The spy who lied: undercover policing and intimate relationships in the UK

If you think the trust issues in your relationship are bad, you might sympathise with a group of activists in the UK who, after spending years in serious romantic relationships, discovered a thin blue line running between them and the men they thought they knew. For three years now, a major public inquiry into undercover policing in the UK has been running, following a series of revelations about police spies who had long-term intimate relationships while infiltrating progressive movements.

During these deployments – many of which lasted for over five years – covert officers lived and organised alongside environmentalists and social-justice activists, passing information back to their superiors that would later thwart the actions they were helping to organise. The shock value of these spies’ escapades has often dominated the mainstream media coverage of the scandal since it first broke in 2011. But behind the sensationalism is the personal trauma of the officers’ former partners, and the story of their long struggle to attain some kind of justice and disclosure from the police about what they have been subjected to.


In 2010, while on a climbing holiday with the man she assumed was her partner, Mark Stone, Lisa Jones (not her real name) discovered a passport in the glove box of their van bearing the name ‘Mark Kennedy’. It was not the first time people in her circle of friends had found reason to be suspicious of the jocular, friendly man who, in the early 2000s, had appeared at meetings of environmentalists in the East Midlands. Kennedy spent seven years deeply involved in campaigns and played an important role organising the logistics of several large protests. At one point a criminal charge against him was mysteriously dropped. Perhaps one of the reasons he managed to stay in their sphere of trust was just how ensconced he was in their personal lives.

Shortly after entering the group he began a close relationship with a twenty-three-year-old activist, going to the theatre with her family and attending her grandmother’s ninetieth birthday. After splitting up with her in 2004, Kennedy started his six-year relationship with Lisa which friends likened to that of a married couple. When Lisa’s father died, Kennedy rode in the mourners’ car with her. ‘That night he held me while I cried,’ she has written. ‘He was the closest person in the world to me and I thought I knew him better than anyone.’ However, the discovery of the passport was the straw that broke the pig’s back, and it set off a chain of revelations that would eventually untangle more than just his individual deception.

The story of Kennedy’s deployment and the chain of events that led to his exposure in 2010 are interesting, but so much has been written about that already. What made this story a lot more than just the tale of one rogue cop was how unexceptional Kennedy’s exploits turned out to be. In the week after publishing its Kennedy exposé in early 2011, The Guardian published reports of two more covert officers who had engaged in sexual relationships while undercover.

Later that same month they confirmed the existence of another undercover officer named Jim Boyling, who had been in a serious relationship with an activist known as Laura (also not her real name) while infiltrating environmental movements in 1999 and 2000. Laura began an exhaustive search for him after his disappearance (read: end of deployment). They met again by chance in 2001, when he admitted that he had been a police spy and expressed regret for the deception, saying that his time undercover had changed him. They went on to marry and have children. However, she divorced him in 2008 and has said that she believes that his apology and claims of having changed were also a fabrication, and that he took advantage of her ‘desperately vulnerable, fearful and traumatised’ mental state at the time.

While the exploits of these officers were still plastered all over the news, Lisa received a letter from a woman who said she had been through a similar experience; ‘When you’re ready I’d like to talk,’ it read. The letter’s author, Helen Steel – a social-justice activist and one of the defendants in the famous Mclibel lawsuit – had been in a two-year relationship with an undercover officer, John Dines, who had infiltrated London Greenpeace (not the official organisation but an anarchist, environmentalist collective) between 1987 and 1992. Their time together had been passionate, with mutual pledges to spend the rest of their lives together, so when Dines sent her a letter saying he was going to South Africa to get his head straight before vanishing altogether, she was frantic and spent years looking for him.

Helen and other partners of undercover officers would soon learn that feigned mental problems were standard procedure for an officer ending a deployment. But before they began to piece together the story of what had happened to them, Helen spent years doing her own detective work – trawling through national records in multiple countries – looking for her erstwhile lover. In the end she was told by another former partner of an undercover officer that Dines had been a spy.

The revelations continued to emerge. An undercover officer named Mark Jenner, who had posed as a joiner interested in radical politics named Mark Cassidy, was revealed to have been in a serious relationship between 1995 and 2000. His former partner ‘Alison’ has said that for four years they lived together like ‘man and wife’. Jenner was also on close terms with her relatives. He left her with a similar tale of anguish and seemingly vanished into thin air. Around the same time, senior police officer and university lecturer Bob Lambert was revealed to have posed as an animal-rights activist in the 80s, having sexual relationships with four women and fathering a child with one of them during his deployment. Nor was he the first officer from that unit to father a child with someone during a deployment. Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, two Guardian journalists who broke many of the stories involved, wrote in Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police, that, ‘at least one other child had already been born to a member of the squad in the early 1980s. Rather than receive any reprimand for his actions, that SDS officer was later promoted to a senior post in the squad.’

Amid all these stories coming to light, the former partners of these officers were connecting with each other and starting to sense, along with anyone paying attention to the case, that these were not the random acts of rogue officers, as the police initially portrayed them. They formed groups to fight for police disclosure and share their personal accounts of how these relationships had torn apart their sense of security and trust. Bob Lambert’s former partner underwent months of psychiatric treatment after discovering Lambert’s true identity, and since then has been ‘fragile and constantly on edge and has had suicidal thoughts’. Alison has said her relationship with Mark Cassidy had ‘impacted seriously on my ability to trust, and that has impacted on my current relationship and other subsequent relationships. It has also distorted my perceptions of love and my perceptions of sex.’

The number of these relationships suggested an institutional acceptance of the practice, which added a new dimension to the deep hurt the women already felt. As Alison says, ‘This is not about just a lying boyfriend or a boyfriend who has cheated on you. It is about a fictional character who was created by the state and funded by taxpayers’ money.’ Or as Kennedy’s first partner Kate Wilson puts it: ‘You didn’t just have a relationship with a man who didn’t exist, you had a relationship with a man who didn’t exist and the back room, and the managers, and the superior officers who were making the decisions about that relationship.’ The women have come to regularly describe what they have been through as ‘statesanctioned rape’.


In December 2011, eight of the former partners of covert officers launched a lawsuit against the police on common law claims of deceit, assault, misfeasance in public office and negligence, as well as several human rights claims. Predictably, the case was stymied at every turn by police intransigence and evasiveness. At one point, the police tried to have the entire case thrown out, claiming that they would be unable to mount a defence due to a policy that mandated superiors to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ whether a given individual was an undercover officer. The police argued that the policy – which has no legal standing – was necessary to protect the privacy of police officers and the methods of covert infiltration. The claimants’ legal team have pointed out that the police ‘themselves “departed left, right and centre” from their policy in a “wholly inconsistent and shambolic” way’, having publicly confirmed the identity of several of the officers on several occasions. Police have also tried to have the case moved to a secret tribunal in which most hearings would have been held in secret, and the women would have had no right of representation or appeal.

In 2015, Scotland Yard reached a settlement with seven of the eight women and paid an undisclosed amount in damages. As part of the settlement, the Metropolitan Police released an apology, containing an admission that the forming of intimate sexual relations with targets was ‘abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong’ and a ‘violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma.’ It was the police’s first official acknowledgement of the relationships and the harm they had caused. In addition to that, in 2014, a separate financial settlement of more than £400,000 was reached between the police and the mother of Bob Lambert’s child. And a year after the main settlement, the police withdrew their defence against Kate Wilson, who had not accepted the settlement with the other seven claimants, and asked for a judgement to be entered against them.

Wilson has said that this withdrawal was an acknowledgement that Kennedy’s actions were ‘undertaken with the express or tacit knowledge of other police officers’, a question that has been a major sticking point of their struggle against police evasiveness. Despite the significance of the police apology for the former partners, it did not provide information as to what degree such relationships where known about, authorised, or even recommended as a useful cover or information-gathering strategy; there is only an admission that ‘appropriate oversight was lacking’.

For many of the women, this kind of language falls far short of any kind of real accountability and is offensively vague in light of the facts of their deployments. Consider that undercover officers had an around-the-clock dedicated cover officer – the point of contact between them and their superiors – whom they contacted every day, and whose role it was to know every detail of their activities. Several undercover officers, including Kennedy, said it would have been basically impossible that their cover officers were unaware of the relationships.

Furthermore, in 2015, the police were forced by numerous freedom of information requests to release the tradecraft manual of the unit responsible for a lot of the deployments, which contains a short section on ‘sexual liaisons’. The passage contains the following advice: ‘If you have no other option but to become involved with a weary [their epithet for activists], you should try to have fleeting, disastrous relationships with individuals who are not important to your source of information.’

This portrayal of the relationships – as something to be avoided if possible and unrelated to information gathering – is challenged by Paul Lewis and Rob Evans in Undercover. ‘One of the hardest challenges for covert officers is turning up out of the blue without friends or family to vouch for them. They arrive in their late 20s or early 30s with sometimes feeble excuses for their sudden interest in politics. Acquiring a girlfriend was an easy way to fill the gap, making an undercover police officer seem like a real person.’ Elsewhere in the same book Laura relates an anecdote in which, after getting back together with Jim Boyling, he tells her that sex with activists was considered a ‘necessary tool’ in his unit until a certain time. ‘Jim complained one day that his superiors said there was to be no more sexual relations with activists – the implicit suggestion was that they were fully aware of this before and that it had not been restricted in the past.’ Lewis and Evans even suggest the possibility that Bob Lambert ‘calculated that having a child with an activist would cement his cover story,’ adding that the opinion is shared by those who knew him well while he infiltrated the ALF.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that these relationships were tactical came from former undercover officer and whistle-blower Peter Francis, who told The Guardian that the relationships were not only carried out ‘with the blessing of senior commanders’, but that they were designed to ‘help officers blend in’, and used to glean intelligence from ‘pillow talk’ and the intimacy and trust that come with romantic relationships.


If there has been a general hesitance to see the sexual relationships of these officers as incidental to their police duties, their gender might go some way to explaining why. Communication and Media scholar Dr Georgina Turner has compared the media coverage of the Kennedy revelations and the exposure of the Russian spy Anna Chapman, who was arrested in the US at around the same time as Kennedy’s story was breaking in the press. Dr Turner found that in media articles, ‘Chapman’s work appears to be constructed as naturally sexual, despite her consistently denying that she used sex tactically, [while] … Kennedy’s relationships with activists are often constructed as being apart from and perhaps even anathema to his work as a spy.’

One of the reasons for this might be that male covert officers do not play into the honeypot trope of espionage fiction. Perhaps this bias also partly explains why many do not see these relationships as the kind of grave abuse that their former partners see them as. Former spy cop Andy Coles, who groomed a teenage girl into a relationship during his deployment and wrote the aforementioned SDS tradecraft manual, has continued to serve as a city councillor and school governor after being exposed. Dines would go on to work as a course director at the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, supervising a unit that includes ‘sharing good practice, human rights and gender sensitivity’ in its learning outcomes.

Most of these women discovered the truth about their former lovers only through their own detective work, or that of other activists and journalists, in the face of police efforts to obstruct them and bury information. It was the importance of knowing the truth that pushed them to keep up their struggle. ‘Someone going missing is worse than a bereavement in a lot of ways. With a bereavement, you’ve got a body to bury, other people acknowledge your loss, and it’s something you can come to terms with over time. With a missing person you’re in limbo,’ Helen Steel has said. After these long, personally draining searches, the police’s ambiguity about how regular such relationships were and to what degree they were institutionally approved has heightened their sense of urgency for the full details of the undercover operations to be made public. Considering the significant number of undercover deployments – ‘there were 3,466 undercover operations in England and Wales between October 2009 and September 2013 alone’ – the question of how many people there are out there who might unknowingly have also been the victims of the same police MO remains very open.

Since their civil case ended, a lot of the momentum of the women’s campaign has moved to the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which began in July 2015 and covers the infiltration of more than 1,000 political groups since 1968. The inquiry’s chairman said at its opening that it was to be ‘the first time that undercover policing has been exposed to the rigour of public examination.’ However, the progression of the inquiry since then has thrown doubt on just how rigorous this examination will be. Participants claim that the police have continually impeded the work of the inquiry with delays, applications for secrecy and withholding of evidence and records, and that hearings have descended into a farce of ‘hours of legalese and Kafkaesque arguments.’ Participants want the release of the cover names of all officers involved in undercover deployments, arguing that unless police release this information, people targeted will remain unaware they were spied on and the true scale and nature of undercover operations will remain hidden.

In March of this year, sixty participants walked out of inquiry hearings to protest the police’s attempts to conceal officers’ identities. Another major concern of participants is that Sir John Mitting, a retired judge who took control of the inquiry in 2017, is too ‘naïve’ and ‘old-fashioned’ to bring sufficient understanding to the issues raised. A barrister for one of the participants has branded him ‘the usual white, upper middle-class, elderly gentleman whose life experiences are a million miles away from those who were spied upon.’ Participants are now fighting for the inclusion of a diverse panel to sit alongside Mitting to mitigate these limitations. The inquiry was initially due to end this year, but under a new timetable that takes in delays caused by police legal applications, it is now predicted that it will not deliver its results until 2023.

Despite their mission for truth and justice facing obstacles at every turn, the stories of these women and the spies who abused them coming to light have at least made some more aware of the draconian reach of intelligence gathering. Before Mark Kennedy was exposed, many of the women who suspected that their former partners had been police officers were wary to speak out because they were often met with responses along the lines of ‘this sort of thing doesn’t happen in this country.’†

Reading about this case certainly increased my awareness of the extent of undercover surveillance, which in its continual evolution, apparently now includes infiltrating left-wing movements via Tinder. In the meantime, if reading about these cases has rung alarm bells about someone you know, the Undercover Research Project have released a guidebook of their ‘do’s and don’ts’ of investigating suspected undercover officers. You can also support the women’s campaign through COPS or Police Spies out of Lives.


Image: Kelly Taylor / flickr

†Considering the long-term and deep police and ASIO infiltration of left-wing movements in Australia, it is not surprising that intimate relationships have occurred in this country’s history of espionage too. John Blaxland’s The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO, 1963-1975 mentions an ASIO agent who was ‘married into communism’ and operated without the knowledge of his wife. In Dirty secrets: Our ASIO Files, Penny Lockwood tells the story of a boyfriend who turned out to be an ASIO agent.

Zacharias Szumer

Zacharias Szumer is a writer and musician who lives in Naarm/Melbourne. Some of his other writings can be seen on his website.

More by Zacharias Szumer ›

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  1. Surreptitiously dropping information that didn’t make the final cut (Part 1): After Helen discovered that Dines was a police officer she eventually tracked him down to Australia, where he was working as director of police graduate training courses at the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, a branch of Charles Sturt University in Manly. Worried that he was training police officers in the same methods that she had been the victim of, she flew to Sydney in 2016 and confronted him at the airport as he greeted a contingent of Indian police officers.

  2. In terms of the legal possibilities of rape charges being brought against these officers, it should be mentioned that none of the officers have faced disciplinary action, let alone criminal prosecutions for their actions. In terms of whether it is theoretically possible, here is a very brief thing I wrote after reading some things related to this question: Deception and Rape.docx?dl=0

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