Spies Like Us

I’ve never had much interaction with the police in any respect, but something about the story of the renegade undercover officer rang a bell with me. To refresh your memory, PC Mark Kennedy lived for years as “Mark Stone”, a member of an environmental protest group, helping to organise demos and campaigns. When his cover was blown last Spring, he left the police and had a number of unrelated adventures, but was in the news most recently offering to help the defence in a criminal case against six activists, charged after a protest organised, in part, by “Mark Stone”. Charges have been withdrawn.

Mark StoneWhen his true identity became known to his associates, he admitted to them that there had been at least one other long-term undercover officer in their organisation, and identified her. There is not yet any clear indication whether two was the limit. Some journalists are suggesting not.

The general reaction from my end of the political spectrum has been outrage that the police should be monitoring rebellious but largely harmless groups in this kind of detail. It certainly has the whiff of “secret police” about it.

But I recognise what’s going on because of my experience in large bureaucracies. It’s not evil, as in the application of deliberate malice. It’s evil because it’s an example of corporate stupidity. Kennedy claimed that it cost £250,000 a year to keep him in his role, a figure I can easily believe, given that it probably costs about half that to keep any PC in post. With Kennedy, one or more colleagues, their handlers and support, we have the makings of a nice “project”. With a budget, and a heirarchy of management.

Now, in the theoretical world, Kennedy could have spent a week undercover, and reported back “No, no serious loonies. Not worth pursuing.” and his bosses would have gladly assigned him to something else. In the real world, that’s not what happened, and it didn’t happen because of failures of management. Kennedy was clearly having the time of his life, and may or may not have been frank about the harmlessness of the organisation he’d infiltrated, but spotting that and dealing with it would have been the job of his supervisor. It’s also a sad fact of power structures that information can not flow accurately in a heirarchy anyway.

What I sense is the existence of a “project” which as projects do, gained a life of its own. The fact that the “product” — intelligence on earnest but not dangerous people — was expensive and useless was not an issue. The project becomes its own raison d’etre, instead of there being a focus on purpose or results. I’m sure we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg in this small operation going spectacularly awry, but when something’s this badly broken, I have no idea how to fix it.

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