Crossing the line: the activist who turned police informer
The police have used an informer to spy on New Zealand protest groups for nearly 10 years – providing them with intimate details about planned protests and even the private lives of group members. It’s a campaign the critics call undemocratic and an abuse of power. Special report by Nicky Hager.
IN MARCH this year Greenpeace made a dramatic attempt to stop a coal ship leaving Lyttelton harbour. Greenpeace’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, tried to block the path of the Hellenic Sea, while three activists scaled the coal carrier and bolted themselves to it. A large number of police intervened and one policewoman leapt from a speedboat on to a Greenpeace dinghy. Six people were arrested.
Greenpeace protester Rob Gilchrist filmed the whole drama from his Land Rover on shore.
Gilchrist was not just working for Greenpeace, though. He was also working for the police. He had told police beforehand about the planned protest. He had been both spy and demonstrator at many protests by Greenpeace and other activist groups for nearly 10 years.
During the past decade the police spent tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of dollars getting Gilchrist to spy on environmental groups, anti-Iraq War groups, poverty and beneficiary rights groups, animal welfare groups, GE-free groups and many others. The police pressed him to gather information not only about the groups’ protest plans, but also the personal lives and relationships of members.
He had relationships with women in the groups, one for four years, adding to the pressure of living a double life. He now says he is “embarrassed and sorry for deceiving and hurting people he cares about”.
It was his current partner, 22-year- old animal rights and Labour activist Rochelle Rees, who stumbled across evidence of his role a few weeks ago and blew the whistle (see sidebar, opposite).
Rees says she was shocked by the personal deception, but equally at the police for abusing the rights of peaceful protesters.
“There’s a name for countries that spy on their critics, dissidents and protesters in this way,” she told the Sunday Star-Times. “I don’t know how the police can justify prying so intrusively into our lives.”
Civil libertarians are appalled that police infiltrate protest groups in the name of national security. The police might argue that extremists can lurk there. In this case they must be disappointed at the conclusions their informer drew after a decade of spying.
Does Gilchrist think the people in the protest groups were security threats? “No, of course not. I know they are good people trying to make a better world,” he told the Star-Times. He said he had felt “conflicted” for years. “I didn’t feel what I was doing was moral or right.” He’d got stuck in something he wasn’t proud of but found it hard to get out.
Auckland human rights lawyer Tim McBride said the long-term police surveillance “seems to me to be outrageous in a country that goes off to the United Nations and prattles on about our proud human rights record”.
G ILCHRIST, 40, reports to two members of the police Special Investigation Group in Christchurch, men he privately calls “Uncle John” and “Uncle Pete”. The SIG was set up following the September 11 terrorist attacks to carry out counter-terrorism and national security duties. Now the public can get a detailed look at the work of these top-secret groups, thanks to Rob Gilchrist asking his girlfriend Rochelle Rees to fix his computer. Rees, a computer expert, found that he had been sending information about protest groups to an anonymous email address – one that turned out to belong to the police.
The Star-Times can reveal that Gilchrist was till now “run” by detective Peter Gilroy, a member of the Special Investigation Group based at central Christchurch police station. The unit operated with discretion and stealth. Gilroy always paid cash – $600 each week plus expenses – into Gilchrist’s bank account: enough to keep him working but not to make him rich.
The use of an informer was part of a much wider police intelligence effort targeting community groups, using surveillance, filming of protests and seizure of computers and papers following protest arrests.
Gilchrist received his instructions face to face or from an anonymous email address. For example, in July 2007 an “Intel Request” was sent to Gilchrist with a list of questions about political groups. It asked “Climate Change Groups: What is happening with climate change groups in Auckland? Who is involved? What actions might they be considering for the future? What specific plans are in place for Climate Day of Action 07/07?”
There were similar questions about other groups including “Anti War/Anti American Groups” and “Auckland Animal Action”. It asked for personal details about the individuals including their relationships.
The officer asked if the animal welfare campaigners were “likely to start using terrorist tactics”. He then asked the names of the people in the Vegan Balaclava Pixies, a group mentioned once on one website. The reason for the national security police’s interest in them: they had spray painted a vegetarian slogan on a “Red meat, feel good” billboard.
The embedded properties of this computer document record that it came from “New Zealand Police” and the author was “PG4369″ (possibly Gilroy’s internal police number).
In “Auckland Intel Notes” sent to the anonymous email address on August 20, 2006, Gilchrist reported on a police-funded trip to Auckland. He begins “the main emphasis of this trip was to gather up to date photos of persons of interest”, confirm their addresses and gather intelligence on activist groups.
Again he had been asked to collect personal information unrelated to their protest activities, much less any crimes. This strongly suggests the Special Investigation Group maintains dossiers on political figures and community groups.
Another “Intel Request” on October 10 last year enclosed a photo, for Gilchrist to identify a young man on a bicycle outside a Christchurch home. This gives an insight into the work of the SIG. The Sullivan Ave house was rented by university students active in the Save Happy Valley group, who around that time had been concerned that someone was hanging around watching the address. It’s now clear that they had been under surveillance by the SIG, including covert photography of people coming and going.
A large part of Gilchrist’s work was using his position in various groups to obtain internal communications and forward them to the police. The main groups monitored in this way were Save Happy Valley, Auckland Animal Action and Peace Action Wellington, indicating the SIG priorities. He also forwarded emails from the Green Party and Workers Party.
In Gilchrist’s case, within the protest groups he has been an outspoken advocate of radical action such as illegal break-ins. During protests he has used a radio scanner to monitor police communications and often took the role of “police liaison” for the protest organisers.
At protests, Gilchrist was often the one taunting police, says Mark Eden of Wellington Animal Rights Network, who regarded Gilchrist as a friend. “If it didn’t involve adrenalin and confrontation, he wasn’t interested,” Eden told the Star-Times.
“He was always interested in who was keen on illegal actions and would often make it known that he was keen to be involved in anything illegal or undercover. On a few occasions he would take people out for a drive and sit outside a factory farm or an animal laboratory and encourage them to talk about planning a break-in or other illegal activity.
“He would be really pushy and persistent about planning illegal activities and then would suddenly lose interest, claiming it was too difficult or that he was busy. He was always keen on planning dodgy stuff, but on the occasions when we did break the law [for instance, an open rescue of battery hens] he would always have an excuse and pull out at the last minute.”
In hindsight Eden believes Gilchrist was inciting people to talk about illegal stuff and then “reporting it to police to make us sound dodgy”.
Group members say Gilchrist was interested in factions and internal conflicts, sometimes spending hours on the phone discussing infighting. In 2005-08 he frequently claimed to have evidence that a 19- or 20-year-old Auckland animal welfare campaigner was a police informer. This and other claims about spies in the groups created unease and bad feeling.
“He always made a big fuss about looking for undercover cops and being secretive and paranoid about spies or police,” Eden told the Star-Times.
But at the same time Gilchrist was alerting police to their plans. Eden said that the groups got used to finding large numbers of police waiting at the site of planned protests, or stopping their cars before they got there, leading to fears that their phones were being tapped.
McBride said surveillance of protest groups was a breach of fundamental human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly and privacy. Police had to have a compelling justification before going undercover in a protest group. It would not be enough to argue that, for instance, “animal rights groups have been involved in acts of sabotage, and how are we going to know that unless we infiltrate them?” There had to be a credible concern about criminal activity.
In this case the informer had worked for a long period of time without apparently finding much. “This seems to me to be a case of overzealous police activity without justification,” McBride told the Star- Times.
Victoria University law lecturer Steven Price said protesters “are the conscience of society. Though their messages are often unpopular when they’re delivered, it’s surprising how often they are the spark that ignites important social changes that later seem obviously right”.
Sometimes their protests “involve some unlawfulness – sit-ins, naked demonstrations, trespasses to get shocking photos of hatcheries, bill- sticking, subverting billboards and the like. More thoughtful justice systems than ours better recognise the value of protest speech and are careful before they punish it”.
Sometimes protesters committed serious crimes and were rightly accountable for them, Price said.
“But over the years, it seems to me that there isn’t much evidence of that in New Zealand’s protest movements. Certainly not enough to justify a policy as invasive as hiring an infiltrator, a scheme likely to yield little in the way of criminal intelligence but sure to wreak havoc with people’s lives.”
THE REVELATIONS about Gilchrist’s undercover activity follow the exposure of a private investigation company’s hiring of informants to spy on the environmental group opposing Solid Energy’s proposed new coal mine near Stockton on the West Coast.
Last year the Star-Times revealed that Auckland private investigators Thompson & Clark had hired students to infiltrate many of the same protest groups, including Save Happy Valley, animal rights and anti-war groups.
The police spying was part of an international trend to increase police surveillance of political groups. From 2001 this followed War on Terror changes in the US where, according to the New York Times, the FBI’s aggressive Joint Terrorism Task Force has targeted “groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief”. New post- September 11 laws targeted so-called eco-terrorists, resulting in large numbers of campaigners being sentenced to long periods in jail for acts of civil disobedience that would have previously been treated more leniently.
The increased political surveillance in New Zealand has gone together with more aggressive policing of protest, with hundreds of arrests of protesters in recent years for actions that in the past would probably not have resulted in charges. Nearly all these charges have subsequently been dropped or thrown out by the courts.
A common justification of surveillance of political groups is that it enables the police to be well-informed and make a more considered response to protests. But critics say the police intelligence work appears to have had the opposite effect, increasing the heaviness of policing.
In October 2003, for example, there was a small protest about animal welfare at the Auckland head office of Tegel Chicken, where a protest letter was delivered and a small amount of hay scattered in the reception area. In response, the home of the protest organiser was raided, computers and personal papers seized for months and heavy burglary charges laid.
The charges, all of which the police eventually dropped, were out of all proportion to the protest and needlessly intimidating, according to organiser Jesse Duffield, a young school teacher. Duffield says he was disillusioned by this and has since shifted overseas.
Duffield felt that the police knew about the protest in advance and had had them under surveillance. This now makes sense. The only person who knew about the protest in advance, besides those involved, was Gilchrist. This was one of hundreds of meetings, discussions and events he took part in over the years.
Gilchrist’s role in political circles was recorded by a Listener reporter in a September 2004 article, which painted a picture of “eco-activists . . . conducting semi-legal campaigns up and down the country”. The reporter described attending a GE-free campaign workshop run by a radical who looked like an electrician.
“A lot of what he teaches, he says, ‘comes straight from military training’. He’s ex-Army, with a buzz cut and Barker polar-fleece.” The person described was given a false name in the article, but Eden, who was there, says it was Gilchrist.
The reporter wrote: “His lecture covers breaking and entering; the need for information, to know your site, to operate in the dead of night with cloud cover and no moon. Apparently, it’s easier to ‘go through, rather than over’ fences – he has words for those who entertain scaling walls with grappling hooks. ‘It’s not the movies, and we’re not ninjas. That stuff is pure Hollywood’.”
The reporter later attended a GE- free protest in Christchurch, which turned out to be a symbolic act of planting organic onion plants outside crown research institute Crop and Food, which was developing GE onions. TV cameras were waiting. The only radical person picked out for mention was in the front vehicle: “A Land- Rover blazes the trail, radio scanner scouring frequencies for signs of police mobilisation.”
Again, it was Gilchrist.
But before they even reached the institute the protesters were all stopped by police and several more police cars waited at the site. The protest was thwarted. Like the Greenpeace coal protest in March, the police had obviously been warned.
The Listener article concluded: “Something’s gone wrong. The air is suddenly thick with paranoia. Sideways glances are cast, and everyone’s under suspicion of leaking or worse – informing. As an ‘embedded journalist’ some finger me as prime suspect.” Eden says the accuser was Gilchrist, who specifically blamed the reporter and spread accusations against him to other campaigners around the country.
Now they know who it really was. How he was found out Twenty-two-year-old Rochelle Rees got involved in politics as a schoolgirl, determined to do something about issues such as cruelty in battery hen farms. Since then she has handed out leaflets, been arrested for locking herself to a shop selling clothing made with animal fur from China and made the news during this year’s election campaign for a cheeky “Google bomb” calling John Key “clueless”. In the past week she was filming, with permission, inside a meatworks to check for inhumane treatment of the cows and bulls.
A year ago Rees started a relationship with another animal welfare campaigner she’d known since she was at school. It was Rob Gilchrist. She moved to Christchurch to live with him. But something felt wrong. A few weeks ago, when he asked for help fixing his computer, she found out why.
The computer was slow and erratic. Rees, who works as a computer programmer, reinstalled his email programme and then made a routine check that his old emails hadn’t been corrupted. She was puzzled to see hundreds of emails with the “sender” and “subject” lines blank. Checking them, she found they were all private political emails and all being forwarded to the same anonymous address. Something was very wrong. But she didn’t know what.
She and a friend looked through the emails and found documents with titles such as “Intel Request”. From that first clue a picture gradually emerged of 10 years of police surveillance.
The final breakthrough was tracing the identity of Gilchrist’s mysterious “Uncles”. This search led first to the Christchurch central police station and eventually to the highly secret Special Investigations Group. These special police detectives are funded each year under a police budget category called “increase national security”.
National security is about wars, terrorists and foreign spies. Rees asks how these police can justify targeting peaceful protesters and even their personal lives.
“Protests are part of a healthy democracy,” she said.
“The police are supposed to be protecting that but instead they are inhibiting it. It’s foolish of them since stomping on peaceful protest is the best way to make people more extreme and push them underground.”