Beware of activists with no baggage
18 May 2010
“Didja read this piece in the Observer newspaper about a Brit undercover cop who infiltrated supposedly violent anti-racist groups?” I asked Old Possum. The veteran lefty and I were hanging out in the Brushtail Café, drinking cider and picking through the overseas papers.
“You mean the one about ‘Officer A’ from Scotland Yard’s ‘Special Demonstration Squad’? I sure did. Whoever named the squad had a sense of irony because SDS was also the initials of the Students for a Democratic Society, a famous bunch of American anti-Vietnam war radicals from the 1960s.
“The most important bit was where he explained that these SDS guys infiltrated groups by doing onerous jobs, like treasurer or secretary, willingly and better than anybody else. Take-home message: always think twice before letting somebody have the run of your organisation just because you find those jobs a drag.”
I twisted the top off another cider.
“And then there was the stuff about how they bonded with key people in the organization they were penetrating by carefully researching their background and their tastes and then, very subtly, appealing to those tastes. For example, the target would get into the agent’s car and the style of music he liked would be playing, so the poor sap would think ‘Hey, here’s a soul brother!’ And if necessary they had affairs with other members because if they didn’t, the group would wonder about where else they might be getting sex.”
Old Possum had lived a very long time and seem it all before. “In my experience”, he said, “you should beware of folk with no baggage; people whose life story is impossible to check up on. Their parents and any siblings are always dead or they live interstate or overseas. They seem to have no friends and they were educated somewhere distant and exotic, so they didn’t go to school or uni with you, or anybody else you know.
“If they claim to have a job, it’s never possible to get hold of them at work. And on days when they’re not working with your organization, they’ll have a plausible little story about where it is they go, but it’ll be one you can’t confirm. These things are carefully thought out.”
“Yeah, I read somewhere that during the Second World War, Allied agents despatched to France or Germany would have a carefully crafted cover story that was, for plausible reasons, impossible to check. For example an agent sent to France would have a fake background in one of the French colonies that were controlled by de Gaulle’s forces, rather than in the German-occupied zone or the quisling Vichy regime’s zone. Or, they would supposedly come from a place where the town hall, with all its vital personal records, had been destroyed in the German invasion in 1940 or later, in an Allied bombing raid.”
“Correct. But with agents who are sent in, the final giveaway is that eventually your agent just disappears off the face of the earth. After he’s left your organisation, you don’t see him down at the pub. His ‘character’ simply vanishes. Of course just disappearing, is bound to create suspicion. In a more subtle variant the agent suddenly develops an irreconcilable ideological difference … and then vanishes.
“But really, high-quality secret agents or even talented undercover cops are like hens’ teeth. Fact is, it’s really, really, difficult to assimilate a complex world outlook you just don’t believe in, and without doing that, you’re not going to be able to talk the talk. You’ll end up gibbering in comic-book phraseology – a bad caricature of the people you’re trying to fool. Imagine a right-wing dead-ender like Miranda Devine trying to discuss with sincerity or insight arcane Marxist concepts like oriental despotism or alienation and you’ve got some idea of the agents’ problem. It just won’t come out right, eh.
“Actually, the more difficult type of agent to detect isn’t the person the security cops have sent into your group, it’s the person they’re turned. This unfortunate really does believe in the same things you believe in, but they’ve got a past, or a weakness … like drink, or womanising … “
“Or, they’re a closet gay”, I said.
“Yeah, in the past, that was a really useful blackmail tool. Happily, in Australia, and in our more enlightened times, that one’s almost gone, but imagine if you were gay and an activist in Malaysia! Whatever. The unfortunate who gets turned has a problem the security police can exploit to get them to inform on their comrades.
“Just occasionally, there’s somebody who’s spontaneously come to hate the movement they once supported. However people like that have inevitably arrived at their new mindset through a process of dispute and controversy, so their friends are usually on their guard.”
“But here’s my funniest cheap agent story. A few years back I was in this environmental group engaged in a big anti-freeway fight and just as things were coming to a head, and there’s a bit of evidence that somebody’s tapping our phones, this odd guy turns up asking suspicious questions. He ticks a lot of the boxes we’ve just been talking about. He’s a loner and he’s from New Zealand, so we can’t check his life story. He says he’s a big wheel in a poorly-focussed environmental group that supposedly campaigns on just about every cause you can imagine, from GM foods to global warming. Let’s just call it ‘Friends of the Universe’.
“We’re really very suspicious of this bloke. Without being on the mailing list, he manages to arrive at every important meeting or action. And then one day he arrives at an obscure rally in a local park. So I’m taking around a bucket asking for donations and people are chucking in small notes and coins and our dodgy friend throws in three dollars and – I’m serious – he asks me for a receipt!”