Last week a scandal broke in the UK with a former Police Officer Peter Francis announcing, via the Guardian, that he believed his investigate work on activists in the 1980’s-1990’s was sent to a blacklisting firm. The news isn’t particularly news in the activist world, but did blow the whistle and uncover some of the networks involved in attempting to starve out Union organizers, anti-racist activists and political dissidents in the UK during that time.
The news out of the UK is also adding to the growing evidence that the barrier between the State and the Corporate world is shrinking (or being more rapidly exposed). More recently in Canada, many folks are already aware of the large sums of money donated to the Hamilton Regional Police by Enbridge, a large international pipeline corporation interested in the development of Tar Sands oil. In the US, many are becoming aware of the intelligence being shared between local authorities and pipeline giants – who call civil disobedience “terrorism” and beg for pain compliance holds to be used. Large and more developed structures like ALEC provide the lobbying level for this same purpose – defining what is and is not terrorism based upon industry Intel and interests.
What is less developed is an understanding of how these networks function. Who finds and communicates this information and who are they communicating it to?
The age of austerity will not spare Police – especially when private enterprise will pay for the same function themselves. The information found by many of these corporations comes from front line private investigators – many “hired guns” who spent decades in uniform studying and policing activists and organizers. In the case of Peter Francis, ex-UK cop blowing the whistle on 1980’s-90’s blacklist Intel – his job would be redundant within the new corporate super structure as simply privatizing that industry and hiring him privately would remove nearly all risk or illegality from the situation. This is partly why blacklist companies – at least overt ones like Consulting Association which closed down in 2009 – no longer have a need on the market, a private investigator can provide the same function without any transparency or accountability.
The Privatization of intelligence gathering allows corporations more legal leeway with less risk, it allows politicians to trim budgets and remove scandal from within ranks, and it allows experienced intelligence gatherers more tools and larger rewards. The only real losers in this scenario are the people being tracked and monitored.
In this light the Peter Francis story reads like a controlled burn. A decades old scandal which exposes an industry which no longer operates on the terms exposed. Knowing how this process happened in the 80’s won’t prepare activists or organizers for how it happens currently – which again makes them the losers.
The terror unleashed by privatizing these industries is obvious – unleashing the profit motive on intelligence gathers will create intelligence that corporations and the State want. This has been playing out globally as real threats to human safety are missed while communities of non violent resistance are heavily targeted. There is no check within such a system to stop the flow of creating narratives based upon what corporations and the State want to hear.
There is also a developing cottage industry for pundits on the right who develop conspiracy theories in hopes of gaining the attention and admiration of corporations interested in the activist world. The information they create is bad – but it is tailored towards what they think buyers want to hear. This muddies public dialogue, takes focus from substantive issues/harm and creates another arm that activists and organizers have to try and manage.
FOIA requests may soon be outpaced by defamation suits and counter-intelligence training and tactics within the activist world in this kind of environment. Especially in countries with already limited State intelligence resources like Canada. We need to create a better understanding in activist circles that if and when those large cases do come down – they are most likely going to include “grey information” – information gathered and originating from non/state, non-police sources. This enemy will be harder to identify and fight against, but even a basic awareness that not everything will look like police/state infiltration or repression, will go a long way in changing the culture.
One personal and recent example I ran into was at the pick up for the remaining items of the Westover Blockade. The Blockade was a week long blockade of a pipeline terminal in Westover, On called #Swampline9. Blockaders moved in as Enbridge was doing critical construction work preparing for a Line reversal, to ship tar sands oil, and held the site before being removed en masse by local police. Throughout the blockade it was clear Enbridge was doing their own personal intelligence gathering and their communication with local Police was constant. The most interesting element though was after the blockade was broken up Enbridge took all of the remaining belongings on site – blockaders were not forewarned or given time to get off site (as previously negotiated) – and held them off site in a storage locker for pick up. As folks arrived to pick up goods they were greeted by two friendly men – both retired police officers, now private investigators, who had been hired by Enbridge. All claiming items had to show identification and endure conversation with these two men who “were just doing their jobs.” What did they specialize in when they were on the force? Both men were up front about their years spent gathering information and following demonstrators – bragging about covering the Queen’s Park Riot, their profiles of organizers with OCAP and their consultant work during the G20 in Toronto. The process was so overt it was clear that Enbridge wanted people to know this was happening – encouraging their hired investigators to show their hand in order to strike an element of fear.
Within this framework, activist communities will have to outpace the development of the privatization of intelligence and be mindful of how intelligence now is as much about selling narratives (commodities) as it is repression. The Peter Francis scandal should give us all pause to reflect, but keeps us wholly unprepared for some of the new challenges we face.