Undercover surveillance in Vancouver from the 1980s to 2006
Three shiny SUVs with dark windows were lurking outside my apartment in a quiet Vancouver suburb. Inside the nearest, a clean-cut man wearing dark glasses was in the driver’s seat, staring at me. I turned to find a man in his early forties walking toward me on the sidewalk. Pasty face, navy blue suit, black shoes, Ray-Bans and a Tom Selleck moustache: all that was missing was the badge. The agent was carrying two cups of coffee from the McDonald’s two blocks away. Glancing up, he caught my eye. His mouth dropped open and he flinched, almost spilling the hot coffee. Then he lowered his eyes, clenched his jaw, and strode briskly past. I stared after him.
It was Tuesday, April 19th, 2005, and I made it to the bus stop on time, the agents following. I was convinced they were ready to bundle me into the back of one of the SUVs for a joyride to some unknown destination. I was thinking: “Shit! I’m going to jail! I’m going to miss work! Do I know any lawyers I can call?”
I should mention that I’m not involved with any underground groups. I’ve never been accused or questioned about any serious crime. I’m a non-profit director and I write about eco-defense and civil disobedience, among other things.
Innocent people are targeted by security agencies based solely on their political beliefs or association with other radicals. This report presents a snapshot of the tactics the police like to think of as “secret,” like spying on individuals and infiltrating groups. These tactics can be extremely dangerous and destructive, even for activists who have never committed a crime. By studying these incidents, we can start to dispel the mystery surrounding covert operations and see the big picture.
A few hours before I left my apartment and found the RCMP on my doorstep, I had phoned Dr. Stephen Best, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas. Best is also the press officer for the Animal Liberation Front: he publishes news accounts of ALF-claimed actions. Best is not connected to those actions or to the anonymous people who commit them. I called Dr. Best to ask if he would do a phone interview on the air at CFRO. The agents arrived on the scene about two hours later.
For the next three days, ominous-looking SUVs cruised up and down the block, staked out my apartment, and followed me on my way to work and back home. On Friday, April 22nd (Earth Day), I phoned Best to confirm he was ready for the live interview. He was. I gathered my notes and jogged out to catch the bus. The agents were still on the street outside and my anxiety level jumped. What the hell were they going to do? Would they grab me before I could reach the radio station? Who would cover my air time?
The police followed me to Coop Radio, but they didn’t interfere with the interview. The ALF press officer spoke forcefully about the reasons ALF members take action to liberate animals and sabotage vivisectors, and he made a powerful case for the need to strike back against torture and oppression. It was a crowd-pleaser, and the interview is archived online in its entirety at Radio 4 All.
The next morning I was relaxing, relieved that the show had gone well. Then the phone rang. No one was on the line. It rang again. Then a third time. No one there. I thought nothing of it until that afternoon, when I stepped out to find a lift truck and two men working on the phone lines across the street. As soon as I saw them, I knew they were bogus. That shiver went up my back again.
Flashback: September 1997
Eighteen world leaders were expected for the Leaders’ Summit at the Asia Pacific Economic Conference at the University of British Columbia. Everyone in town was bracing for a thousand police officers and massive security preparations for the visiting heads of state, including US President Bill Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Premier Jiang Zemin of China, and President Mohamed Suharto of Indonesia. Thousands of people were preparing to protest the new globalization deals these countries were making at the expense of human rights and natural resources. That September, activist groups in Vancouver were targeted for the largest security investigation and threat assessment in history. But we didn’t know that until after the conference was over.
There were signs, however, that something strange was going on. On a balmy late-summer day, I was strolling to the office at the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC) in Kitsilano, when I noticed a lift truck and two men working on the phone lines across the street. What caught my attention was the odd name on the side of the lift truck. Instead of a phone company or utility, the foot-high letters on the side of the truck spelled out U-N-D-E-R-C-O.
I wondered about that. Inside the office, I looked for UNDERCO in the phone book. No listing. Curious, I called information and gave the operator the name. No listing, she said. Then who’s working on the phone lines? No answer.
UNDERCO spent three days “fixing” the phone lines. When I mentioned it to some of my co-workers, they thought I was paranoid. But the reports that came out later showed that Canadian security forces were assessing the risk posed by the Nanoose Conversion Campaign, a group that consisted of a guy with a laptop renting space in SPEC’s basement.
For the next four years, UNDERCO lift vans could be found tinkering with the phone lines around Vancouver activist spaces whenever the Prime Minister came to town.
The lift truck on my suburban street that Saturday in 2005 had no phone or utility company logo on the equipment. The crew was wearing t-shirts and jeans, but no hard-hats or safety vests. The truck had no flashing lights or safety cones, even though it was parked in a traffic lane. This truck didn’t have UNDERCO on the side. The name on the truck and the lift was Alltech (or Altech – it was spelled both ways).
Detectives in SUVs and trucks labeled “UNDERCO” aren’t very covert. But surveillance operations in Vancouver range from the obvious to the subtle. Occasionally, court cases and inquiries reveal the extent of police activities, including who was targeted and what information was gathered. A handful of high-profile trials in recent years reveal exactly how surveillance was carried out in Vancouver. One such case in 1985 focused on five members of an underground network in Vancouver.
DIRECT ACTION 1980s
Ann Hansen was one of five people convicted of arson, conspiracy, weapons violations and other charges. She and her compatriots made up the Vancouver-based Direct Action and Wimmins Fire Brigade cells, which were responsible for firebombing a Litton missile parts factory in Toronto, a Vancouver Red Hot Video outlet, and a hydro station near Squamish. The group is also known as the Squamish Five, and they were under surveillance for many months before their arrests.
After her release from jail, Hansen published Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla (2001, AK Press.) She compiled this description of the Vancouver “Watchers” from police reports:
“(A)n odd assortment of people were in the room. Sitting at the front were an older Chinese couple, speaking in Chinese, who looked just like any immigrants you would see in the Chinese market area of the Downtown Eastside. A couple of young women with permed hair and polyester pants would have blended in perfectly in any mall. A large Italian-looking man got up and poured himself some coffee. He would definitely not pass the fitness section of the RCMP examination . . . The remaining five shared the one common feature of the groups: it looked like they would never pass a test to become a police officer.” (Direct Action, p. 293.)
The Watchers made mistakes, though, and members of Direct Action became concerned they were under surveillance. In 1982, Brent Taylor and Hansen reported on an encounter with a woman who followed them into a lumber store in Burnaby and back out again. Later that day, they spotted the same woman miles away in Vancouver.
“Ann and I decided to go out across the street and stand beside her, like we were waiting for the bus, just to see what she would do.” The woman walked off, Hansen and Taylor following. She turned a corner, almost at a run, and they saw her muttering into her lapel. Moments later, a pickup truck drove up and she jumped in. “(A)s soon as we started driving around the neighbourhood of Tenth and Main we see the same lady and a man in the pickup, still tearing around the area, as though they were looking for us …“ (Direct Action, p. 446-7.)
Despite this encounter and others, Direct Action carried on with its plans. Hansen explains: “Unless we had one hundred percent proof that we were under surveillance, we had put too much time and money and, most importantly, our lives into this to pack up and quit.” (Direct Action, p. 448.)
The decision to continue the group’s activities even though they suspected they were being tailed likely meant the difference between freedom and prison for Ann Hansen, Brent Taylor, Julie Belmas, Gerry Hannah and Doug Stewart.
Direct Action was targeted because police suspected its members were carrying out serious acts of economic sabotage. But spies and infiltrators also take aim at community activists, human rights workers, and peaceful protestors. At the APEC conference, the targets were mainly students who wanted their demands for democracy and human rights to be visible to the world leaders.
During the APEC summit, dozens of SUVs with tinted windows swarmed the UBC campus around the clock. The tent city near the Student Union was under scrutiny every minute. RCMP officers even staged a daring daylight raid to grab the man they considered the leader of the protestors, Jaggi Singh – no doubt in the belief that if they snatched the head anarchist, the rest would not be able to organize themselves effectively.
Secret Service agents from the US and their equivalents from Canada and sixteen other countries were all on the same mission: to assess the risk posed by students and community activists holding signs. The agents in trench coats were easy to spot. But the police also employed infiltrators to spy on the groups from the inside.
Long before the summit day, paid informants joined the groups organizing the protests. The RCMP knew all about the plan to march to the security fence at the Rose Garden near the summit site at the Museum of Anthropology. Initially designated a safe-protest zone, the area was later declared off-limits, and the sturdy perimeter fencing was swapped out for a section of floppy wire mesh attached to tall poles using plastic fasteners.
As the first of four thousand marchers approached the fence, two hundred riot police sidestepped away, leaving a clear channel open to the fence. One of the first marchers to reach it was a young woman who grabbed the fence with both hands and began to pull herself up. That section of fence collapsed in an instant and the riot squads piled in from both sides with batons and pepper spray, assaulting people viciously and indiscriminately.
I was one of the first people grabbed, knocked down and pepper-sprayed, even though I was 20 meters away from the fence. Chaos erupted as people panicked, but long hours of non-violence training prevailed. Within minutes, the entire crowd was sitting on the cold wet ground. This tactic prevented people being trampled in a stampede, and eliminated any provocation the police may have needed to continue the beatings.
The cops backed off. The crowd was bruised, cold, pepper-sprayed, and angry. Organizers, however, had prepared the group for potential violence, and some had also foreseen the possibility of being prevented from reaching the Rose Garden, the point at which the banners and signs would have been visible to the motorcade passing below.
The crowd didn’t sit still for long. Soon they re-organized with a new plan: to block the three exits from Museum. Over a thousand people streamed away from the Rose Garden in different directions, but the police were not able to redeploy as quickly. (We learned later that a whole contingent of riot cops got lost en route to the least-defended exit.)
As the summit wound down that afternoon, police finally honed in on the target group of protestors occupying the road to the west of the Museum. With no time remaining before the motorcades were scheduled to depart with the visiting heads of state, “Sergeant Pepper” made the infamous decision to give only a few seconds warning before charging the crowd and hosing them with blasts of pepper spray. By day’s end, dozens were arrested and hundreds more pepper-sprayed and beaten.
The confidential informants were never identified and they disappeared from the scene.
ELF, ALF, AND EARTH FIRST!
In contrast, Earth First! positively identified one infiltrator in 1999, although it is still not clear whether he was working for the police or the logging industry. “Bad Dave” showed up one day at a peace camp and logging blockade north of Squamish on the Elaho River. Dave was an outgoing American who liked to brag about the radical environmentalists he supposedly knew. There were some definite problems with Dave – at one point he tried to incite people to attack a security guard by making up a story that the man had threatened him. (The security guards were actually more afraid of us than we were of them.)
Later, Dave learned I was a contact person for Earth First!, and he tried to interrogate me about the group, demanding names of people involved and so on. That set off alarm bells, but by then it was too late. The next morning, Dave had vanished, along with thousands of dollars in climbing gear and video equipment and all the videotapes he could find.
Information soon came to light that positively identified Dave as an infiltrator using a number of aliases. We posted his picture, description and names on a web site, and for the next two years, we received reports about him from across the continent. At a Rainbow Gathering, he used some kind of knockout drops to incapacitate a friend of mine and make off with his video equipment and other valuables. He was kicked out of a Buffalo Field Campaign camp in Wyoming for suspicious behaviour and evicted from an Earth First! Gathering in California where he was trying to set up major marijuana deals despite a strict “no drugs” policy. We tracked Dave for two years until he disappeared in 2001.
BARBARASH AND THURSTON
Covert investigations rely on human spies, but they also use high-tech surveillance to scrutinize activists. One type of listening device is about 25 cm long with a wireless transmitter and a battery pack. In 1995, Vancouver activists David Barbarash and Darren Thurston discovered two such devices planted in their East Side apartment and in their car. At the time, the two men were being shadowed by Watchers and other covert operatives, to the extent that the quiet side street they lived on was sometimes jammed with cars belonging to different agencies and their spies.
Court documents revealed they were followed by agents on foot and on bicycles, and two operatives infiltrated La Quena, a Commercial Drive coffeehouse. The undercover agents attempted to entrap the pair by encouraging them to commit serious crimes. Barbarash and Thurston did not take the bait.
Years later, Barbarash and Thurston published “Activism on Trial,” a booklet detailing their experiences. They wrote:
“Electronic interception included the collection and monitoring of thousands of emails, fax and phone communications at a variety of residences and offices. It has been discovered that over 5,300 hours of electronic transmissions were taped over a one-year period and remain in RCMP custody . . . The culmination of these years of harassment and surveillance came in 1997 when Barbarash and Thurston discovered listening devices in a home and a vehicle. Within a couple of days, the RCMP executed full search warrants on their homes, as well as other places their belongings were stored.”
“As an additional part of the harassment campaign, activists from the US, Britain and Canada have been visited by both CSIS and the RCMP and asked to provide statements against the pair, as well as to provide information about animal rights and anti-fascist organizing in general.”
Barbarash and Thurston were charged in 1998 with mailing letters containing razor blades to bear hunting outfits in British Columbia. Despite all the evidence the RCMP gathered and seized, the charges were dropped after preliminary hearings and the case never went to trial. But the police didn’t let up; in 2002, members of a special unit kicked in Barbarash’s door while he was away and carted off his computer, files, discs, books and letters. A judge later threw out the search warrant and no charges were laid.
Barbarash was the press officer for the Animal Liberation Front while he was under investigation, but he stepped down from the position and moved to a small town on the coast. Thurston, on the other hand, was indicted in January 2006 after a series of FBI raids picked up eleven people now accused of ELF-claimed sabotage cases, some of which had remained unsolved for up to eight years. Now the FBI claims they’ve broken those cases wide open, thanks to – you guessed it – paid informants.
Another grand jury in Portland indicted a well-known environmental activist in 2001. For years, Tre Arrow used high-profile but non-violent civil disobedience tactics that succeeded in winning protection for several threatened old-growth forests. He was charged in connection with the burning of cement trucks and logging trucks, and his accuser was an alleged co-conspirator turned informant who traded a much-reduced sentence for claims that Arrow was the mastermind. Arrow was a fugitive for two years until he was arrested in Victoria BC, where he fought extradition to the US for four years.
An extensive network of friends and supporters across Canada and the US came together to defend Arrow, who was regarded as a hero by many. Arrow insisted he was innocent and that he was being persecuted because he is an effective activist. I visited Arrow in detention in 2004 while I was writing about his case. Later, I joined the Tre Arrow Defense Committee, which coordinated fundraising for legal defense, media, and communications with Arrow and his family.
The RCMP in Vancouver wasted no time in assigning surveillance patrols to the support group. A fleet of minivans (forest green with tinted windows) cruised slowly around the east side neighbourhood where key supporters lived. The phones would ring but the lines were dead. Police have not laid any charges laid against any of his supporters, which is not surprising, since they are among the most peaceful human beings I have ever met.
Direct Action friends and supporters did not get off so easily. Ann Hansen writes: “As is the case during any militant political campaign, a corresponding campaign of police repression followed in the wake of the bombings. The campaign served a number of purposes. The police were able to use the frenzy of fear that the mass media had whipped up to justify the raids and arrests of community political activists without fear of impunity. The campaign was used to gather intelligence on the radical community, but was also part of a well-planned counter-insurgency program with the express purpose of criminalizing and repressing that segment of the left involved in any kind of direct action.“ (Direct Action, p. 461.)
Police raided a house in Toronto where support work was being organized, and laid “an exaggerated number of charges in a vain attempt to gain information on the political activities of others. Following a consistent pattern, the people living in the house did not inform on other political activists, despite being threatened with a total of eighteen charges. “ (Direct Action, p. 462-3.
DEALING WITH SURVEILLANCE
Anyone can be a target of surveillance. Undercover police operations cast a wide net, and innocent people often get caught. These operations are a menace to activist groups precisely because they are secret. Normal police work is subjected to scrutiny and oversight that doesn’t apply to covert ops.
Checks and balances within the criminal justice system were intended to ensure that police don’t violate people’s rights under the law. For example, freedom of association is upheld in documents like the US Constitution and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But security police often consider people who associate with suspected criminals to be criminals themselves, or at least capable of committing criminal acts. Spying on those who associate with people accused of ELF actions can lead to spying on others who associate with the associates, and so on down the line.
Guilt by association is not a legally accepted principle because it violates our rights, but in practice, police have no problem with breaking the law. With secret operations, there is no recourse to hold them accountable for their actions.
When people we know go to jail, fear can drive us to condemn them for actions they may not have committed. We may feel compelled to distance ourselves or to speculate about their motives. But solidarity gives us the strength to defend those people, to write letters and organize legal support for them. Our spirit of resistance can overcome the fear of repression. A person doesn’t have to be guilty, or even be found guilty in a court of law, to spend years behind bars.
I’m helping to support people in jail because maintaining solidarity is crucial, but there is also an element of self-interest: If I get picked up next, outside support would be my lifeline.
On my street, inconspicuous Watchers replaced the agents. I saw them every day, slowing down as they drove past, idling at the curb, pulling away when I approached, and executing clumsy U-turns for no apparent reason. When I think about the size and expense of this one operation, it boggles my mind. When I multiply it by the number of other operations likely going on right now, I’m stupefied. And for what?
I’ve come to terms with the reality that the police can decide to take me in any time for any reason. But I am not powerless as long as I continue to speak out for the eco-defenders and against repression and ecocide. If I allow myself to be intimidated and silenced, I may as well be in jail. While I’m free, I will work for the resistance.
(originally published in MostlyWater, 2006)