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NZ: The beauty of hindsight - police informant caught after 10 years

miss x. | 24.12.2008 15:38 | Animal Liberation | Repression | Terror War | Sheffield | World

About a week ago news broke in New Zealand that long time activist Rob Gilchrist had been a police informant for the last 10 years. Working for the Special Investigations Unit - an anti-terror, national security police unit - Rob had been informing on animal rights groups, environmental groups, unions, peace groups, even the Green Party.

rob gilchrist
rob gilchrist

His reports included not only communication methods, phone numbers, demonstration plans etc but also information on sexual relationships, travel plans, sources of income, etc.

Much of the behaviour of Rob Gilchrist is what one would consider classic informant and contilpro behaviour – most people I've talked to didn't react with shock at the news – instead everything suddenly clicked into place. I had once considered Rob to be a close friend, but hearing this news I realised deep down I already knew it to be true.
Many people had previously expressed distrust of him and some had already broken off contact with him or stopped working with him politically, but for various reasons there was no collective confrontation.

Before I get into how Rob got away with it for so long, I want to summarise some of the key signs that something was seriously wrong.

Mr I'm Bored
Rob was a self-confessed adrenaline junkie and always very keen on 'fucking shit up', would often during quiet periods say he was bored and suggest doing something illegal just for the hell of it.

He promoted violence against cops and fascists at every opportunity, but when push came to shove, either escalated a situation when it wasn't strategic to do so, or wasn't there. For example would take on the role of driving, police liason, or listening to police scanners during an action/demo (All things that people are generally happy to let someone else do). Or he would simply make up a reason at the last moment why he wouldn't take part.

This is not to say Rob limited his behaviour to provocation and incitement. Criminal acts include breaking and entry, amongst others. Footage released to television for example clearly show Rob breaking into a high security intensive chicken farm.

Mr security expert
Although seldom arrested during his 10 years on actions and protests, he led the majority of workshops on what to do if arrested or interrogated. Likewise at conferences Rob led workshops on anti-surveillance, getting away if police were chasing you (and police dogs - quite a terrifying discussion), how to move around in country and city spaces without people noticing you. Rob didn't just suggest to people they should commit criminal acts, he showed them personally how to do it. He also distributed booklets on how to break into factory farms and how to commit acts of eco-sabotage.

Although security conscious in many ways, he would definately pick and choose aspects of security culture he liked (ie. good for his ego) and ignore the ones that weren't convenient. For example Rob never cared about talking about sensitive issues in easily surveilled spaces. He was a scanner geek and had fancy equipment that could apparently check for (nonhuman) bugs. His car was always 'clean', the office was always 'clean' , etc....

Mr Finger
Rob was expert in calling other people out as being not trust worthy, or being corporate/police spies. In general he spread paranoia about other people. Numerous mass actions he knew about were stopped from happening by police beforehand (ie, a planned mass action at a GM field), but he was highly skilled at pointing the finger at someone else. Especially if that person had been questioning his authenticity.

If an action happened without him, Rob would sulk, and behave hurt he hadn't been invited. He would pick people he thought could be responsible for it, make comments about it to see how they reacted and try to make them feel guilty for the exclusion.

Mr Secret
Rob would tell people more explicitly of his trust of them, and entrust them with some secret only they or very few people could know about, be it a personal secret, a fancy new camera he got in some suspect way, or an upcoming action. Entrusting someone with a secret is an effective way to get trust reciprocated. And of course its even better if you have someone elses secrets to hold over them if the relationship breaks down.

On a broader level he promoted the creation of unnessecarily closed, secretive groups with vetting processes. This created not only an extremely false sense of security, but a general feeling of paranoia, heirachies and 'in' groups of people.

Mr 'put it on my account'
Rob had his own business selling scanners, radios etc, but in reality he wasn't getting much money from this, if any. He didn't pretend it was a major source of income, but he somehow had a lot of money. He explained this by having a large inheritance - not so unusal for a white activist in New Zealand.

And he was very generous with this money. He was constantly insisting on paying for everyones lunch, drinks, etc and putting on his 'work account'. And if someone he wanted to be in close contact with didn't have a cell phone for example, he would just give them one, implying that it was aquired in some kind of criminal way so not to tell anyone.

Questionable relationships
Rob slept with as many female activists as possible, or at least tried to. But not in an open free love kind of way – in a behind someones back, you have to keep it secret kinda way....This not only helped him get information, but was effectively a weapon against people speaking out against him in case he reacted by telling other people things he shouldn't.

This included recently discovered relationships with two 16year old activists, one of whom he took naked pictres of and emailed to his bosses. Also found on his computer were photographs of both the young women posing naked with his guns, and photos taken while one of the girls was sleeping.

Rob excelled at gossip and generally shit stirring between people. In this he went beyond plain informing into classic contilpro methods, facilitating splits of several groups, destroying friendships and ruining planned actions.

Rob either lived alone or with his current girlfriend, and was protective of his private space. People did get invited to his house, and also stayed the night there sometimes. But he never left people alone in his house.

why didn't he get called out sooner ?
It's so painfully obvious in hindsight. Perhaps it was simply a case of not seeing the forest for the trees, as he was in fact challenged on some of the individual points above – the problems just weren't put together to make a whole picture.
This theory is useful to a point, but since people were discussing his authenticity since early on in his informant career its obviously more complicated than this. Rob had very effectively sown seeds of discord amongst people and there was a lack of concrete evidence to call him out, but more importantly he had established credibility and a variety of close personal relationships which protected him.

Personal relationships
Rob was a friend of many people. He could see when someone was not feeling good, needed emotional support, and would be there for them. I knew I could ring him in the middle of the night crying my eyes out and he'd tell me everything would be alright (and I did more often than I care to admit). He was also in several long term relationships with other trusted politically active people. The creation of emotional ties and loyalties protected him for a long time, and built a deep network of trust. He supported people who were stuck in abusive relationships, he supported people getting harrassed from neo-nazis, he supported people experiencing depression – in other words, he saw peoples vunerabilities and used them to his advantage. People got drunk with him, did actions with him, cried on his shoulder. All this creates bonds and loyalties that are hard to break.

Any friend of yours is a friend of mine
Networks of trust can be very useful things, but dangerous if treated as infallible. They work both blatantly (ie. when someone explicitly vouches for someone else) or more subtly and both kinds were at play in this sitation. If someone you trust completely trusts someone you don't know so well, or feel uneasy about, like it or not its usually going to influence your feelings on that person.
Rob was assumed to be trusted by 'key' or respected activists, sometimes purely by virtue of association, when in reality it was often more a kind of tolerance than trust.

Common reactions for example, posted on indymedia:
'I never liked Gilchrist personally, but while he was such a close mate of Mark's I never questioned his loyalty, because I trusted Mark as a more experienced and politically savvy activist.... perhaps we all need to take responsibility for ourselves, and obey our gut instinct. ' - Michael Morris

“Although I thought he was a friend, I had had suspicions that he might be an informant which I had raised with my previous girlfriend, an animal rights activist who was also very close friend with Rob,” he says. “It led to serious problems in my friendship with Suzy that I can’t repair now that my fears had been proved correct because she died earlier this year.” -Simon Oosterman

By the time Rob had been caught out, he had been active within activist scene for at least 10 years. This was not 10 years limited to inciting and commiting illegal actions, but also periods doing basic organising such as making posters, getting stuff printed, email list admin (he was list admin of a lot of email lists – also a warning sign in the wider context). He researched local wannabe-nazis, conference venues, addresses of animal researchers, and more.

Reluctance to call someone out
After the Operation 8 raids and arrests last year it was undeniable that there was at least one informant in the left wing/anarchist scenes.
As Sally Darity from the Justice NOW! Collective writes:

“The police affidavit which was used as evidence to gain interception warrants against these people and many others is filled with ‘informant information’.”

“The ‘informant information’ is not available to the defendants. The identity of the informant is secret. This leaves the defendants in a legal black hole – defending themselves against information they do not have access to, from a person whose credibility cannot be questioned.”

And it's now clear that Rob had given reports on at least 3 of the people facing charges from the Operation 8 raids.

But it is a big call to accuse someone of being a police informer – few people do this lightly especially if its 'just a feeling' and you have no proof.

Many people had stopped working with Rob - some because he was simply disruptive, others because they just didn't trust him- but there was either no or little direct confrontation with him. And besides, who wants to believe someone close to them has been telling the police who they are sleeping with, the fights they have with their lovers, and what they had for breakfast that day.

In the end Rob was only caught after asking his then girlfriend Rochelle Rees, a computer programmer, to fix his computer.

After checking to see if his emails had been corrupted, she found hundreds of strange emails where the sender and subject lines were all blank, being sent to the same anonymous email address. This email address was traced back to the Christchurch central police station and then the Special Investigations Group. Wanting more evidence, she then installed spyware on his phone to monitor his text messages and calls, and set a script on his computor to continue sending his emails to her. She even downloaded a years worth of phone bills and decrypted documents he had encrypted.

Giving a computer filled with sensitive information to a computer programmer seems to be a stupid thing to do. Opinion is divided as to whether it was just a case of getting too big for ones boots, or actually wanting to be exposed. But lets give Rochelle some credit here - she's pretty damn smart. Personally if I was going to knowingly expose myself I'd get rid of the photographs of my illicit affairs playing with my guns first. But who knows.

what now?
Now I am left with the problem of how to move beyond a reduction of the situation to emotion vs logic, openess vs secret.

Emotions and vunerabilities were expertly exploited by Rob but cold hearts with walls around them is not my idea of the revolution. I don't want to live in a community where no one gets close to each other, where no one can show vunerability or rage, where everyone is suspect. And it's not going to get us any closer to the world we want to live in either.
Listening to each other and taking collective responsibility for looking out for each other would be a good start. Meeting with each other personally, face to face instead of relying on email lists and text messages would also help. Emails and texts messages are not only loved by police and surveillance agencies, they also de-personalise relationships. It was the people who spent had day to day contact with Rob who picked up that something was wrong first.

No doubt the debate between 'taking the moral high ground' of open actions versus working in closed anonymous groups will continue for eternity. The reality is that informants fuck up everyone, open or not. State repression aims to crush both. But we do need to reconsider when we need to keep secrets, when we don't, and keep the line between them clear. Because as well as being generally destructive, heirachies and paranoia damage security conscious behaviour, and will not make any social movement inclusive.

Peace, love and crowbars
miss x.

For more information:

Rob Gilchrist - police informant for 'anti-terror' unit

Rob Gilchrist sent naked photos of teenage activist to police

Pepper sprayed activist to take police to court over provocateur

Operation 8 info

Video of rob breaking into chicken farm

News clip from when story first broke

Debate between unionist and editor of National Business Review

miss x.


Display the following 7 comments

  1. Hindsight is 20-20 — Joseph Roth
  2. Wow! — Chris
  3. Security Practices and Security Culture — COINTELPRO: The Danger We Face
  4. Source of repost above — Chris
  5. JR — anonymous
  6. What's Rob Gilchrist up to at the moment? — anon
  7. rob gilchrist, in 2010 — Mark E