contact.

N.B. If you are reposting or distributing these questions, please leave the caveats in place.

Final note

The nature of this work means all our experience and research is about historical undercovers, all prior to 2011 and all about those who have been extracted from their role. As this tradecraft is exposed, the police will have to change tactics to some degree.

Furthermore, the growing use of social media makes it more and more impossible to enter into a scene without any traces of a past, another part of one’s life and without family (though we know the police are actively looking into building ‘online legends’ to deal with this problem).

This article is here to help those who have been targeted in the past to identify individuals who should be investigated further, and should not be seen as the most up-to-date understanding of undercover police tradecraft.

Profiles of undercovers mentioned in this article can be found here. Some material has been based on profiles of undercovers yet to be publicly exposed.

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