Peace Researcher 38 – July 2009


- Mark Eden, Wellington Animal Rights Network


In December 2008, the Sunday Star Times published a story revealing that Christchurch man Rob Gilchrist had spent ten years as a Police spy inside a range of activist groups around the country (14/12/08, “Police Anti-Terror Squad Spies On Protest Groups” and “Crossing The Line: The Activist Who Turned Police Informer”, by Nicky Hager, in the same issue, online at http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/760466).


A couple of months earlier, Auckland animal rights activist Rochelle Rees made a disturbing discovery (see Rochelle Rees’ article, below, for full details. Ed.). She is a computer programmer and her then partner Rob Gilchrist had asked her to fix his laptop computer while she was visiting him in Christchurch. While she was checking it she came across some disturbing e-mails that suggested that Rob was sending private information from activist groups to a strange e-mail address. The evidence was enough to convince Rochelle that her partner was a Police informer. She contacted a few other activists and investigative journalist Nicky Hager, and after a six week investigation, a major story was published in the Sunday Star Times revealing that Rob Gilchrist was a paid informant for the Police Special Investigations Group (SIG), which was set up in 2004 under the Labour government and, according to the Police 2006 Statement of Intent, is “dedicated to the investigation of national security-related crime including terrorism”. There was a week of media coverage of the scandal as more and more facts came out about how widespread the spying was. People who had worked with Rob were all comparing notes and stories about his involvement in many groups over the years.


Casting A Wide Net


Rob collected information on animal rights groups, peace groups, unions, environmentalists, human rights groups and anyone else the SIG was interested in. The Christchurch SIG is made up of Detective Peter Gilroy and Detective Sergeant John Sjoberg. Rob met Gilroy regularly and passed on e-mails and other info through an anonymous e-mail address. In return payments of $600 a week were deposited into the bank account of a company owned by Rob. The Urban Camouflage Company Ltd was set up in January 2005 and wholly owned by Rob. He also owns NZScanners Ltd, a company which sells radio scanners and other radio equipment through a Website (which is no longer in business. Ed.).  He claimed the scanner business was his main source of income but it appears the company is inactive and has not made money for several years.


Rob admitted working for the Police for ten years and it is probable that before 2004 he was reporting to the Threat Assessment Unit (TAU), which is responsible for “collection, collation, analysis and dissemination of intelligence on activist groups and potential threats”[1]. See Rochelle Rees article, below, for full details on the TAU. Ed. When Rochelle discovered her partner was a Police informant she copied the contents of his computer and installed software on his cellphone to record his messages. Rob’s computer records went back about four years. In that time he was subscribed to many e-mail lists from all sorts of campaigning groups. He sifted through these every day and passed on the interesting/useful ones to the Police (upcoming events, interesting names and addresses, details of disputes and debates etc). He was on the internal discussion lists and forums of groups all over the country including many that he wasn’t part of and should not have been on.


Rob attended protests, conferences and meetings all over the country. The Police were paying all his travel, car rental and motel expenses for these trips (sometimes up to $2,500 for a week long trip, on top of his weekly $600 wage). He would often claim he was in town for a business trip relating to his scanner business. After a trip or a major protest he would write a report for the Police on all the groups and individuals he met, including their sexual habits, private lives and personal gossip, profiles of activists and predictions of future trends and plans.


The information on his computer was only a partial record of what Rob was doing since he became a Police informant. He first appeared around 1998 in Christchurch and tried to join several activist groups (he was part of an upsurge in Police spying which targeted protests planned against the 1999 APEC Summit in Auckland. Ed.). Some of these groups were very suspicious of his motives and suspected him of being a Police informant from day one, but no proof was available and Rob simply moved on to other groups, eventually finding a place in the Beneficiaries’ Action Collective and through that, several local anarchist groups.


I first met him in 1999 when he travelled to Wellington to take part in protests against an animal research conference. By that time he had been involved in Christchurch unemployed rights and anarchist groups for over a year and some of my Christchurch friends knew him and worked with him. Over the next few years he was involved in a lot of anti-globalisation and anti-capitalism campaigns and protests and even ran a national campaign e-mail list for anti-capitalist activists (the New Zealand Activism e-list, to which both ABC and CAFCA belonged and posted notices about forthcoming activities. As Rob Gilchrist was the list moderator and had sole access to it, we had no other option but to unsubscribe from it following his exposure. Ed.).


Agent Provocateur


He got heavily involved in animal rights campaigning and was active in organising protests and animal rights gatherings around the country. He spent most of 2001 organising protests and establishing himself as a trusted activist within the animal rights movement. He even organised an illegal raid on a factory farm that was filmed by the Havoc and Newsboy TV show. He was interviewed on camera wearing a full camouflage outfit as he broke into the farm. By this time Rob had been active in all sorts of groups around the country and was considered part of the activist “scene” in Wellington and Christchurch. He had organised a lot of stuff, been arrested and even successfully sued the Police. He was apparently earning a living as a meter reader at the time as well as running his Website that sold radio equipment and Police scanners. He claimed he was an ex-soldier and eventually confided to his closest friends that he had served in the Special Air Service (SAS) before injuring his knee and leaving the Army (and yes he showed us his titanium knee and his collection of SAS memorabilia).


By 2004 Rob moved to Wellington and was living with his then partner, who had also been involved in animal rights activism for a couple of years. He spent two years in Wellington and during that time I got to know him quite well and considered him a friend. It became obvious that he was a bit strange, dishonest and more interested in his own ego than activist work. At the time he was supposedly living off his business selling radios and Police radio scanners and seemed to have all day to sit around buying lunch or coffee for the many broke but caffeine addicted activists around Wellington.


He was only interested in exciting or secretive stuff (protests or dodgy snooping around) he didn’t contribute to meetings or do any work at all unless it was sneaky or dodgy. At the same time he let everyone know that he was a very important person who was always at the centre of things. And at this time he approached several different people, including me, on several occasions and asked us to plan illegal actions with him. Some of the plans were for sensible things, and some were for stupid things. All of them involved Rob taking people for a drive or a walk, secret meetings, and planning out how the job would be done. Then Rob would suddenly lose interest and abandon the plans. Everyone involved realised pretty quickly that Rob was all talk and no action. We didn’t think he was a cop but we did think that he was an egotistical idiot who was only interested in entertaining himself.


But we still tolerated him and were seen associating with him so most people assumed he was one of the gang. For the next two years he lived in Wellington and socialised with me and other activists from various groups. He used his contacts in the animal rights movement to get himself involved in any major protests happening around the country and travelled regularly to attend events in Auckland. In 2006 his girlfriend left him and he moved back to Christchurch. He became more and more unstable and was admitted to a psychiatric ward a couple of times that year that we know of. He confessed to having serious mental issues but said this was because of “post traumatic stress disorder from his Army years”.


A lot of animal rights people around the country had a major falling out with him in 2006 when we tried to organise a series of hen rescues at battery hen farms. These “open rescues” involved us breaking into factory farms, filming the conditions inside, and openly taking battery hens and rehoming them. After years trying to convince us to commit crimes, Rob finally had us all sitting in a room wanting to plan a burglary and he did everything he could to prevent it going ahead! He convinced several campaigners to pull out of the planned action and spread a rumour that a good activist was an undercover cop. He was already considered to be difficult and disruptive by some but this time he had gone too far. From then on, most of the animal rights movement refused to have anything to do with him.


In 2007 he made several attempts to contact several Wellington activists (including me) with ludicrous stories about his secret operations uncovering spies in the animal rights movement. He told me that he had broken into the HQ of Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd (TCIL), had found a way to steal all their files and needed my help to break in and finish the job! (TCIL is a security firm contracted by private companies and State-owned Enterprises to spy on and infiltrate various Christchurch and Wellington environmental, animal rights and peace groups. For details, see Peace Researcher 34, July 2007, “The Secret Policeman’s Ball”, subheading “The Privatisation Of Spying”, by Murray Horton, online at http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr34-146.html; and PR 35, December 2007, “The Privatisation Of Spying, Part 2”, by Mark Eden, online at http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr35-153a.html. Ed.).


The more I ignored it the crazier the stories got, as he became more and more desperate to get back into a trusted position with Wellington activists. Unfortunately Rob was still very close to a couple of activists in Auckland and visited them frequently. Through them he was able to continue collecting info on the animal rights movement and other groups. One of the Auckland activists had strong suspicions that Rob was a Police informer but without hard evidence Rob managed to discredit his accuser and continued to be a trusted member of Auckland Animal Action.


Double Agent?


Early in 2008 he rang me with another scheme. This time he said that TCIL had approached him to spy on animal rights activists and he had decided to double cross TCIL by ripping them off. After checking with other activists it turned out he was telling us all sorts of lies about what was going on and was trying to sell info to TCIL for as long as possible. We all assumed Rob was insane enough that TCIL really would approach him to spy, and a lot of people pressured him to go public immediately. This ended up being a story in the Sunday Star Times where Rob exposed Thompson & Clark’s continued spying on the Save Happy Valley campaign on behalf of (State coal mining company) Solid Energy (20/4/08; “Private Investigators Still Digging On West Coast”, Nicky Hager, online at http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/377237. For those of us who had known all along that Rob was a spy, this was a deeply ironic situation, namely that of an undercover Police spy going very public to complain that a private security firm had offered to employ him to do what he was already doing for the cops. Perhaps Gilchrist had scruples about privatisation, or maybe he didn’t like being sold on by his Police handlers. Then again, it may have been an act to maintain his credibility with his activist colleagues – on whom he was already spying. Ed.).


By this time he was in a relationship with animal rights campaigner Rochelle Rees and had moved back to Christchurch. Rochelle is a computer genius and Rob rather stupidly asked her to install new mail software on his laptop. And the rest is history, as indeed was Rob. When all was revealed in December 08, the most common reaction from people who worked with Rob wasn’t surprise but sudden realisation that it should have been obvious all along.


As a close friend of Rob’s wrote afterwards: “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 [his disruptive behaviour, dishonesty, constant lies] – the problems just weren't put together to make a whole picture. . . . but, since people were discussing his authenticity since early on in his informant career, it’s 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”[2].




From the very beginning there were suspicions that Rob was an informer, but never any evidence, and he just kept moving from group to group, causing disruption and confusion wherever he went. Most of the people who got to know him realised that he was very disruptive and interested in shit stirring and showing off rather than hard work. In his personal relationships he was emotionally abusive, paranoid, and possessive. He was always hard to deal with, a lot of people didn’t like or trust him, especially those who got to know him well. But he was very persuasive and charismatic in the short term so he managed to get away with a lot of stuff by quick talking and moving along before the lies caught up with him. Most of us thought he was a nutter, and later a sad mentally ill nutter, but we tolerated him. And he was very good at convincing people that everyone else trusted him. Even after most people were avoiding him he told us sob stories about how depressed he was and how he had no friends so we would feel sorry for him. Pretty much the only thing he said that was true was the stuff about being mentally ill.


Was Rob’s disruptive behaviour deliberate? I don’t think so. He wasn’t a master spy; he was and is a sad pathetic person with serious mental issues. In fact his incompetence and disruptive behaviour often protected him from suspicion, as surely a Police spy couldn’t be that irrational. In hindsight of course, it seems the Police have to rely on nutters and dodgy weirdoes because a normal person just wouldn’t want the job.


Rob was a deluded fantasist who bought SAS memorabilia and decorated his house with it so visitors thought he was an ex-commando (he may have served in the Territorials when he was young but was never a fulltime soldier). He told me he had been arrested for stealing cars in Timaru and investigated for benefit fraud before he got involved in political groups. He said his arrest for car theft was the result of a friend informing on him to the Police to escape a prison sentence, and ever since that day he had hated Police informers! It’s probable that he was the informer in that case and that’s how his career began. We may never know.


What Can We Do About It?


We in the animal rights movement have caught two very different spies in the last couple of years. Somali Young was a Wellington Animal Rights Network member for two years and she spent the entire time being a very quiet helpful background person. She never had an opinion and was always happy to provide transport, take the minutes and do the dishes. All the time she was reporting to Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd, which was working for various industries involved in animal cruelty (for details, see Peace Researcher 34, July 2007, “The Secret Policeman’s Ball”, subheading “The Privatisation Of Spying”, by Murray Horton, online at http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr34-146.html; and PR 35, December 2007, “The Privatisation Of Spying, Part 2”, by Mark Eden, online at http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr35-153a.html. Ed.). Rob was the exact opposite of Somali, he always had an opinion, insisted on being at the centre of events and had no interest in anything boring he only wanted action. He was also very disruptive. The one thing Rob and Somali had in common is that they never really fitted in and were never convincingly passionate about animal rights or any of the other issues they were supposedly interested in.


The animal rights movement in NZ has been lucky in a way. We have unmasked a Police informant and a corporate private investigator in the last few years without much damage to our movement. Overseas the animal rights movement hasn’t been so lucky. In the United States an eco activist is serving 19 years in prison after being set up by an FBI informant who encouraged him to plan an arson attack[3]. Several animal rights activists in the US and the UK are serving long prison sentences for “inciting terrorism “ or “blackmail” for running successful protest campaigns against animal research companies[4]. And in Austria, up to 40 animal rights activists are facing possible prison sentences for being part of a “criminal conspiracy” after successfully banning battery cages there.[5]


Police See Activists As Potential Terrorists To Be Spied On


The NZ Police clearly regard animal rights activists, and anyone else who threatens corporate profits or the State, as potential terrorists who must be spied on. The Police Special Investigations Group was set up to investigate terrorism, and so far their main interest has been non-violent activist groups of various sorts. They paid Rob Gilchrist $600 a week to report on animal rights groups, anarchists, peace groups, environmental groups and unions. They also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating peace activist Harmeet Sooden after someone tagged the office of a company involved in arms dealing in Auckland [6].

While there’s no guaranteed way of detecting spies and informers there are a few things we can do to make it a bit more difficult for the spooks. The worst thing we could do is become paranoid and secretive, and to stop trusting each other. We do need to be far less tolerant of people in our movement who cause trouble and infighting. Even if they aren’t spies we are better off without them. Tolerating disruptive dickheads just isn’t worth the bother.


We should be making sure that everyone in our movements is aware of the way the Police operate. A lot of people without direct experience of spying still think it can’t happen to them and don’t take it seriously. At the other extreme some people have become so paranoid that they have stopped doing stuff or are convinced they are being followed all the time. We need to make sure our groups have a realistic (not naïve, but not paranoid either) idea of what the Police are up to in NZ. They have always spied on anyone they consider subversive and they have always lied about it, pretending it doesn’t happen here. But, we shouldn’t ever get complacent and just accept the fact that we are spied on in our so called democracy. We have to fight them, by exposing them every time they stuff up and get caught.


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[2] The beauty of hindsight:  Police informant caught after ten years http://de.indymedia.org/2008/12/237332.shtml