Anti-terror squad spies on protest groups

Last updated 23:59 13/12/2008

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Police teams set up to identify terrorism threats and risks to national security are spying on protest and community groups, including Greenpeace, animal rights and climate change campaigners, and Iraq war protesters.

Police officers from the Special Investigation Group (SIG) have carried out surveillance and used a paid informer to gather information not just about planned protests but the personal lives and sexual relationships of group members.

The police informer, Christchurch man Rob Gilchrist, whose activities are revealed in today's Sunday Star-Times, was a key member of various community groups during the past decade.

He helped arrange protests and was close friends with leading campaigners, and advocated radical and illegal activities by the groups.

Last week he said he was embarrassed and sorry for what he did. The people he spied on were not security threats. "I know they are good people trying to make a better world."

Wellington human rights lawyer Michael Bott said the surveillance of peaceful groups was repugnant and "has shades of Big Brother and Soviet Russia". Surveillance of the personal lives of members of peaceful groups meant the basic right to privacy was being eroded. "It just appears fundamentally abusive and wrong."

Gilchrist was unmasked recently when his animal rights and Labour Party activist girlfriend Rochelle Rees was helping him fix his computer. She stumbled across signs of him passing information about protest groups to an anonymous email address.

This address has since been traced to two SIG officers based at the Christchurch central police station, Detective Peter Gilroy and Detective Sergeant John Sjoberg. Gilchrist privately referred to them as "Uncle Pete" and "Uncle John".

Melbourne newspaper The Age reported a similar case three months ago, where an undercover police officer had infiltrated community groups. He worked in Animal Liberation Victoria, taking part in a midnight raid on a battery hen farm, and helped organise anti-Iraq war demonstrations.

He worked for Australia's similarly named Security Intelligence Group, which is also officially focused on terrorism.

Auckland human rights lawyer Tim McBride said the surveillance was "outrageous in a country that goes off to the United Nations and prattles on about our proud human rights record".

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Greenpeace campaign director Carmen Gravatt said the surveillance was "totally unnecessary in a country like New Zealand. It undermines the openness of groups, it undermines the relationships within the groups and it undermines the relationships they have with the police".

Mark Eden, of the Wellington Animal Rights Network, said it was outrageous to consider that the network's campaign against battery hen farming was terrorism and that the group was somehow like al Qaeda.

"We have gone in and filmed the farms and discovered the cruelty. But instead of doing the democratic thing and stopping it, which is what the public want, they have responded by sending in the secret police. That's the most shocking thing about it."

Police national crime manager Detective Superintendent Win Van Der Velde said the police "will neither confirm nor deny the identity or existence of any informant within any group". Police operated paid informants for gathering intelligence about criminal activity.

Police Minister Judith Collins said: "This government wants to ensure [the police] have the tools and the support they need to keep the public safe.

"From time to time it may be necessary to use paid informants. I think most New Zealanders would find it reassuring that the police are out there keeping a watch on the whole community. That's what they're there for.

"I trust the police to exercise sound judgement and professionalism when deciding where and when to use paid informants."

Opposition leader Phil Goff, who as justice minister helped set up the SIG, said he would want to know why anyone employed to look after counter-terrorism and national security would focus on Greenpeace.

Greenpeace had a history of non-violent protest which was "perfectly legitimate in our society".

Goff said that as minister he had no knowledge of the SIG's operational details. "That's not something that comes across the minister's desk."

Announcing the SIG teams in 2004, Goff said they were to boost New Zealand's counter-terrorism capacity. The teams would work under the Strategic Intelligence Unit, which officials had recommended following the September 11 attacks to "focus on terrorism and transnational activity such as people-smuggling, identity fraud and money laundering".

There are now SIG teams in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch that, according to the police 2006 Statement of Intent, "are dedicated to the investigation of national security-related crime including terrorism".

SIG documents obtained by the Sunday Star-Times reveal that in 2007:

* SIG officers requested details about the personal lives and sexual relationships of members of animal rights groups.

* An SIG officer asked Gilchrist in writing for information about "anti-war/anti-American groups", climate change groups in Auckland and names of any campaigners travelling to protest at Apec and vivisection conferences in Australia.

The Star-Times reported last year that Auckland private investigators Thompson and Clark had hired students to spy on most of the same protest groups. Many groups were being infiltrated simultaneously by both private investigator and police spies.

Thompson and Clark tried to recruit Gilchrist in April this year to spy for them as well. Gilchrist says he was by then increasingly unhappy about his police informer role and refused. He told the story of that recruitment attempt to the Star-Times, but did not, at that time, reveal the full extent of his double life.

- Sunday Star Times

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