Belfast Telegraph

Home News

Police 'tried to recruit environmental protester as spy'

An environmental protester today claimed that police tried to recruit her as a paid spy to inform on her organisation.

Plane Stupid member Matilda Gifford said police told her that they have a network of informants inside protest organisations, which they tried to persuade her to join.

The 24-year-old said she was approached by officers claiming to be from Strathclyde Police a few weeks after she was arrested in a protest at Aberdeen Airport in March.

In meetings at a Glasgow police station, which she recorded, and later in a cafe, they offered her financial rewards for information on Plane Stupid.

She passed recordings of three conversations with police to the Guardian, which has posted them on its website.

Ms Gifford said the officers did not specify how much money would be offered, but that it would be tax free and cash in hand as if it was paid into her bank account it could compromise her by leaving an audit trail.

She said they warned her that her protest activities might damage her future employment prospects, and the experience left her feeling intimidated.

She said: "They were talking about having a business arrangement with a financial agreement whereby I would be swapping information about Plane Stupid, about the dynamics and plans for the group.

"They were playing games, trying to make me believe that other people in the group were already informing.

"The police are using really sinister tactics and tax payers money. I think it raises really serious questions about whether the police are there to protect the state and big business or to protect the civil liberties of people."

In the 'tape one' recording on the website, one officer says they have a network of informers from groups such as terrorist organisations, environmentalists, and leftwing and rightwing extremists.

Ms Gifford went to meet the officers a third time with her lawyer, but the police did not turn up for the meeting.

She said that around half an hour later one of the officers approached her and said he was disappointed.

Ms Gifford said that when Plane Stupid's lawyer contacted Strathclyde Police to find out more about the officers, police denied any knowledge of them.

Later they said that police had been in contact with Plane Stupid protesters.

Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton told The Guardian that the force had "a responsibility to gather intelligence".

He continued: "Officers from Strathclyde police have been in contact with a number of protesters who were involved with the Plane Stupid protests including Aberdeen airport.

"The purpose of this contact has been to ensure that any future protest activity is carried out within the law and in a manner which respects the rights of all concerned."

Ms Gifford's lawyer, Patrick Campbell, told The Guardian he had "very considerable concerns" about the events.

He said: "There appears to be a concerted effort to turn protesters to informants and possibly infiltrate peaceful protest movements."

A former commander of Scotland Yard's Flying Squad dismissed Ms Gifford's experiences as "a storm in a tea-cup" and said police were gathering intelligence of this kind on protest groups as a matter of routine.

John O'Connor told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "In police terms, this is called cultivating a potential informant. It didn't seem a particularly sophisticated approach but that's normal police practice.

"The police don't just sit in their ivory tower and expect the phone to ring and be given intelligence information. They go out actively to gather it."

Mr O'Connor said that the sums of money discussed with Ms Gifford were "ludicrous".

"I've never known any informant to be paid anything like that," he said. "You are talking about small amounts of money for this type of information. This is low-level intelligence and the sort of intelligence that actually saves the taxpayer money, because if you have got prior information of the size and intentions of a protest group, it means you can tailor your police response accordingly and that saves people money.

"You are not going to go over the top and have a huge number of people on stand-by when it turns out it is a fairly minor peaceful protest."

Asked whether protest groups were a legitimate target for the kind of intelligence operations more commonly associated with criminal gangs or terrorists, Mr O'Connor replied: "You have to police everything.

"Everything that the police are involved in, whether it's protest or counter-terrorism, you can't compare the two, but there are people charged with the responsibility of getting information before they set up an operation which can cost the taxpayer an awful lot of money."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "People hearing this story will be rightly alarmed and sceptical of the proportionality and legality of this tactic.

"They will wonder whether these sources are being recruited to report on trouble at protests or stir it up.

"The use of these methods must be included in Dennis O'Connor's wide-scale review of policing demonstrations.

"We need our constables to be officers of the law not agents of the state or private security guards for corporations."

Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill faced pressure from opposition parties to clarify police practice.

Richard Baker, Labour's justice spokesman at Holyrood, said: "Today I am writing to Kenny MacAskill to ask him to look into this issue so Parliament can be reassured the steps taken by police in this instance were appropriate.

"However I am fully aware of the serious and reckless nature of the protest which took place at Aberdeen Airport and the concern of our police force in Grampian over its impact on public safety."

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Robert Brown said: "The justice secretary needs to clarify the extent of these activities and the amount of police effort devoted to them.

"Kenny MacAskill must now provide Parliament and the public with a statement on the full facts surrounding this issue."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph