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Activist turned informant creates uproar in New Zealand

New Zealand’s blogosphere is a flutter with the possibility that a left-wing activist has been outed as a police informer.

As the Sunday Star Times reported:

During the past decade the police spent tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of dollars getting [Rob] 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.

The newspaper said that Rob Gilcrhist reported to two members of the Special Investigation Group in Christchurch, which paid the informer $600 a week (plus expenses) for monitoring groups like Greenpeace, Save Happy Valley, Auckland Animal Action, GE-Free New Zealand and Peace Action Wellington. Gilchrist, 40, also forwarded to the police emails from the Green Party and the Workers Party. The SIG was set up after Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States to investigate counter terrorism and national security.

The whole issue came to light, the paper states, when Gilchrist asked his girlfriend, a 22-year-old animal rights and Labour activist, to fix his computer. She then found that he was sending and receiving emails to anonymous addresses, “one that turned out to belong to the police.”

Soon after the Sunday Star Times stories hit the newsstands, the left-wing newsblog Whoar sent out this warning:

rat/dog/snitch-alert..!..there has been a police informer ‘deep’ in animal rights groups/greenpeace..for some years…his name is rob gilchrist…

Those posting at the Aotearoa Independent Media Center were especially irked that Gilcrhist apologized to the people he had been spying on.

This comment, from Anonymous, is pretty representative in the idea that many activists had long wondered about Gilchrist's motives.

Your SORRY??

You have to be kidding?

You took the cash offered and didnt give a fuck about us all. To say you feel bad is total crap. I have known you for many years Rob and knew you didn't fit from day one. But everyone else wanted to believe you were “heaven sent”. If you were not caught out by your friend you would still be taking to governments cash.

For myself mate I am pleased you have been stopped. And there is about to be a trial. There will be others like you and in fact there are others like you.

Gess Rob…your an arse hole. Sorry mate no amount of sorrys will help. There is a person who picked you out from day one, from the very 1st time he saw you. He is no longer with us now. We weren't sure but he was sure you were a spy. Well done to that man. I am sure he is having a little chuckle to himself.

From the same site, here's a comment on the police's alleged interest in activists’ personal lives.

Wonder how much this case had to do with all the in-fighting that's been going on recently. It seems Rob's taskmasters were taking an interest in people's sexual relationships and factions.

Let’s move on to the larger questions at stake. First, the issue of the legality and efficacy of the domestic surveillance of political or activist groups.

Quoting a Green Party spokesman who said the police were using “Stasi tactics” and were wasting resources to fight crime, Tumeke opined:

How dirty is this, how filthy to spy on protest groups like SAFE or Greenpeace, is this why we need to pass new Police powers is it to spy on protest groups like them? I thought we were passing these laws to protect us from actual terrorists but no apparently the sex lives of activists is something we need to know for national fucking security purposes.

… it’s a reminder for everyone planning action against the Government next year to work in very small tight cell groups and DON’T tell others what you are doing so that you don’t risk outside police informers coming into your group.

Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn argues it’s high time to disband the SIG:

So, under the guise of fighting “terrorism”, the police were spying on political parties. That is simply unacceptable in a democracy. The SIG must be disbanded, and the officers responsible held to account.

LudditeJourno doesn’t go so far. However, author Sandra Dickson argues for some oversight.

It would be good to see the new government drawing a line under this police action, which mostly happened under the Labour-led governments of the last three terms.  My suggestion would be that the Special Investigation Group have their monitoring monitored by independent review – and the findings made public.  We could then make an informed decision about how useful this group is, and in what capacity it should continue to exist.

In Kiwi Blog, David Farrar maintains the police must walk a fine line on which groups it should be tracking — and that line is drawn at those committing illegal activities.

So should the Police be spying on these groups, if they are protest groups. Well the answer is, it depends. If they never set out to break the law, and organise legal protests, then the Police should be taking no interest in them. Presumably that is what Forest & Bird are not there or the World Wildlife Fund.

If however the groups have a deliberate strategy of breaking the law, of commiting damage, of theft etc – then the mere fact they are a protest group doesn’t make them immune from the law, and doesn’t mean the Police can’t use informants to find out what illegal activities are planned.

So do the ten groups above all take part in organised law breaking activities? I’m not sure they do. Save Happy Valley certainly does and I have no problem with the Police monitoring them, if done within the law. But I suspect in some of the cases, the Police would be stretching it to justify their surveilance through an informant. The question I would ask is whether the use of Gilchrist as an informant actually prevented any crimes? I not, then they should not be spying n the groups. If however they were planning illegal activities, some surveillance can be argued as justified.

In the above post, LudditeJourno digs deeper into the issue that the police often monitor groups whose beliefs they deem as outside the norm.

Bryce Edwards, a lecturer in Political Studies, writes Liberation and follows that same line of thought.

The state in New Zealand has always taken a strong interest in the surveillance of leftwing political activity. The Security Intelligence Service, in particular, has a long history of spying on leftwing activist groups and individuals. And in recent years the power of the SIS has been extended, with the help of MPs from Labour, National, the Maori Party etc. There has even sometimes been some slight ‘innovations’ to the spying configurations – with state owned corporations using private investigators to do the spying on political activists.

Yet, there are many throughout New Zealand’s blogosphere, like Half Done, who argues it is the duty of the police to keep an eye on groups creating civil unrest.

Frankly, if the police were not keeping an eye on groups that actively advocate for anyone to participate in an armed struggle, they’d be in serious dereliction of their duties.

The attitude of certain groups that they can do whatever they like if they don’t get their political way is one of the core reasons why we need the police.

See also: Greece.

At first blush, Not PC wonders whether the story is true.

But let’s assume for argument’s sake that the claim is true.  So what? The groups are said to include the likes of Safe Animals from Exploitation (SAFE), Peace Action Wellington, GE-free groups, and Save Happy Valley.  All of these are law-breakers – as is their ‘mother ship’  Greenpeace, who if you’ll remember were supporters of the likes of the Sea Shepherd, which spends time in freezing Antarctic waters trying to sink Japanese whaling ships with all the lives on board. 

These people are not part of a knitting circle.

SAFE have a history of breaking and entering, and destroying people’s property.  It was GE-free groups who broke into Lincoln University a few years back and destroyed experiments worth millions (and, incidentally, risked spreading the GE virus against which they were protesting).  And Save Happy Valley and Peace Action Wellington are nothing like as benevolent as they sound: members of both these groups have been arrested and investigated in the past for wilful damage, and both were included in those arrested last year as part of the Te Qaeda/Urewera 17 operations. 

So even if the claim was proven true, if these groups are being investigated is simply means the police are doing their job.

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