“We Don't Have Democracy In This Country, SpyCops Proves That” – Tom Fowler Interview | – Voice Wales
In March 2010, Tom Fowler and his fellow activists had their suspicions confirmed about a figure who had been part of their anarchist group for over five years. Marco Jacobs – an undercover cop – had recently left South Wales Anarchists, but not before working his way into the core of the group and forging a long term, abusive relationship with a woman involved.
Since then, along with other victims around Britain, Tom has worked to expose the full extent of undercover policing in Britain, its use by the state to disrupt subversion and in particular how officers deceived women into long term relationships, even having children with them. He is a Core Participant in the Undercover Policing Inquiry into undercover policing and hosts an acclaimed podcast series on the issue. He spoke to voice.wales about the entire
Hi Tom, thanks for speaking to voice.wales. If you could, would you be able to explain some of the background to the SpyCops inquiry and your own relationship to it?
Okay, in terms of background, in 2010, Peter Francis, who was an undercover officer in the 1990s, known as Peter Black, did an interview with The Observer about his deployment.
That was the first time that a member of the Special Demonstration Squad – which was the first undercover police unit of the modern era -had turned whistleblower in any way. I read that article, and it gave me and the people I was in a group… with [South Wales Anarchists] some chills about somebody who had left our group fairly recently, Marco Jacobs.
And it set us on a path of trying to confirm my suspicions that we believed him to be an undercover cop as well. Around the country, a number of other groups were doing the same thing. And by around the beginning of 2011 there were 10 undercover officers that we’d identified who had been on long term deployments within political protest groups in the UK. Most of those officers, in fact all but one of the officers in that initial amount had had long-term sexual relationships with their targets.
This was a bit of a scandal for a short period of time, which led to the then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2014 calling for a public inquiry into undercover policing.
But since then, the police have done everything in their power to slow down, to obfuscate, to put barriers in the way of the inquiry starting. Meanwhile, lots of senior cops who had been involved in the Special Demonstration Squad and then the latter unit, the National Public Order intelligence unit, were given the opportunity to retire, move abroad or die in some cases.
So it was only in November 2020 that we finally started the inquiry – five years after it was meant to have started and two years after he was meant to have reported.
And as you said you were in very close proximity to one of these undercover cops, and I know you don’t want to go into all the details of that here, but can you describe in general terms what these cops were doing in groups like the one you were in?
So I mean, in terms of how undercover cops deployed themselves within groups. First I’d say that the majority, not the very first undercover officers, but particularly once the unit got started, the methodology of building their legends involved taking the identity of a dead child and using that identity as their own.
So it’s not just a matter of taking the name, but taking the details of the person that child would have become, and pretending to be that person. In some cases, that involved stalking the parents of a dead child to get a handle on, you know, where they were from, what sort of life they would have, what sort of person they would be – all to add to their legend.
Then once they were in the field, it seems that they wasted very little time setting themselves up in a relationship with one of their targets or an adjacent to one of their targets. So it could be a woman within an activist group. In some cases, it was a woman who was just friends with activists, someone that gave a good cover to their undercover deployment, so people wouldn’t question too much who they were.
And now, there’s 27 women who had long term sexual relationships with undercover officers who are Core Participants (affected people at the inquiries) in the inquiry. But like so many things in the inquiry, because there’s been so little disclosure, so little evidence given out to Non-State, Non-Police Core Participants, we don’t really know the true figure. There are almost certainly many, many more, but the women didn’t necessarily know that it was undercover officers that they had disastrous relationships with.
And something which has been underlined by the release of a heavily redacted version of the tradecraft manual – which they use – was that these undercover officers were working from the same playbook for seducing their targets and deceiving them into long term relationships.
You know, some of the women have compared love letters, and they’re the same letters you know, decades apart in some cases. Those relationships, in some cases resulted in children.
In the one case, the child of that number, Cypher TBS, is also a Core Participant and we share the same lawyer. He’s in his late 20s now, he spent most of his life thinking his father was an animal rights activist who had to go on the run, then finding out that he was a police officer.
His mother describes the experience as feeling like she was raped by the state, which is a feeling which all the women [involved in the case] have expressed…
In another case, a woman called Rosa, who was a Welsh activist, was deceived into a long term relationship by an undercover officer who she had two children with. There’s a great deal of detail to her case, it’s all contained in the women’s joint opening statement which I would strongly recommend reading.
It must have had very long traumatic effects on the women involved…?
Yeah, hugely. I think there’s been stages to the trauma as well. There’s the experience of the trauma of when the undercover officers were deployed because they weren’t having normal relationships with these women. These were deeply manipulative relationships that were focused on outcomes, often outcomes of their job.
So they were manipulating these women whilst they were deployed and they manipulated them hugely when they left, the extraction process, which was always pretty much the same for all the officers.
It would generally involve some sort of breakdown by the officer, you know, a huge amount of atonement, referencing something terrible that happened in their past that they had to get away from.
And, of course, when they had been deployed, so aside from the manipulation, which maybe women hadn’t been really aware of at the time, these men had been like, perfect partners in so many ways, because they had a back office backing them up and making sure they didn’t forget anything, you know.
So there was the trauma of the withdrawal then there was the process of finding out. I mean, we were really lucky in some ways in South Wales with Marco because we found out within a year of him disappearing.
But for lots of these women, we’re talking 20 years. Rick Gibson back in 1974 was an undercover officer, his target Madeleine only found out in the last couple of years. That’s like over 40 years of not knowing and some of these women travelled all over the globe, trying to find these men, still believing them to be their true love. So there’s the trauma of that, and of course there’s the trauma from finding out the reality of it. There’s the trauma of the police, using neither confirm nor deny response to any of the attempts to have civil litigation over the last decade. And now there’s the trauma of the secrecy of the undercover policing inquiry.
Just turning onto the topic of the infiltration of trade unionists, what have you learnt about that in the trial?
It needs to be put in the context, which although publicly known wasn’t really common knowledge, of the existence of the Special Branch Industrial Unit, which was set up in 1970.
And the symbiotic relationship that unit had with the Economic League, and then later the Consulting Association [viciously anti-union business groups], when it came to maintaining the blacklist of construction workers [a list of pro-union or subversive workers used by bosses to keep them off site].
So Peter Francis, the whistleblower, said that the information that he compiled on certain people, which he put into his reports in the Special Demonstration Squad, we now know that appeared in the blacklist files of the same people, these blacklist files compiled, supposedly by a private organisation.
So the Economic League and then later the Consulting Association, seemed to have a two way communication with these units, not the individual undercover officers, obviously, but senior officers within that unit.
But there’s no question from the very beginning that trade unions were considered a target.
We’ve listened to the oral evidence of former undercover officers. And they’ve been very clear that it didn’t matter, you know, what organisations actually thought about criminality or violence or anything like that. Any organisation that was involved in public demonstrations of any sort, was a target.
So what was the state’s aim when it came to infiltrating these groups?
So essentially they saw their role as twofold. One was gathering evidence, to give a picture, to compile reports, to give an overview, particularly with a view to predicting public order situations.
And secondly there was a wider remit, which is the whole remit of the raison d’etre of the Special Branch, and that’s countering subversion. We had an undercover officer say that he considered subversion, revolutionary politics, as wanting to change people’s opinions to their point of view. It’s an incredibly low bar of what got you infiltrated.
So have the cops ever tried to claim that there was some justifiable reason that these deployments happened?
One undercover officer referred to themselves as ‘the guardians of civilization.’ I would say that’s fucking laughable. You only have to follow what other former undercover officers who were deployed dealing with actual criminality are saying to see that.
There’s a couple of former undercover cops that have got a public profile after retiring from the force who have been enormously critical of these units, pointing out that they were operating completely separately from the infrastructure that governed normal undercover units.
Because of course, these undercover officers were never gathering evidence to prosecute at trial. They came in and they went out without any arrests being made, any cases being prosecuted. They were long term deployments. There’s no real question of them doing anything like trying to protect anybody. They were there to gather intelligence and to disrupt subversion.
So I mean, this is just basically they’re just being used by the state in order to…
…In order to have a handle on public order. I mean, the justification for the formation of the unit in the first place was the 1968 march on Grosvenor Square, an anti-Vietnam War protest where the police lost control.
And there was what’s been described as a pitched battle over two hours outside the US Embassy, where the crowd nearly got themselves inside the US Embassy. We’ve had a great deal of detail about that particular afternoon at the inquiry. But it’s pretty clear that the police were incredibly embarrassed about their inability to control the crowd that day. And the unit was set up by Conrad Dixon, the senior officer who set up the Special
Demonstration Squad, who supposedly at a meeting with the Home Secretary and other senior members of police said “give me twenty men, half a million pounds and a free hand ‘ and this will never happen again.”
But what they did to women in these groups goes way beyond infiltration, going along to meetings and so on, to counter subversion?
It was part of their deployment. When these revelations first came out, after they got through the point of denying everything, the police started referring to rogue officers in a rogue unit, but essentially the idea that, you know, ‘men will fall in love in these situations,’ has been completely discredited.
And it was purely to give themselves a deeper, stronger credibility. We think one of the pioneers of this method was somebody who had another child when he was undercover, Bob Lambert. He wrote the tradecraft manual and ended up running the unit later on in life.
He was deployed in the early 80s. And simply the ability to be in the inner circle with a fairly decent speed was really only ever possible through sexual relationships.
Early on the Special Demonstration Squad called themselves the Hairies because they all grew their beards and didn’t cut their hair and dressed in a fairly scruffy manner. It seems like early on if they are to be believed, remember these people are professional liars, there was no question of entering into relationships early on. Though we’re starting to hear from undercover officers about how they went for drinks with women or went for meals.
And do you see these officers as a kind of physical manifestation of the state?
Yeah, that’s a really, really good way of putting it, I think that’s entirely what they were. They were just, you know, the very edge of how the state wishes to interact with all of us, which is, you know, incredibly duplicitous, and without morals.
What do you think this says about the kind of democracy we have in this….
We don’t have democracy in this country. Democracy is more than just the ability to vote in elections every four years. Democracy, you know, requires the ability of trade unions to operate. It requires the ability for political movements to emerge. None of these things have been possible in the UK, certainly not since 1968. I think there’s an alternative history of Britain that we’ve really all been shielded from, by the secrecy of these units.
The social forces that would have reshaped Britain… At the moment the inquiry is looking at 1968 to 1972. There’s some huge and significant moments during that period, which I think social movements would have had an impact on British society were it not for the undercover police dismantling them in many cases. But you know, fast forward to 1984. And, you know, the sheer onslaught of the British state against the miners. They didn’t just destroy the lives of the people they were targeting during that period, but they kind of undermined the whole working class.
So you think it’s that far reaching that it’s actually changed the course of history?
Oh, absolutely. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s changed the course of history. A lot of the coverage of this has gotten so ridiculous. “They were infiltrating Eat Out Vegan Wales and the Croydon Libertarians and, you know, this walking group and this sailing group and this climbing group. How ridiculous! What a waste of money, what a waste of money!” And certainly a lot of the liberal commentary on it keeps coming back to this waste of money as if that’s the most important thing. But the reality of it is that it wasn’t just social movements, it was also politicians, it was trade unions, it was any aspect of British society that the establishment considered in some way subversive, which anybody who knows the British establishment knows that’s a pretty wide definition.
I mean, do you think it has opened more people’s eyes to the actual nature of the state?
I hope so. I think what we’ve mostly got is those people who already have their eyes open to the true nature of the state, and they’re being given some solid evidence of all the things they’ve always thought. I mean, recently, friends of mine have been sharing old political cartoons from the 70s about secret police and stuff. And it’s scary how close to the mark they were.
And finally, do you think this level of surveillance is still happening today?
I think the first thing I’d say is I really don’t know. If we’ve learned anything from this process about undercover policing, it’s that there are provable facts, and there is speculation, and they’re different things.
But that being said, I think there’s two areas really. One, we live in an era of neo-liberal policing. We know that the police use private contractors for a great deal of work. I’m sure that will have only increased over the last decade or so.
Also, you know, we live in an age of electronic surveillance. A lot of people think of covert surveillance done electronically, they think of algorithms and stuff, but from what we can gather the police employ an incredibly large number of officers to do that kind of surveillance work. So we’re talking about, you know, individual officers kind of following things through computers, CCTV cameras and whatever else.
So I think… we might not have SpyCops in the sense that we knew them, through the Special Demonstration Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, [but] there are still undercover officers, there’s still surveillance officers trailing activists, but they might be doing it in a different way.
I think it’s inevitable the police are using all sorts of means in which to suppress dissent, I don’t think anything has changed about their motivations, they still see political protests as a form of criminality in their eyes, and they’ll be deploying all kinds of repression that they can.
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