By Arab News
By Neil Berry
Credible is an adjective cherished by former Metropolitan policeman Robert Lambert. Applied to nonviolent Islamists rated by him as trustworthy partners in the effort to expunge the threat of terrorism, it peppers the pages of his book, “Countering Al-Qaeda in London.”
The product of hard-won experience and careful reflection, Lambert’s book offers testimony to his own credibility as an exceptionally liberal-minded policeman who has latterly emerged as a respected academic; it also delivers a persuasive counterblast to right-wing critics for whom Lambert’s faith in the efficacy of “partnering” radicalized Muslims epitomizes liberal policing gone mad. Yet now The Guardian newspaper has hugely embarrassed the ex-detective with revelations that during the 1980s he operated as an undercover policeman, infiltrating London Green Peace and posing as an animal rights activist, before going on to become a spymaster who ran a network of police spies.
The policeman with much to say about the credibility of key Muslim coadjutors in the fight against terrorism is himself contending with a grievous blow to his credibility. Lambert maintains he was never implicated in spying on Muslims. Yet who will now take him seriously in the light of disclosures that for years he was a professional dissembler? His “good guy” image has shattered.
The Guardian has revealed that in his guise as an animal rights activist, Lambert formed a romantic relationship with a young woman as part of his cover. He was, it appears, one of a number of policeman who engaged in such subterfuge, some even marrying female activists.
The woman with whom Lambert became involved (who was not herself an activist) has been traumatized by the news that the man she fell in love with and who eventually vanished from her life, intimating that he was wanted by the police, was acting a part. Reported to feel “violated” by the discovery that Lambert used her, she is unlikely to be much consoled by the belated “unreserved apology” he has tendered her.
Many among Lambert’s contacts must feel more than a little sympathy for the young woman of whom he took advantage. Indeed, almost all who have been familiar with him, Muslims or otherwise, are bound to be re-evaluating their perception of a long-serving policeman who has presented himself as a plain-dealing public servant.
Who outside the police would have worked with him at all if they had had the smallest inkling about his covert activities? What is particularly damaging — not just to Lambert but to the image of British police at large — is the disclosure by the Guardian and BBC television’s Newsnight that police spies with whom Lambert was associated were prosecuted under assumed identities as activists. All the indications are that numerous policemen went into court and committed perjury. It is not clear if Robert Lambert himself was among the policemen thus prosecuted, though there seems little doubt that he was party to operations that saw policemen go into court and utter falsehoods.
As it happened, a review of the infiltration of protest groups by the police was due to be published last week. Following the revelations about Lambert, however, the report — compiled before he assumed his current post by the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe — has been put on hold. Hogan-Howe insists — to the astonishment of the former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald — that officers’ use of fake identities was not illegal. Nevertheless, he has bowed to pressure to launch an inquiry into the incidence of police officers prosecuted under aliases. It will bring the number of current inquiries relating to police infiltration of political groups to 11. Meanwhile, Lambert’s possible perjury may be referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is already investigating claims that another officer lied about his identity in court. Sooner or later, the issue will have to be addressed of where the responsibility lay for allowing undercover officers to testify under oath. Lambert, in short, is caught up in a crisis of credibility that extends far beyond his own exploits and suggests extraordinary recklessness, not to say sheer folly, at the highest levels of British policing.
As one who reviewed Lambert’s book in favorable terms, I remain of the opinion that the story it tells and the arguments it advances possess intrinsic merit. Yet if I had nursed the least suspicion that Lambert had been involved in espionage, I would inevitably have approached the book in a very different spirit. One might even have queried his reasons for so conspicuously identifying himself with a controversial anti-terrorist stance. Certainly, Countering Al-Qaeda in London cannot be read now as it previously could. Not least among British Muslims, there must be those who wonder if anything Lambert ever said is innocent of ulterior motives.
The trouble is that evidence of deception engenders furious emotions, visceral feelings of betrayal and distrust. The sense of violation experienced by his former girl friend is perhaps only an extreme form of what many who have dealt with Lambert are now experiencing
How to explain Lambert’s mindset, the moral ambiguities of his career? In his book, Lambert seeks to distinguish himself from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with his duplicitous foreign policy. Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that he shares with Blair a conviction of his own virtue so overweening that it licensed him to believe that the end justifies the means. Lambert is said to have accomplished much on behalf of public safety; according to police colleagues, his outstanding undercover work led to the foiling of bomb plots by animal rights activists. However that may be, his unmasking as a police spy will be difficult for him to live down. Apart from anything else, it has played into the hands of his Islamophobic detractors. Sparing them the effort of exerting themselves to undermine his credibility, Robert Lambert has effectively discredited himself.