The Current

U.K. woman duped into relationship with undercover officer wants end to 'secret political policing'

A British woman says she suffered "massive harm" after entering into a relationship with a fellow activist in the 1990s, only to discover years later that her partner was an undercover police officer sent to infiltrate her organization.

Long-awaited public inquiry underway into British secret police units formed in 1960s

Helen Steel was 22 when she met John Dines, an undercover police officer who went by the name of John Barker. The pair dated and eventually moved in together, before the man suddenly disappeared from her life. (Submitted by Helen Steel)

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A British woman says she suffered "massive harm" after entering into a relationship with a fellow activist in the 1990s, only to discover years later that her partner was an undercover police officer sent to infiltrate her organization.

"It impacts on all your future relationships, your ability to trust. It causes serious, kind of, psychological trauma," Helen Steel told The Current's guest host, Rosemary Barton.

"And, you know, we want answers about why this has been allowed to happen."

Five years ago, London's Metropolitan Police Service apologized to seven women, including Steel, who were deceived into relationships with officers from now-disbanded undercover units over the course of several decades.

A long-awaited public inquiry is now underway to look into allegations that the undercover British police units abused their powers. Many of the complainants are left-wing activists, or women who had relationships — and sometimes children — with officers. The BBC has reported that at least 30 women were in such relationships with undercover officers.

One of the undercover units in question, the Metropolitan Police Service's Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), was formed in the late 1960s to investigate anti-Vietnam War protesters and, later on, other mostly left-wing movements, the BBC reported. According to the Guardian, 139 undercover officers spied on more than 1,000 political groups over the course of more than four decades.

My world 'fell apart': Steel

Steel was a 22-year-old environmental activist with London Greenpeace in 1987, when she first met a man calling himself John Barker.

"He used to offer to drive people home from meetings and I'd be the last person dropped off," said Steel. "And over time we became closer and started a relationship."

The couple eventually moved in together, Steel said. They talked about starting a family and spending the rest of their lives with one another — until Barker suddenly left, citing a mental breakdown.

"I was extremely worried about him because I loved him and he said he loved me, and I was worried that he might even be suicidal," she said.

I was extremely worried about him because I loved him and he said he loved me- Helen Steel

But as she tried to track him down, she realized much of what she knew about Barker was false. Barker, whose real name is John Dines, had adopted the name of a young boy who had died years before as part of his undercover persona.

"At that point, my world really kind of fell apart because, you know, he was this person who I thought I knew so well, that I'd spent so much time with," Steel said. "And actually I didn't know anything about him."

Rob Evans is a reporter with the Guardian. (Submitted by Rob Evans)

Rob Evans, an investigative journalist with the Guardian who has covered the activities of the SDS extensively, said the undercover police unit was initially set up to infiltrate political groups.

"There was a lot of political protest going on. The establishment here felt under threat, and there was a particular incident where there was a demonstration against the Vietnam War which had some disorder [to] it," said Evans, co-author of Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police.

"The police, the government, felt as if they had been caught out," he added. "So they wanted better information about what the protesters were planning to do. And they set up this unit of undercover officers."

The tactic of inserting police officers into activist organizations to gather information was relatively new in the 1960s, Evans said. And although it was meant to be a short-term measure, it "sort of escalated into a spying program that lasted 40 years and more."

What did the bosses know?.... I think that is one of the key questions- Rob Evans, investigative reporter

Evans said it was routine for these officers to form a new identity by resurrecting the names of people who had died. Officers would often grow their hair long as well, he added.

And while some officers had long-term relationships and families with the people whose lives they infiltrated, those families usually didn't learn the truth about the officers until years later — sometimes by chance.

Earlier this year, for example, the Metropolitan Police Service apologized and paid compensation to the son of former undercover officer Bob Lambert. Lambert had deceived the man's mother into a relationship in the 1980s as part of a police operation to gain information about activists, the Guardian reported.

Lambert abandoned the family when the boy was two years old. His son later discovered the truth about his father when he was 26, a revelation he said caused him psychiatric damage.

Although much is now known about the covert operations, many questions remain, Evans said.

"In Helen's case and the case of the other women, you know, what was going on here?... What did the bosses know?" he said. "I think that is one of the key questions."

History of undercover work

The nature of undercover work can make it difficult to monitor what the people carrying it out are doing 24/7, said Steve Hewitt, a senior lecturer in American and Canadians studies at the University of Birmingham, who specializes in the use of undercover police in Canada and the U.K.

"They do have superiors that they report to, but they effectively are writing the narrative of what they're doing," Hewitt told Barton. "And therefore, they kind of create the frame of reference by which their work is judged."

Hewitt said there is an inherent element of deception in undercover policing — whether it's for the purpose of infiltrating terrorist organizations, or criminal groups.

"The difference, I think, in this case is this level of really unethical behaviour by the police in terms of these relationships," he said. 

There have been some scandals in Canada involving undercover officers or informants (people who are already members of the group being spied on), such as when the media exposed the identity of Grant Bristow, a controversial CSIS spy who infiltrated a white supremacist group in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But Hewitt said he's not aware of anything that quite compares to the activities of the SDS.

Hewitt said that where the U.K. and Canada do share similarities is that, historically, they used undercover officers or informants to target predominantly leftist organizations — such as women's liberation groups — that were challenging the status quo. Especially in the U.K., he added, the goal was not just to sit back and observe, but to influence or steer organizations in certain directions.

Steve Hewitt is a senior lecturer in American and Canadians studies at the University of Birmingham in England, and specializes in the use of undercover police in Canada and the U.K. (Submitted by Steve Hewitt)

Today, informants and undercover tactics are still used, Hewitt said, but the focus is more on targeting extremism.

He added that intelligence agencies and police forces are reluctant to detail their covert methods or reveal the identity of undercover agents, because it can make it more difficult to recruit others in the future.

Revealing the identity of undercover agents also puts their safety, and the safety of their families, at risk. CSIS spy Bristow and his family fled their Toronto home after being unmasked, for fear of retaliation by the supremacist group he'd infiltrated.

But Steel and many of the other women who were duped into relationships with undercover officers in the U.K. want answers about what happened to them.

"None of us have had any disclosure about … why we were deceived into relationships, nor have we been allowed to see what information the police collated about us," she said.

She said she wants to see the names of the organizations that were spied on, and the officers' cover names to be released, so other witnesses can come forward about their experiences.

"We want all of that to come out. We want all the files that were kept on all of us to be released," she said. "And we want an end to this secret political policing."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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