Undercover under scrutiny
The authorities refuse to say exactly why they pulled the plug on the prosecution of six environmental activists today, but there must have been concern inside Scotland Yard that the case would result in undercover policing itself being put on trial: its methods exposed; its justification questioned.
From a short-back-and-sides police officer to a tattooed and pony-tailed eco-warrior, for seven years PC Mark Kennedy lived deep undercover at the heart of Britain's environmental protest movement. But as well as his appearance, his loyalties changed.
Today saw the collapse of a trial of six people accused of trying to shut down a Nottinghamshire power station after the officer who'd infiltrated their group offered to give evidence for the defence.
In a statement, prosecutors simply said the reason was that "previously unavailable information that significantly undermined the prosecution's case came to light" adding that the cause was "not the existence of an undercover officer".
The Met has been infiltrating protest groups since they were embarrassed in London's Grosvenor Square in 1968 when an anti-Vietnam rally unexpectedly turned violent. An elite covert unit was set up, nicknamed the hairies because undercover officers changed their appearance to blend in.
During the 70s and 80s the "special demonstration squad" penetrated organisations from the Troops Out movement to the Anti-Nazi league but the tactic was always controversial with accusations of entrapment and suggestions that police were undermining peaceful protest.
Peter Bleksley, a member of Scotland Yard's undercover unit in the mid-80s thinks today's case raises the same questions again.
"I think the cops have got to ask themselves the question about whether it was proportionate with what they were doing here? I mean I would rather undercover cops, who should be very highly trained and expensive resources, I think they'd be best put to use trying to catch the drug dealers, the gun runners and the murderers as opposed to others who might be seen, although not by me, but might be seen as a bunch of fluffy tree huggers."
It was a point echoed by Mike Schwartz, the solicitor representing the 113 activists who were arrested after what is presumed to have been a tip-off from Mark Kennedy.
"One expects there to be undercover police on serious operations to investigate serious crime. This was quite the opposite. This was civil disobedience which has a long history in this country and should be protected."
There are also questions as to whether the activities of PC Kennedy amount to entrapment.
Senior backbencher David Winnick, a Labour member of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said:
"The concern is not the fact that the Metropolitan Police, and possibly other police forces, use undercover agents. No-one is so naive as to believe that that hasn't been the case since time began.
My concern is the manner in which it has been alleged that Kennedy acted almost as an agent provocateur."
During his time undercover using the pseudonym Mark Stone, PC Kennedy chained himself to the gates of a nuclear power station and drove protestors to hijack a coal train delivering fuel. He climbed a tower at Didcot power station, assisted with planning and funding some protests as well as offering expert advice on how to break-in and climb.
According to the lawyer's bible "Blackstone's Criminal Practice 2010":
"Police conduct which brings about state-created crime is unacceptable and improper and to prosecute it in such circumstances would be an affront to the public conscience. However, if the accused already had the intent to commit a crime of the same or a similar kind and the police did no more than give him the opportunity to fulfil his existing intent, that is unobjectionable."
It is always going to be difficult for covert officers to maintain their cover story without appearing supportive of a protest group's aims. The question is whether they can do so without encouraging or stimulating criminal activities. Were they to find themselves having to, say, help fund an operation or see their cover blown, would an undercover operative be prepared to walk away?
Given the criticism Scotland Yard endured for poor intelligence after the violence associated with student protests a month ago, it would seem likely that a handful of undercover Scotland Yard officers are even now working to infiltrate extremist groups who may be planning to hijack anti-cuts demonstrations. Today's events, however, illustrate how difficult the tactic remains.