The story of Bob Lambert reveals just how far police may have gone to infiltrate political groups
The grave of Mark Robinson and his parents in Branksome cemetery in Poole, Dorset. Bob Lambert adopted the boy’s identity, abbreviating his second name to Bob. Photograph: Roger Tooth for the Guardian
The words inscribed on the grave say Mark Robinson “fell asleep” on 19 October, 1959. He was a seven-year-old boy who died of a congenital heart defect, the only child to Joan and William Robinson. They died in 2009 and are buried in the same grave, listed on the headstone as “Mummy” and “Daddy”.
It is perhaps some solace that Mark’s parents never lived long enough to discover how the identity of their son may have been quietly resurrected by undercover police without their knowledge. The controversial tactic – in which covert officers spying on protesters adopted the identities of dead children – stopped less than a decade ago. More than 100 children’s identities may have been used.
Last week the home secretary, Theresa May, announced that a chief constable from Derbyshire would take over an inquiry into undercover policing of protest, after revelations by the Guardian into the use of stolen identities.
Despite an internal investigation that has cost £1.25m, senior officers seem genuinely baffled at the activities of two apparently rogue units that have been monitoring political campaigners since 1968.
The story of the officer who appears to have used the identity of Mark Robinson, adopting it as his own, reveals much of what has gone wrong with police infiltration of political groups. Bob Lambert, who posed as an animal rights campaigner in the 1980s, not only adopted the identity of a dead child. He was also accused in parliament of carrying out an arson attack on a Debenhams department store and deceiving two women into having long-term sexual relationships with him.
One of them has now revealed how Lambert fathered a child with her before vanishing from their lives when his deployment came to an end in 1989. She only discovered he was an undercover police officer eight months ago – more than 20 years after he disappeared from the lives of mother and child, claiming to be on the run.
Using the pseudonym Charlotte, she said in a statement to the home affairs select committee: “There can be no excuses for what he did: for the betrayal, the manipulation and the lies … I loved him so much, but now have to accept that he never existed.”
The story of how Bob Lambert became Bob Robinson begins on the outskirts of Poole, Dorset, in 1983. For almost 25 years, a sculpture of the boy stood guard above the grave in Branksome cemetery. “Safe in the arms of Jesus,” the engraving said.
Lambert would have come across the boy’s paperwork in St Catherine’s House, the national register of births, deaths and marriages. It was a rite of passage for all spies working in the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a unit dedicated to spying on protesters. For ease of use, SDS officers looked to adopt the identities of dead children who shared their name and approximate date of birth. They called it “the Jackal Run”, after its fictional depiction in Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal.
Mark Robinson was the ideal match. He was born in Plumstead, south-east London, on 28 February, 1952 – just 16 days before Lambert’s date of birth. His second name was Robert, which the spy could abbreviate to Bob. He died of acute congestive cardiac failure after being born with a malformed heart. Other SDS officers are known to have chosen children who died of leukaemia or were killed in road accidents.
Undercover police did not merely adopt the names of dead children, but revived entire identities, researching their family backgrounds and secretly visiting the homes they were brought up in.
When the spy made his debut in London as a long-haired anti-capitalist, he introduced himself as Bob Robinson and said he was born in Plumstead. He had fake identity documents, including a driving licence in the name of Mark Robinson. Recently, he is understood to have said his full undercover alias was Mark Robert Robinson. The date of birth he gave is still in a diary entry of one close friend: it was the same date as that of the dead child.
Bob Lambert, aka Bob Robinson Photograph: guardian.co.uk
It was the start of a surreal double life. For most of the week he lived as Robinson, a gardener and active member of the environmental group London Greenpeace. For one or two days a week, he returned to the more conventional life with his wife and children in Hertfordshire. SDS insiders say Lambert was revered as one of the best operatives in the field. He helped jail two activists from the Animal Liberation Front who were convicted of planting incendiary devices in branches of Debenhams in protest at the sale of fur in July1987.
Lambert’s relationship with Charlotte, then 22, helped bolster his undercover credibility. When they met in 1984, Lambert was her first serious relationship, and 12 years her senior.
“He got involved in animal rights and made himself a useful member of the group by ferrying us around in his van,” she said. “He was always around, wherever I turned he was there trying to make himself useful, trying to get my attention. I believed at the time that he shared my beliefs and principles. In fact, he would tease me for not being committed enough.”
Around Christmas that year, Charlotte became pregnant. “Bob seemed excited by the news and he was caring and supportive throughout the pregnancy,” she said. “Bob was there by my side through the 14 hours of labour in the autumn of 1985 when our son was born. He seemed to be besotted with the baby. I didn’t realise then that he was already married with two other children.”
Two years later, Lambert’s deployment came to an end. He told friends police were on his tail and he needed to flee to Spain. “He promised he would never abandon his son and said that as soon as it was safe I could bring our baby to Spain to see him,” Charlotte said. Instead, the man she knew as Bob Robinson disappeared forever.
She was left to bring up their son as a single parent. It was an impoverished life, made worse because there was no way she could receive child maintenance payments. “At that time I blamed myself a lot for the break-up and for the fact that my son had lost his father,” she said.
When Charlotte’s son became older, the pair tried to track down Bob Robinson, who they presumed was still living in Spain. They could not have known he was working just a few miles away.
In the mid-1990s, Lambert was promoted to head of operations at the SDS, giving him overarching responsibility for a fleet of other spies. Just like their boss, they adopted the identities of dead children before going undercover to cultivate long-term and intimate relationships with women. That was the unit’s tradecraft and Lambert, with his experience in the field, was its respected spymaster. “I chatted to Bob about everything.” said Pete Black, an SDS officer who infiltrated anti-racist groups under Lambert. “You used to go in with any sort of problems, and if he could not work out how to get you out of the shit, then you were fucked.”
After his senior role in the SDS, Lambert rose through the ranks of special branch and, in the aftermath of 9/11, founded the Muslim Contact Unit, which sought to foster partnerships between police and the Islamic community.
He was awarded an MBE for services to policing and retired to start a fresh career in academia, with posts at St Andrews and Exeter universities.
‘It was my Bob’
In 2011, Lambert’s past returned to haunt him. That year Mark Kennedy, another police spy, was revealed to have spent seven years infiltrating eco activists. He had several intimate relationships with women, including one that lasted six years. Kennedy worked for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, another squad dedicated to monitoring protesters and the second, according to the Metropolitan police, believed to have used the identities of dead children.
Amid the outcry over Kennedy’s deployment, there was a renewed push among activists to unmask police infiltrators. It was some of Lambert’s old friends in London Greenpeace who eventually made the connection, comparing YouTube videos of Lambert speeches with grainy photographs of Bob Robinson in the 1980s.
Lambert was giving a talk in a London auditorium when members of the audience – veterans from London Greenpeace – confronted him about his undercover past. He left the stage and walked out of a side door. Outside, he was stony-faced as he was chased down the street by a handful of ageing campaigners. He jumped into a taxi and melted into the afternoon traffic.
It was only the start of a cascade of claims to tarnish the senior officer’s reputation. In June last year, the Green MP Caroline Lucas used a parliamentary speech to allege that Lambert planted one of three incendiary devices in branches of Debenhams. No one was hurt in the attack on the Harrow store, in north-west London, which caused £340,000 worth of damage. Pointing to evidence that suggested Lambert planted the device, the MP asked: “Has another undercover police officer crossed the line into acting as an agent provocateur?”
Rob Evans and Paul Lewis
The Guardian, Thursday 21 February 2013 18.00 GMT
Find this story at 21 February 2013
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