Further analysis of the HMIC report on ‘domestic extremism’ from Matt Salusbury.

A review of national police units which provide intelligence on criminality associated with protest was published at a minute past midnight today (2 February 2012) by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC ).

This started life as a review of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPIOU) a police ‘domestic extremism’ unit that spies on protesters, and in which undercover cop Mark Kennedy (aka Mark Stone) was deployed. The review, led by Bernard Hogan-Howe, now Met commissioner, was about to be published in October when it was postponed after the revelation that another NPIOU asset, Jim Boyling, had apparently been allowed by his handlers to mislead the courts.

NPIOU has since been subsumed into the Met’s SO15 directorate whose brief includes ‘counter-terror,’ and ‘domestic extremism’ has rather worryingly become closely associated with ‘terrorism’ in the strange world-view of the cops.

The report rightly criticises some alarmingly vague definitions of “extremism”, including a statement that “extremism is defined as the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.” Another definition of domestic extremists quoted critically by the report says of them “They usually seek to prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy, but attempt to do so outside of the normal democratic process.”

The report recommends that “ACPO and the Home Office should agree a definition of domestic extremism” which should stick to “serious criminality” rather than taking an unhealthy interest in anyone who ever goes to demos ever, which seems to be the current default position.

Many would welcome a “tighter definition of domestic extremism”. But given their agendas, the task of coming up with a definition should be given to anybody but the Home Office and ACPO. The latter is basically a private company for senior police officers, and the Home Office aren’t exactly challenging of the police either. They’ve been rubber-stamping “intrusive surveillance” of one sort or another for ages, and have an intelligence-gathering operation of their own through the Criminal Records Bureau.

There is also a recommendation that the Office of Surveillance Commissioners – people who currently or have formerly held ‘high judicial office’ – get involved in some kind of oversight of undercover surveillance, as they currently do with snooping local council officials and benefits fraud investigators. A look at the OSC website
suggests this scrutiny will be quite bureaucratic in nature.

The checks and balances and ‘controls’ recommended by HMIC on ‘domestic extremism’ units are all checks to be carried out within the police forces. Undercover ops, surveillance and keeping files on people has to go upstairs to the “suits” at Superintendent level or above for clearance, and some wiretaps need the nod from the Home Secretary, but there’s nothing about submitting such operations to scrutiny by “civilians” outside police and Home Office circles (magistrates, local authorities, Parliament, police authorities or the new police commissioners, for example). Different bits of the police and the ministry that includes policing will be running intelligence gathering ops on activists past each other to rubber-stamp with the vaguest of justifications.

One recommendation is to reconsider the whole police “domestic extremism” intelligence-gathering enterprise, and to move such intelligence gathering ops to either the National Crime Agency or to some kind of public order ‘hub’ somewhere else within the police Given that most surveillance of protesters on demos in London is carried out by surveillance teams put together by CO11 “Public Order Directorate”, don’t expect rearranging “domestic extremism” units into some sort of public order “hub” will have a positive impact on the policing of demos anytime soon.

The HMIC report tries hard to find examples of actual criminality that the domestic extremism police units have actually fought. There aren’t many. The most recent examples of actual “serious” criminality (according to police’s own weird made-up definition of domestic extremism) that they could find were a neo-Nazi convicted of making bombs in 2010 and “the hijacking of a coal train” in 2009, over two years ago.

Elsewhere “a network of anarchist groups set up to disrupt the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles,” is cited as a positive “intelligence outcome” of Mark Kennedy’s undercover NPIOU deployment. The operation against those G8 summit protesters resulted in a lot of convictions, generally for minor public order offences along the lines of obstructing the highway, that went no further than the local sheriffs’ (magistrates) courts. (As anyone who was in the press gallery in the sherrifs courts in Edinburgh, Sterling and Perth during the summit can tell you.) Hardly “serious criminality.”

There is also the somewhat hilarious suggestion in the report that all this surveillance on people who just regularly go on demos is needed to aid in “protecting the rights of those who wish to protest peacefully” be “differentiating” between peaceful protesters and bad people.

As anyone who’s been a target of NPIOU surveillance will tell you, such surveillance seems to have nothing to do with “criminal intentions”, any violence almost always arises out of violent policing of protests, and most intelligence seems to be about who’s seen or observed taking part in a demo. Even by the police’s own bizarre definition of domestic extremism, most of the NPIOU targets aren’t involved in any such thing. These intelligence gathering units seem to exist to disrupt and destabilise and demoralise environmental, anti-war and anti-capitalist movements (and journalists who regularly cover them) rather than to prevent crime.

A review of national police units also insists that Mark Kennedy was some kind of lone rogue agent who “defied” his instructions and was going “beyond” what his handlers had ordered him to do. Its authors don’t seem to have spotted patterns in behaviour common to Kennedy and to other NPIOU undercovers, Jim Boyling and Bob Lambert – such as sleeping with activists they were spying on, taing on a very prominent role in the groups they were infiltrating, and maintaining their covers when giving evidence in court. “Poor supervision” was blamed for what went wrong with Kennedy, rather than any suggestion that he might have done what he did because his handlers wanted him to.

And it is revealed that “Nationally, between 2006 and 2011, 26% of officers seeking selection for advanced undercover roles failed their initial assessment. Likewise, Mark Kennedy was unsuccessful at his first attempt.”

I’m particularly interested in all this business about the NPIOU and other police “domestic extremism units” as last year I discovered through a Data Protection Act (DPA) disclosure that the NPIOU hold data on me – or at least they had recently held data on me.

The disclosure included a photo taken of me cycling past the ExCel Centre, venue for the G20 summit, on 2 April 2009, and had me down as being at a demo in Crawley (of all places!) that I was never at. The Met’s Subject Access Office people, who handle DPA requests, promised they would delete the photo after all issues around the disclosure had been resolved. The Anthony Wood judgment on “disproportionate” retention of images may have had something to do with this.

After I complained about the “intelligence report” on a demo in Crawley in September 2007, at which “the subject Matt Salusbury was seen taking part in this,” I got a nice letter from the Met admitting that “the original information “ on this “was incorrect” and that “incorrect data held within our own unit, has now been deleted and our records amended.”

This would suggest that it is possible for individuals to challenge data held on them by these “domestic extremism units” and apparently get it deleted. Although whether these police reports on us really get deleted or just moved somewhere else remains to be seen.

I’m still bewildered as to whether someone like myself, with no criminal record, is down as a “domestic extremist” on the NPIOU database.

HMIC wasn’t too happy about the NPIOU’s “rationale” for recording such data as “details of an event” on its database, and promises to “revisit this database to check that improvements have been made.”

For Data Protection Act enthusiasts like myself, the HMIC report’s recommendation that “The rationale for recording public order intelligence material on NDEU’s database should to be sufficient to provide assurance that its continued retention is necessary and justified given the level of intrusion into people’s privacy” is an interesting one, and it may be useful to quote this to police Data Controllers in an effort to get them to delete any “domestic extremism” unit’s data they hold on you.

While there’s been a lot of attention on the activities of NPIOU, there’s been less attention on The National Domestic Extremism Unit, or NDEU, one of its “sister units” also in the shadowy world of the “domestic extremism” industry.

The NDEU has its own database, and HMIC writes that “since 2008 more than 2,900 expired entries and documents have been removed from the database… fewer than 2,000. The database is continually reviewed and weeded and, since June 2005, a total of 2,063 images have been deleted.”

HMIC found the ‘rationale” for retaining data on the NDEU database, while better than a lot of other police database, wasn’t strong enough, and HMIC will be coming back to this in a separate investigation. I for one am inspired by this revelation to use the Data Protection Act to go after any data NDEU might hold on me.

It is also noted that the NDEU had a role in intelligence gathering during last year’s Tottenham riots. NDEU is definitely one to watch.