Appalling and unnecessary: UK spycops’ needless theft of dead children’s identities under scrutiny
In July 2013, it was confirmed that British undercover police officers had, for years, adopted the names of dead children in order to secure fake passports, driving licenses and bank accounts, and shore up their cover personae.
At least 80 were stolen in this manner by elite political policing units Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) and National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU).
However, it wasn’t just names its operatives snatched – officers also appropriated the child in question’s entire identity, visiting the area where they were born, learning and memorising the names of their parents and siblings and private details about them, working characteristics of a child’s life into their own cover stories.
In the process, on top of stealing identities without knowledge or consent, undercover officers ended up illicitly collecting sensitive private information on grieving family members. Former undercover officer Peter Francis, the only spycop to date to go public, has claimed he exploited the actual occupation of a deceased child’s parent to claim his father was violent, and to explain their estrangement.
‘Callous disregard for appalling bereavements’
The tactic is one of many controversies surrounding the British state’s use of clandestine operatives currently under investigation by the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI).
At a November 9 inquiry hearing, Heather Williams QC read out a shocking statement, not only on behalf of the family members of five individuals whose identities were stolen by undercover officers, but also of two people who have a “close and personal interest” in this aspect of the UCPI probe. The two suspect, but have no way of even knowing for certain, that their deceased children were exploited by the SDS and/or NPOIU in this manner.
“Their situation shows the abhorrent practice of relying upon the identities of dead children has impacted not only those who know their children’s identities were used, but also those who have suffered the traumatic bereavement of a young family member and been left in limbo wondering whether or not their loved one’s identity was taken in this way … This flagrant disregard for human dignity permeated every level of the SDS and was later permitted to pollute the working practices of the NPOIU too,” Williams said.
The QC went on to reveal many shocking things about the policy – that it was completely unnecessary from an operational perspective, and that it was instead “borne of a callous disregard” for the “appalling bereavements” suffered by the families involved, was perhaps the most shocking disclosure of all.
The SDS was founded in 1968, and British intelligence had been stealing dead children’s identities for some time by that point. The earliest known example of the tactic was Operation Mincemeat, a daring and elaborate deception to misdirect Nazi forces prior to the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily – it was immortalised in the 1953 book ‘The Man Who Never Was’, which was subsequently adapted into a film three years later.
However, the police unit’s first known reliance on the ploy is thought to have occurred between 1976 and 1981, and a February 1973 memo written by an SDS supervisory officer indicates its officers had hitherto been using entirely fictitious names, and had faced no problems in purchasing vehicles “registered, taxed and insured” in their cover identities.
“One of the main advantages of a field officer assuming a fictitious name, using a cover address and employment and radically altering his appearance is that – unlike an informant – he can resume his proper identity and appearance at any time and immediately be ‘lost’ to the extremists … The result has been that since the formation of the Squad no officer has been irretrievably exposed or identified,” the memo stated.
In other words, SDS officers were able to operate undercover without detection for at least eight years – perhaps as many as 13 – under wholly fabricated guises, obtaining official identification documents in their false names along the way, before the identity theft practice was adopted.Also on rt.com ‘I was young and naive’: Deceived into sexual relationship by UK ‘spycop’ when she was just 19, ex-activist tells of her struggle
In accordance with ‘regulations’
The question of why police spies began engaging in the needless tactic is an obvious and open one, as is why SDS higher-ups seemed so determinedly wedded to the practice. Peter Francis has said there was “no choice” but to use a dead child’s identity, and if an officer refused, they would be forced to leave the unit.
It’s also a mystery why it endured for so long. The last known example of a dead child’s identity being stolen was by an NPOIU officer known by the cipher ‘EN321’ – UCPI chair John Mitting has so far refused to release his real name – who infiltrated environmental, anarchist, and animal rights groups in Essex, London and Nottingham between 1999 and 2003.
He appropriated the name of Rod Richardson, a child who died in January 1973 when he was just two days old. His mother Barbara Shaw, a UCPI core participant, suffered intense depression in the aftermath and was not well enough to attend her son’s funeral.
She was the first person to learn her child’s identity had been maliciously exploited in this manner, in January 2013. She subsequently filed a complaint to the then-Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which was repeatedly not upheld, on the basis that the use of Rod’s identity was in accordance with NPOIU doctrine, practice, and “regulations.”
Barbara has appealed the decisions on every occasion, and in August 2018 was told by IPCC successor the Independent Office for Police Conduct it would reserve judgment until the Crown Prosecution Service decided whether ‘EN321’ had broken any law when he stole her son’s identity. Seven-and-a-half years after her initial grievance was lodged, she still awaits an outcome.Also on rt.com ‘Real world’ wives of UK ‘spycops’ seek justice for lives shattered by the undercover police operation
‘Assuming squatter’s rights’
It’s particularly perplexing that the practice continued into the 2000s, given internal SDS documents indicate that senior officers in the unit wanted to end the practice outright many years earlier, albeit not due to moral considerations.
The SDS tradecraft manual, which outlines assorted ‘best practice’ tips and guidance for officers on deployment, was authored February 1995 by spycop Andy Coles – as ‘Andy Davey’, he infiltrated animal rights and anti-war campaign groups in London between 1991 and 1995. During this period, he deceived ‘Jessica’ (a pseudonym), then just 19, into a sexual relationship.
The document – which includes advice on how to approach “romantic entanglements” – is rife with virulent contempt not only for surveillance targets, who are derogatorily dubbed “wearies”, but anyone adversely affected by undercover officers’ activities, in particular the parents of dead children.
In the section covering legend-building, Coles notes that “by tradition,” an “aspiring” SDS officer’s “first major task” was to “spend hours and hours” poring over public death registers in search of a name they could call their own.
Shockingly, he glibly characterises the undertaking as “finding a suitable ex-person, usually a deceased child,” whose death was “natural or otherwise unspectacular.” Identifying whether the child has living relatives is referred to as establishing their “respiratory status,” the act of adopting the child’s persona “[assuming] squatter’s rights over the unfortunate’s identity.”
However, Coles states that due to one officer being confronted with his “own” death certificate, and the computerisation of birth and death records, higher-ups now felt they should “change operating procedures without delay.” After all, if a “hostile enquiry” by surveillance targets exposed an officer’s name as belonging to a dead person, it would “present several threats, both to the officer concerned, and the SDS operation as a whole.”
Nonetheless, detailed instructions for how to steal a dead child’s identity are included in the manual, with Coles noting, that despite the fact it was possible to secure identification documents without the birth certificate of a real person, the practice “has its merits.” He also suggests an officer could cover their tracks more effectively by “using the birth details of an adopted person who died as a child and who assumed the adoptive identity prior to death.”
Inexplicably and deplorably, despite well understanding the hazards and superiors’ misgivings, Coles would go on to school recruits to the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), a separate police undercover unit tasked with infiltrating environmental activist groups, in this dubious and discredited espionage art, among many others.Also on rt.com Revealing the real names of undercover spycops who ruined lives is the only way they can be held to account
Grief brought back with full force
At the UCPI hearing, Williams made clear core participants’ memories had been “forever tarnished” and “mixed up in the knowledge of the undercovers’ conduct,” which included entering into sexual relationships based on fundamental deceit, the commission of criminal offences, and the disruption of legitimate activist organisations.
“The intensity of their original grief has been brought back with full force. They have suffered intense feelings of disgust, anger and paranoia and a complete loss of confidence in policing. They are incredulous the identities of their loved ones have been stolen without any operational justification. Knowledge that the methodology included reconnoitering family addresses has also caused significant distress and they remain intensely concerned by the intrusion upon their own lives and its potential extent,” she said.
The extent of the intrusion which ultimately led undercover officer ‘HN78’ to appropriate the identity of Anthony Lewis, who died July 31, 1968 aged seven, may have been sizeable. Anthony died of sickle cell anaemia, an illness that occurs predominantly in individuals of African and/or Caribbean descent.
‘HN78’ is the only black undercover officer identified by the UCPI to date. Starting in 1991, he spent four years infiltrating left-wing and anti-racist groups, in the process spying on the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence, murdered in a racist attack in 1993.
A review of police spying on Stephen’s family concluded HN78 “provided quite a lot of reporting about the Lawrence campaign,” including sensitive intelligence related to Stephen's parents. He was just one of several officers who spied on individuals involved in the battle.
Anthony’s parents want to know how the officer identified their son – whether he looked specifically for deaths attributable to sickle cell illness or relied on another method to identify black children, whether he was instructed and trained to do so or acted of his own initiative, and whether this approach was employed by any other SDS or NPOIU officer of colour.
The revelation that Anthony’s identity had been stolen triggered extremely painful memories for all his family members – his sister Joan likewise died of sickle cell anaemia, at the age of 34. Both his parents are carriers of the disease and are particularly mortified by the prospect the cause of death of two of their children may have been a factor in HN78 deciding to use Anthony’s identity.
The family are appalled by what they’ve learned of HN78’s deployment to date, which includes deceiving two women into romantic relationships. Both his victims have been invited to say whether they would like to know his real name. Given the profound intrusion upon their family lives and grief, Anthony’s family believe they should be afforded the same courtesy.
However, they, along with other core participants affected by the practice, have been informed they will only be able to participate in evidential phases of the UCPI when the specific officers that used their children’s identities give evidence. They believe this to be unsatisfactory in the extreme, particularly given they won’t be granted access to witness statements made by other officers detailing the way in which they created their “legends.”
“Core participants seek a detailed public accounting for this abhorrent practice, including a formal record of how it was permitted to develop and continue, the full extent of the intrusion they suffered and the culture that surrounded it, together with a detailed historical record of the wrong that has been done to them and its impact. They seek not only the learning of meaningful lessons but the implementation of tangible protections against future abuse, so this can never again be permitted to become established policing practice,” Williams concluded.
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