The Honeytrap of the Worker Bees

This week, the Guardian broke the news that eight women are planning to sue the Met over relationships that they had with undercover police officers.  Over a course of 23 years from 1987 to 2010, men sent by the police to infiltrate protest groups have initiated sexual relationships with female activists, lying and deceiving them to gain their trust and through that – their information.

The use of sex as a means of gathering intelligence is nothing new.  The “honeytrap” is a staple of spy fiction, developed from some high profile scandals of predominantly women seducing men in order to obtain information   Previous scandals however have generally involved the targets being either government ministers or officials of a rival state, and usually involving either blackmail or a short encounter to gather identified information for a specific purpose.   While not condoning sexual or emotional abuse under any circumstances, there are four critical differences about this scandal which makes it particularly insidious.

1. It involves the police service rather than the security services

The stated purpose and values of the security service and the police differ considerably.  The purpose of MI5 is

[The] purpose [of MI5] is to protect national security. We do this by identifying and disrupting threats, advising on protection, analysing information and reporting to government. Operational success drives all of our work.

While this is qualified by a range of statements describing how that success is best achieved, which would appear to rule out the kind of abuse seen in this case, it has a clear preemptive orientation and is considerably stronger than the Met statement of purpose.

The purpose of the Metropolitan Police Service is to uphold the law fairly and firmly;to prevent crime; to pursue and bring to justice those who break the law; to keep The Queen’s Peace to protect, help and reassure people in London; and to be seen to do all this with integrity, common sense and sound judgement.

Despite the denials coming from the Met, it is inconceivable that they were unaware of a number of male plants having sexual and emotional relationships while undercover.  The only conclusion to be drawn is that not only was it tolerated, but that it was encouraged.  While at a stretch the stated purpose of MI5 may condone such behaviour, there is nothing in the stated purpose of the Metropolitan Police which would suggest that this was appropriate.

It can only be concluded that rather than the individual officers operating outwith their remit, the Metropolitan Police itself had extended its remit of crime prevention to justify the sexual and emotional abuse of private citizens.

2.  The targets were private citizens not state professionals

In general, most targets of sexual espionage have been middle-high ranking state officials.  The deceit practiced on these individuals is intended not to obtain access to their views or private information but information on and of the state for which employs them.   While private citizens have been sexually abused for espionage purposes, witness Christine Keeler, they have not been the target of the espionage, rather a conduit to obtain third party information.

Those employed by Governments, particularly those with access to highly classified or confidential information are advised carefully in the protection of state information.  Signing the Official Secrets Act and with specific training in how such information should be handled and protected.  It would be clear from this guidance that sharing such information with a lover would be inappropriate and while of course rules are made to be broken, ultimately the information they should divulge is that of their employer rather than their own.

In this case, by contrast, these were all activists operating within an activist community which welcomed and accepted these officers as one of their own.  While most direct action groups will advise their members on security, even to the point of advising activists not to share information with their lovers, in practice most activism preparation takes place within private or semi-private spaces and actions are developed on the basis of affinity – that is involving those who are known and trusted within a particular circle.   With that in mind, especially given the long-term nature of some of these relationships, the officers would have been able to obtain detailed information about the views, plans and activities of activist through the romantic and sexual relationship they had developed.

3. The intelligence gathering remit was undefined, both in purpose and timescale

In classical espionage there is a defined target for which intelligence is to be gathered.  The remit of the intelligence gathering is defined with a specific focus and desired intel to be gathered.  In this type of deep undercover operation remits are more fuzzy, with a broad sweep of useful information collected for as yet to be defined purposes.

While deep undercover operations are not new, introducing relationships into that operation takes it to a new level.  There are intimacies which tend only to be shared with a partner, particularly one with which you perceive that you have a long term future.  The deception here was extensive, that any and all personal information gathered was at risk of being passed on to the police including intimate information which was shared on a selective basis on the basis of mutual trust.  That trust was obtained and maintained on deception, making the women vulnerable to their personal and intimate information being used against them by the state.

4.  The deception was extensive and long lasting

The classic “honeytrap” usually involved the seduction of a male by a female agent.  The most famous case is Mata Hari, however female agents were used throughout the Cold War to extract information and has become a staple of spy fiction.  Usually through a one-off seduction or a short affair, information would be extracted on the understanding that this was an affair rather than a relationship.  In many of these cases however, the relationship was longstanding and based on an assumption of commitment.

In one case an undercover policeman married an activist and had two children with her, suddenly disappearing without explanation, then attempting to involve her in the deception once his secret had been rumbled.  The position of the children within this relationship should also be considered, with the deception not only extending to his wife, but also to children who were conceived as part of a deceptive relationship.

This case has raised a debate within the activist community about whether this was rape, and a focus in the tabloid on the sexual assault aspect of the deception.  This is a massive issue – this scale of subterfuge cannot possibly constitute informed consent for sexual activity, however as the Bristoling Badger blog points out, this is larger than just the sexual aspect.  These men infiltrated not only the women’s beds, but their lives, their homes, their families and their thoughts.

What happened to these women is so rare that we don’t actually have a familiar definition or name for what crime it is

At least we hope it is rare.  Since the initial unmasking of Mark Kennedy, several others have been uncovered and there is no telling of the current or past extent of this behaviour.  The Met assures us that this behaviour is outwith the guidelines that undercover officers operate within, yet there is no way that relationships lasting years could have been missed by their handlers.  These are extreme manifestations of the emotional manipulation and deceit practiced by deep undercover officers, who embed themselves within activist communities building trust, friendships and alliances then shit on them.

The women in this case have conducted themselves with remarkable dignity and bravery.  Abused by the state and the officers it sent in to spy on them, they are seeking to expose its workings to ensure that other people do not suffer the same.  Given the indignity of discovering that the man that you have trusted for years was in fact using you for information in the course of paid state employment, it is courageous for these women to stand up to that same state and demand accountability under law for its actions, in the interests of stopping such abuse in future.

There is speculation that an out of court settlement may be offered as a means of avoiding a public trial at the risk of exposing the extent and details of such espionage.  As with many women caught up in male sexual misbehaviour, the law and press have a field day while the behaviour of the men, and in this case the state are protected.  Care must be taken that these women do not suffer at the hands of the legal system, the press or the state any more than they already have done.

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