MI5 worked with undercover police to infiltrate Vietnam protests | UK news

The security service MI5 worked closely with undercover police officers to infiltrate the campaign against the Vietnam war, documents released to a public inquiry have disclosed.

Senior Scotland Yard officers told MI5 that they had deployed what they called “bearded and unwashed” male officers and “scruffy” female officers to spy on the campaign in the late 1960s.

The Home Office–approved surveillance was initiated at a time when the political establishment feared leftwing protest groups were challenging the status quo.

The collaboration marked the start of a secret police operation that escalated over more than 40 years, involving at least 139 undercover officers spying on more than 1,000 political groups.

The top-secret collaboration between M15 and Scotland Yard was disclosed on the opening day of public evidence sessions that are being held by a judge-led public inquiry into the undercover policing scandal.

In an opening statement delivered via a live video stream on Monday, David Barr, the inquiry’s QC, described how the inquiry had been commissioned in 2014 by the then home secretary, Theresa May, as a result of “profound and wide-ranging concerns” about the activities of undercover officers.

Barr detailed how the Met initially set up a unit of undercover officers following disorder at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in March 1968.

He said that MI5 and the Met’s special branch held top-secret meetings to arrange a two-way flow of information. A member of the undercover unit was sent to work at MI5’s offices to ease the supply of information.

At a meeting in August 1968, Special Branch and MI5 promised to help each other gather information on student protesters. According to an MI5 note of the meeting, Scotland Yard had “set up a special squad – bearded and unwashed males and scruffy females – who are participating in demonstrations where they make contact with students and then hope to turn them and use them as short-term informers. They are meeting with some success.”

Police deployed at least six undercover officers – including two pretending to be a couple – to spy on the anti-Vietnam war protesters.

Barr said Scotland Yard had set up the unit originally to gather advanced information about a specific demonstration, a protest against the Vietnam war in October 1968.

But he said the unit, the Special Demonstration Squad, was “transformed to one which continually gathered intelligence on the activities and intentions of numerous groups” until 2008.

Barr said that mainly leftwing groups were infiltrated “as well as groups campaigning for social, environmental or other change” such as anti-nuclear causes. He also said trade unionists and groups opposing racism were spied on. Far-right groups were also infiltrated.

M15 has been criticised for running large-scale espionage operations against peaceful campaigners and leftwing groups that were exercising their democratic rights to seek to change British society. The SDS was part of the Met’s Special Branch which gathered information for MI5.

Barr said: “It has emerged that for decades undercover police officers infiltrated a significant number of political and other activist groups, in deployments which typically lasted for years.”

“The information reported by these undercover police officers was extensive. It covered the activities of the groups in question, and their members. It also extended to the groups and individuals with whom they came into contact, including elected representatives.

“Reporting covered not only the political or campaigning activities of those concerned but other aspects of their personal lives.”

Barr sketched out how the inquiry – led by retired judge Sir John Mitting – has been tasked with examining a series of controversies. At least 20 undercover officers had sexual relationships using their fake identities between the mid-1970s and 2010.

“Several formed long-term sexual relationships; in some cases the officer did eventually reveal their cover identity, in other cases they did not do so,” Barr said. “At least one fathered a child with a woman who did not know that her partner was an undercover police officer. In many cases, deception has had devastating consequences.”

The undercover officers also spied on black justice groups, including those run by grieving families whose relatives were killed by police or died in custody.

The inquiry was set up after the Guardian revealed that the undercover police had spied on the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.

Barr told the inquiry the undercover officers gathered “personal details” about Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville, while they campaigned to compel the police to properly investigate the racist murder of their son.


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