Police Arresting & Recruiting Protestors As Informants: Where Is The Line?

matilda gifford
Juliana Napier, Matilda Gifford and Dan Glass with some of the recording equipment they used. (Photo: Murdo Macleod via The Guardian)

Though she had been just released on bail after a peaceful protest at an airport, U.K. activist Matilda Gifford was approached by undercover police attempting to recruit her as an informant on her organization's activities, in exchange for cash.

Police claimed that they could help Gifford with her student loans, and that any information she could give on strongly "ideological" groups would be helping to diffuse any potential "hotheaded" situations. But instead of signing on, the 24-year-old woman recorded their conversations on a hidden cell phone, exposing how local police are actively enlisting spies to disrupt the lawful activities of climate change organizations. Unfortunately, Gifford's case is not isolated.
During the G20 protests last month, two protesters were also approached by Strathclyde, U.K. police. James Woods, 22, one anti-nuclear protester arrested at Faslane, said: "When I was released I was asked by an officer about my income and how I got by ... they said they'd help my financial situation in a way that would not interfere with my [unemployment insurance] if I gave them information on people involved in upcoming actions."

In response, groups like Greenpeace UK are condemning such operations, calling them "intrusive and intimidating".

Gifford's lawyer, Patrick Campbell, said: "The methods employed are disturbing, and more worrying yet is the lack of any clearly identifiable body responsible for this My concern is the lack of accountability and the threat to the individual and her right to protest."

Police infiltrators in U.S.
In post-9/11 America, police have gone even further, sending undercover police agents to infiltrate groups to gather information on pacifists, nuns, lobbyists and other environmental and social justice organizations, in violation of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly.

Take the case of "Lucy", a 20-something undercover Maryland State Police trooper who infiltrated more than two dozen rallies and meetings of nonviolent groups between 2005 and 2007. The intelligence gathered by Lucy and other undercover agents led to the erroneous listing of 53 Americans as terrorists in a criminal database, accessible to half a dozen state and federal agencies, including the National Security Agency. From the L.A.Times:

"There wasn't a scintilla of illegal activity" going on, said David Rocah, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit and in July obtained the first surveillance files.

[..] Investigators, the files show, targeted groups that advocated against abortion, global warming, nuclear arms, military recruiting in high schools and biodefense research, among other issues.

[..] In the largest known effort, the Pentagon monitored at least 186 lawful protests and meetings -- including church services and silent vigils -- in California and other states. The military also compiled more than 2,800 reports on Americans in a database of supposed terrorist threats. That program, known as TALON, was ordered closed in 2007 after it was exposed in news reports.

Slippery slope
All this covert surveillance sets a dangerous precedent for personal freedoms and civil liberties, not to mention you might have to start second-guessing the newcomer to your activist shindig or church service. Even if "terrorism" is poorly defined, there is still a distinct difference between peaceful, lawful dissent and nonviolent, civil disobedience versus "terrorism". But we need to ask the question of where to draw the line between the two.

So what's a responsible citizen to do? First of all, find out what your rights are in this situation. What are the local laws regarding the legality of police spying? Second, educate yourself on the various tactics that undercover police may use. Third, look out for these suspicious indicators if you do suspect spying, and here's what to do, if you do intend to expose the undercover agent. Though there's a good reason why police may spy on illegal activities, there's no reason why they should spy on peacefully protesting organizations that have no history of violent nor illegal actions.

The Guardian
More on Civil Disobedience, Spying & Eco-Terrorism
Climate Change Activists Are Terrorists! At Least That's What the Maryland State Police Thought
Observe the Environment, Let Terrorism Flourish?
114 Anti-Coal Activists Preemptively Arrested by UK Police
Biggest Ever US Civil Disobedience on Climate at Congressional Power Plant
Why Bill McKibben is Willing to Get Arrested to Stop the Burning of Coal
Dangerous Environmental Terrorist/Animal Rights Eco Extremist on FBI's Most Wanted List
Top 5 Eco-Activism Events of the Past Decade

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