26 February 2007

On BAe spies and corruption by Virginia

George Monbiot recently wrote an article in the Guardian about British Aerospace (BAe) and how it seems to always be above the law. In it he mentioned the story of how the company used spies to infiltrate the campaign organisation, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT). This story had a big impact on our lives three years ago when it was first revealed and here’s why.

When Chris and I got together back in 1995, BAe was much on our minds. Chris had just served 3 months out of a 6 month prison sentence for breaching the injunction BAe had laid on him for his work against their arms dealing. I had decided it was time that I did more than support CAAT by getting their newsletter, and was beginning to get involved in the anti-Hawks to Indonesia campaign. One of our little jokes was that BAe was watching our every move, another that I was a BAe mole going deep undercover. You can imagine our surprise when we discovered 8 years later that our joke was actually true, BAe had employed a company run by a woman called Evelyn le Chene, who had a whole raft of spies placed throughout CAAT and the anti-arms trade movement. They attended anti-arms trade events, worked as volunteers in the office, and in local groups. Two were particularly good at maintaining a long involvement, one becoming a core member of Hull Against the Hawks before moving to Liverpool to engage with activists there, the other started off as a volunteer in CAAT and eventually became a member of staff there, and one of Chris’ colleagues.

The story had a big effect on us. It was a shock to discover that Le Chene’s spies had thought it necessary to report on our wedding and where we lived, providing us with an immediate paranoia that somehow someone we knew well had passed this information on. A further shock was when CAAT discovered that their member of staff was passing information from everyone’s work files to an unnamed email address. Chris had just left CAAT at this point, but to realise that someone he had worked with every day for 3 years had done this was deeply unsettling. It was also horrible to think that the spies had made friends with people in the movement, used these friendships to further their ends, and carried on with this work, even when they could see for themselves the suffering caused by the arms trade. A final realisation was that both the long term spies had made a point over the last few years of seeking me out at vigils, playing with the children and chatting to me. In hindsight, the only reason they would have done that was to attempt to build trust between us, and I found it extremely unpleasant that people would choose to do this through me and our children. So in the immediate aftermath of us finding out about the spying, we found ourselves being much more suspicious than usual of people we didn’t know, and I even found myself looking over my shoulder and being careful what I said on the phone.

But as we gathered more information about the extent of the spying and what Le Chene had passed on, some of this receded. The report about our wedding appeared to have come from a mention in the CAAT newsletter; they caught up with our address a good eighteen months after we were there. A lot of the information they did get was tittle tattle or misinterpretation of people’s motives and events. And in a way I found this quite amusing. Le Chene comes from a world of hierarchical authority, where people only act in accordance with what they can get out of things. As a result, she and her employees really didn’t get what we were about. They were constantly looking for a boss, or authority figure who was telling people what to do, completely misunderstanding how we often we work consensually, with different people taking roles at different times. They also couldn’t understand often why people were doing a particular action, or what our motivations were. So if arguments happened between people (as often happens in peace work), they were continually ascribing the worst motivations to the players, rather than understanding people had different positions on things that sometimes took time to resolve.

And the most encouraging thing I found in the end was that, despite all their spies and reports, they never got near to knowing that the Seeds of Hope Ploughshares action was even in the offing, let alone stopping it happening. Since it is only the odd action like this that needs to be secret, it confirmed for us that we should just carry on in our usual open fashion. And if we ever do want to plan something serious, we would just do it with very close and trusted friends.

Chris and I are not naïve; we and others did think that BAe sent people to events to monitor what was being said. We were just taken aback by the very scale of this. What we did realise on reflection was how often our instincts were true. In 1996 we were at an event and in a debrief at the pub afterwards we played “Spot the BAe spy”. Everyone swore blind it was a person in their group. We discovered later that we were all right – Le Chene had every group covered. Chris once came back from a demo and when I asked him how it went he said it was 4 of them and a BAe spy. This was the individual who later came to work at CAAT and who managed to allay Chris’ initial suspicions by the way he went to great lengths to involve his family in CAAT’s work. So three years on, we are no less trusting but a little bit more discerning about listening to those instincts better.

And of course we need to keep following our instincts, because as George Monbiot points out BAe are at it again. CAAT has recently applied for a judicial review of the appalling decision of the Serious Fraud Office to drop an anti-corruption inquiry into BAe’s arms deals with the Saudis. Not only does BAe sell weapons to some of the nastiest regimes but it does so through the use of bribes and commissions. The government has sought to hold a moral high ground on stamping out corruption in the international business community, and yet somehow the SFO were persuaded to drop the enquiry on the grounds that it affected “national intelligence”.(Something our intelligence agencies have since denied). No wonder CAAT went to the lawyers. In doing so they discovered that a private email from them to their legal team has made its way to BAe. Yet again someone somewhere is still keeping tabs on CAAT. Shocking? Not really, not any more. Disheartening? I’m sure it must be to our friends in CAAT. But will it stop them or any of us calling BAe to account? Not one bit. BAe is the biggest global arms dealer in this country, usually in the top 3 arms dealers in the world. That it needs to waste its energy and resources spying on a tiny organisation with a turnover that probably wouldn’t keep it in paper clips for a year, just goes to show how effective CAAT is.

I’m delighted to say that this week CAAT has been granted an injunction against BAe who have been ordered to reveal the source of the email. Hopefully, this will identify the current mole, though doubtless others will be recruited to take that person’s place. And hopefully it will mean that CAAT can at least get on with its legal work in private so it is able to make the best case it can.

So keep up the good work CAAT and lets hope this judgement is a good omen for success in the judicial review.

21 February 2007

Ashes & hammer blows by Chris

Every Ash Wednesday for the past 24 years, Catholic Peace Action, Pax Christi and other groups have organised a Christian liturgy of repentance at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) building in Whitehall focusing on nuclear weapons. We try to get along as often as we can. This year I had the privilege of lugging the sound system around. Several people marked the building with blessed ash and charcoal. About 60 people attended and although there was warning from the police at non-compliance with SOCPA, nobody was arrested.

Part of the liturgy involved various people nailing 21 Theses written by Philip Berrigan
on the church and nuclear weapons to a large wooden cross. I couldn't watch as I was holding the sound system but the sound of the hammer blows on the wooden cross drifting across a quiet Whitehall was haunting and very, very moving.

Later, I represented Fellowship of Reconciliation as we handed in a petition at 10 Downing Street. Although we had an appointment we were delayed as a Palestinian delegation was being received. Hopefully some good plans were being laid.

19 February 2007

Why we voted for Brian by Virginia

When I saw that Brian Haw (the peace protester who has been camped outside Parliament for the last 5 years) had been nominated for Channel 4’s Most Inspiring Political Figure 2006 I immediately went and voted for him. I’m glad to say that so did thousands of others and Brian swept the board with 54% of the vote. After the recent awards ceremony , I idly googled to see how the news had been reported, and came across a sneery article by the Guardian’s Simon Heffer. Mr Heffer’s basic point is that it is a bit dispiriting that so many people voted for an inarticulate man whose rages incoherently at Blair and Bush. The article concluded that what we were voting for was “inchoate rage” (whatever that is, must look it up in the dictionary).

Mr Heffer in typical Oxbridge journalist style dismisses Brian’s protest because it is not expressed in the tones of an educated liberal. But it is not just for what Brian says and how he says it, that we voted for him in such large numbers, it is for what he does, and has done faithfully and persistently for over 5 years ago. Many of us knew about and campaigned against the immoral sanctions the West imposed on Iraq after the last Gulf War ended in 1991. Sanctions that caused immense suffering to ordinary men, women and children, and helped strengthen, not weaken, the hold that Saddam Hussein had over the country. We wrote letters, we held vigils, we marched and the sanctions persisted. Brian’s response was a completely human one, the sanctions were so evil, he was going to stay outside the House of Commons until they’d gone. Perhaps if some of us had joined him they would have done. Instead the UK government followed the US lead into an even more terrible war that has created carnage and near civil war in a country that once boasted the best health service in the world. Nearly 2 million of us marched in 2003 to protest at the forthcoming war, it was enough, it was said at the time to give Blair’s government a “wobble”. We all went home after that march, but Brian stayed on. Again if 2 million people had stayed in the streets with him, would Mr Blair have been quite so confident he was doing the right thing?

Over the last 4 years since the Iraq war began it has been in and out of the news. Sometimes the majority opinion was pro war, sometimes anti, sometimes activists were doing a lot, sometimes we were just all burnt out. Throughout that time Brian has stayed faithfully on, in all kinds of weather, receiving abuse from police and drunks alike. He has resisted many attempts to evict him, had an entire law (SOCPA) created to try and get rid of him, and has managed to still remain there. And where many of us cite family commitments as the main reason for preventing us from working for peace, Brian, has sacrificed his family too.
Speaking to the BBC in 2005
he explained the loss he feels:

“I lived near the seaside as a kid in Kent and my ball goes in the sea and I jump in and swim out to try and get it. I don’t have the strength to get round behind it…..the more desperate I am, I’m pushing it away. That’s what I felt like with my wife and my family…I just want to put them in my arms."

He explains that he loves his family with all his heart but that is exactly why he is there. He came because of what was being done to the people of Iraq; people as precious as his own children.

He says people should love their neighbours and love their neighbour’s child as your own….he believes that is the meaning of Christianity

If we wanted to vote for “inchoate rage” (I’ve looked it up it means chaotic) we’d have voted the kind of person who rants against the government simply because it’s the government. The man we voted for is a man with a purpose, who has given up everything and is willing to endure anything for his beliefs. A man that has enraged the government so much that they have passed an illiberal law that strikes at the heart of our freedom to protest peacefully. And a man who may shout incoherently in the wind when a key politician is passing, but who is capable of clearly stating his vision and his beliefs if you take the time to enquire. As he said in his brilliant and challenging acceptance speech (that I’m sure made a few politicians squirm),

“It’s not rocket science is it? Stop killing babies”

Brian also told us if we voted for him as “The Most Inspiring Political Figure” we should “Be Inspired”. Yes Brian, yes we are. More information about Brian’s vigil and how to support him here.