Introducing the Special Branch Files Project

Anyone dissenting from the status quo may be branded a subversive or domestic extremist. Is this a waste of police time as well as an infringement of civil liberties?

Wednesday, 13 January 2016 published by openDemocracy

Today marks the launch of the Special Branch Files Project, a website publishing declassified files focused on the secret police monitoring of political activists and campaigners in the UK. It includes documents about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Anti-Apartheid Movement and the psychological welfare of undercover police officers who spied upon such groups.

Collectively the files convey the scale of political surveillance and the eye-watering level of detail recorded. They are also a testament to the discoveries that have been made by journalists using the Freedom of Information Act, and their publication responds to official attempts to retreat on such openness.

In the first years following the introduction of the FOI Act in 2005, the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office were relatively open to releasing Special Branch documents and disclosing files about the monitoring of political movements and individuals. Unfortunately such transparency was short-lived and they began routinely refusing similar requests, relying upon an exemption for information relating to security bodies. The Met argued that because Special Branches work closely with the security services and routinely share information with them, Special Branch material is likely to ‘relate to’ a security body and therefore needn’t be disclosed.

Being an absolute exemption it can be applied in all circumstances, no matter how irrational. The Met now even refuse to release files that they released in the past, despite the fact that their own disclosure log proclaims that ‘when information is released under the FOI Act, it is disclosed to the world.’ I spent over a year fighting the Met trying to obtain Special Branch documents about the Wapping print dispute which they had already released to the journalist Solomon Hughes in 2006. The Met refused me them. The Met’s prior openness is now officially dismissed as anomalous, a series of exceptions or mistakes that were made when the FOI Act was in its infancy and organisations were just getting to grips with it. As a result, documents which weren’t considered secret in 2006 are apparently secret now.

While the authorities want to shut the door on this material, they can’t turn back the clock. The suggestion was mooted to make the newly-withheld files public so that everyone could see them. The idea was inspiring: publish thousands of pages of Special Branch documents that were once released to the press but which would not necessarily be released today. Journalists who had received such documents in the past agreed to share them and the Special Branch Files Project was born.

Our cache of documents contain Special Branch threat assessments, reports, memos, notes, telephone messages and wider correspondence with government. They show how Special Branch painstakingly recorded details of demonstrations, noting the banners held, slogans chanted, groups spotted and numbers attending. Reports relay the content of political speeches and assess their reception. Names of individuals and groups are checked against Special Branch Registry files. Some files contain references to information from ‘secret and reliable’ sources, referring to either an informant or an undercover police officer.

Documents from 1968 shed light on the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a secret unit within Special Branch monitoring political ‘subversives’. In March 1968 a demonstration against the Vietnam War at Grosvenor Square descended into violent clashes between police and protestors. The authorities were rattled by the breakdown of public order and the failure of intelligence to foresee the trouble. Another demonstration was planned for October that year and the authorities were extremely anxious to avoid any repeat of the disorder. A recent history of Special Branch said that a group of officers were ordered to ‘find out what these people are planning for October 27’. Detective Chief Inspector Conrad Dixon reportedly promised to deliver if given ‘Twenty men, half a million pounds and a free hand’. Special Branch reports reveal Dixon’s analysis of ‘extreme left-wing elements’ and communicate the climate of tension and panic.

Reports cover material ranging from the revolutionary to the utterly benign, with no detail apparently too trivial to be recorded. For example, a telephone message from a ‘home beat officer in Barnet’ in 1982 shows that he thought it worth reporting that he had ‘discovered a shed’ which contained nothing more dangerous than ‘a large number of political posters with a left-wing bias.’ Furthermore, Special Branch deemed this worthy of further enquiry and later reported that the posters belonged to the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

An assessment from F4 division, the counter-terrorism section of the Home Office, discusses banning a CND demonstration due to coincide with the 1984 Economic Summit and President Reagan’s visit. Evidently Thatcher found the demonstration politically inconvenient as it would distract attention from the Summit but she was told that there were no legal grounds to prevent it, namely because the CND were being fully cooperative, there was no real threat of public disorder and the Environment Secretary had already given permission for the rally.

Other documents chronicle the development of welfare policies for undercover police officers from 2000 to 2005 and contain insights into the psychological toll of infiltrating activist groups. One alludes to the fact that ‘ill-health problems’ affecting former SDS officers may suggest something ‘pyrrhic’ about the overall successes of the SDS operation. In another meeting, Occupational Health identify ‘loss’ as ‘potentially the biggest burden with which former SDS officers had to deal when finishing their tours of duty’. A minute from the National Public Order Intelligence Unit says they were reviewing their arrangement of sharing counselling services with the Met’s covert operations unit SO10 due to ‘concerns that the unique experiences in the disorder field are different to those experienced in the crime field’. The most obvious difference being that ‘a significant proportion of those persons interacting with the undercover officer are of little or no operational interest and are not criminal. The potential for “Stockholm Syndrome” is therefore much greater.’

This acknowledgement that Stockholm Syndrome is more common in officers working amongst political activists than those befriending violent criminals or terrorists is interesting. Is it Stockholm Syndrome or is it that some officers consciously changed their minds about certain issues when vividly exposed to different perspectives and experiences? Former SDS officer turned whistleblower Peter Francis is adamant that he didn’t develop Stockholm Syndrome and says that infiltrating black justice campaigns provoked his rational sympathy.

All of the documents held by the Special Branch Files Project only represent those which the authorities selected for release, a fraction of the total files held on all of the featured issues. Reading through hundreds of pages describing the innocuous behaviour of citizens exercising their democratic rights to protest raises questions of proportionality. Anyone dissenting from the status quo may be branded a subversive or domestic extremist. Is this a waste of police time as well as an infringement of civil liberties? Such questions will hopefully find some answers from the forthcoming Undercover Policing Inquiry which is bound to unearth far more documents revealing the conduct of our secret police.