Investigating undercovers: How we work

typewriter part
Peter Salmon and Eveline Lubbers / Undercover Research Group
23 October 2015

At the recent hearing of the Pitchford Inquiry into Undercover Policing, the Judge asked the Undercover Research Group whether it ‘was its purpose to out undercover policemen.'(1) It is a good question and the answer is more nuanced than a simple yes or no. In this post we aim to give you some insight into how we work and how we make our judgements.

To be clear, we do not have a list of unconfirmed undercovers through which we are steadily working in preparation to systematic exposure. What we have is a bunch of fears and concerns from individuals and groups, who we think have valid questions.

First and foremost, no exposure is done by a single person working away by themselves in isolation. It requires people to come together and share suspicions and work out whether those suspicions have any grounding. We are there to support that process. In some cases, those groups of people have found the definitive evidence themselves and gone public with it. In others, there is a lack of expertise and doubt over what they have assembled. It is in the latter case that a number of them have turned to us. We will help the group profile the individual, assemble the information they need and (possibly most importantly) ask the right questions to test if the suspicion is reasonable. Or it may be that they don’t have enough and need to go back and assemble more information to give a clearer profile of the person.

Once they have a reasonable suspicion, we then start testing it ourselves, which again comes in two parts. The first is documenting and researching these stories, putting the narrative together in a way that draws out issues, identifying new leads from it and seeing where gaps need filling.
The second skill we bring is the deep dig, looking for the corroborating bits of information that may provide definitive answers or allow us to test the background story of the person concerned. It is a painstaking process that takes time because it requires a wide ranging understanding of issues and access to particular resources that are not commonly available.

None of this could take place without the work of the people affected. As recently pointed out by Emily Apple in The Canary, all undercovers to date, with the exception of whistleblower Peter Francis, have only been exposed by activists doing the work of investigation. This is people doing the difficult work of investigating a close friend, not an abstract bit of detective work. We at the URG are there to work alongside them, involved and supporting at the same time. We are only all too aware of how painful a process this can be for people as they slowly come to terms that an old friend with whom they shared so much of their lives was not who they said they were. Going in with the sole object of exposing someone is not a helpful mindset. We are here to alleviate fear and destructive uncertainty. If we can prove that a friend, lover or colleague is not an undercover or corporate spy then that is equally important to us.

If no definitive evidence is found, going public is the only way that those affected stand a chance of actually finding out the truth.

At all times we are hampered by the police’s position of neither confirm nor deny (NCND). In a fair amount of the cases we have been able to establish conclusive evidence that the investigated individual was indeed a police officer. But there are and will be more undercovers under investigation for whom this ‘smoking gun’, so to speak, is not there. In fact that final bit of doubt is keeping us from publishing further cases.

This is why the police policy of NCND is effectively justice denied.

Which leaves us with the very real problem of when we can advise a group whether they have sufficient evidence to go public. To deal with this dead-end situation we have developed our own ‘internal metric’, which comes in three parts:

  1. Do the activities of the individual under investigation meet the established pattern of trade craft associated with undercover police officers? This does not have to be 100%, but it has to be substantially met. Normally, but not always, this amounts to answering a set of 10-15 questions, which we also use to establish how well-founded a group’s suspicion is in the first place, and what they need to find out.
  2. What was the exit-strategy for the undercover? In particular, has their disappearance from the activist’ scene been pretty much total and they are no longer in touch with anyone?
  3. Can we find them? The flip side of showing someone was an undercover is to show that he or she is a genuine person who has put an end to the activist period in his or her life. So we set out to do that, to see if we can track them down, prove their existence and locate where they are now so we can put the case to them. If we cannot find them at all, that is a strong indication that the person known as an activist does not really exist.

If we are satisfied that all three criteria are met, even though there may be residual doubt, then we believe the group has enough to go public on, and we will publish our own report and profile on the undercover in support of the group’s case.

This metric is flexible. Each case is to a degree unique, and we also recognise that undercovers do not always follow their tradecraft to the letter, so there will be times when adhering strictly to the conditions is not appropriate, particularly where there has been some degree of ‘going native’ or there are variations due to the nature of the background story / character that has been developed. We hope that our experience has given us sufficient judgement to be satisfied when a case falls into that sort of situation and to make the appropriate call.

We are very aware of the risk of getting it wrong and the need to act responsibly towards all parties. However, in a world with NCND in place and the refusal of the authorities to act responsibly towards those affected by intrusion from undercovers, the ability to get that guarantee is limited.

The police justify NCND on the grounds that it is needed to protect their officers, but that ignores totally the abuse caused in it is name. We firmly believe that NCND needs to be abandoned and that the police must properly acknowledge the invasion of privacy, personal lives and activist / political work carried out in their name. If the police will not answer, then going public is all that is left to us at this point.(2) Furthermore, we believe that this use of undercover policing is not about stopping crime as the police claim, but is political policing pure and simple, either to uphold a political agenda and/or to suppress criticism of the police; that is simply not acceptable.

If subsequent material comes to light that proves the individual was who they said they were, we will remove any article and replace it with an apology. We will also place a statement on each such page pointing out the position of lack of 100% proof and our reasons for publishing.

Might be worth saying that investigating undercover officers is by far not the only thing we do. Check the Undercover Research portal to see the many other profiles on officers and units involved in political policing, their networks and subsequent careers.

  1. A transcript of the 7th October 2015 hearing is available at the Pitchford Inquiry website. See page 95 for the quote.
  2. We refer to the ‘Reynold’s Defence in English & Welsh law, a case were the court has ruled that a newspaper can publish a story in the absence absolute proof when there is a public cause – as a defence against libel. For more detail see and this article in The Guardian about limits to the Reynold’s defence.