The Guardian newspaper reported, in July this year, that British police and intelligence agencies are using children (under 18s) as undercover operatives in their efforts to gather information on drug gangs, terrorist groups and sexual trafficking networks. The Home Office, the department responsible for intelligence gathering and policing, has requested that the use of covert human intelligence sources (CHIS) – a fancy title for spies – be extended from one month to four months in the case of juveniles.
This practice of using children as spies came to light because the House of Lords legislative scrutiny committee – tasked with reviewing changes to existing legislation – raised concerns about the use of children in such dangerous and criminal environments. While the UK police and intelligence authorities have asked for an extension of the period in which children can be deployed as spies, there was no explanation as to how an authorising officer would assess the psychological risks to the welfare of such children.
One of the main reasons that we in the West feel revulsion for militia groups such as Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and others is their reputed willingness to use children in combat situations. Whether directly in the field as soldiers, or as backup in logistics and intelligence operations, these kinds of groups stand condemned in our sensibilities because of their ruthless capacity to subject juveniles to violent and brutalising environments. The practice of recruiting and using child soldiers is provided as evidence of the shocking brutality of our opponents – rightly so.
That is quite interesting, because Britain has its own problems with regard to the recruitment of child soldiers. The UK government has come under heavy criticism for its drive to recruit disaffected and marginalised teenagers into the ranks of the military. Exposing children to violent environments and intimidation have lasting and adverse psychological impacts.
Children are used by narco-trafficking networks in order to ostensibly fly under the radar of the law enforcement authorities. UK police are arresting ever-greater numbers of under-16s for heroin, crack and/or cocaine dealing. Such groups use violence and intimidation as a daily tactic to ensure the loyalty of their members, and intimidate outsiders and civilians into fearful submission. The British government authorities intend to return such children into these kinds of violent subcultures.
Former UK undercover police officer Neil Woods, spoke of his experiences as an undercover operative. He now runs the company Leap – Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Woods, in describing the environment of a drug trafficking network, elaborated that one tactic that these groups use to keep people in line is rape. The latter was used against the female relatives of those in the gang who were suspected of disloyalty or of being informants.
Keeping children in such environments only increases the risk of psychological harm to the juvenile CHIS. The Home Office thus far has not explained what criteria are used to evaluate the risks of maintaining a child inside such an organisation, as opposed to the value of the intelligence gathered. Lord Trefgarne, who headed the legislative scrutiny committee, has asked for information on how many juvenile informants have been deployed, and what assessments, if any have been undertaken to assess their psychological state.
Let us briefly set aside the ethical considerations in using children as undercover spies – and let us adopt a practical point of view. Can a child, however intelligent or resourceful, provide useful intelligence about a drug trafficking or sexual exploitation network? Psychologists and experts who have examined this area are – at a minimum – highly critical of the value of such information-gathering. Do children have the social and emotional intelligence to handle the changing dynamics and shifting loyalties of a drug gang? Can they handle the trauma of witnessing terrifying violence on a daily basis?
Joseph Pistone, former FBI agent and undercover operative, wrote of his experiences infiltrating Mafia networks in the United States. His book about his life as an undercover operative was dramatised in the film Donnie Brasco. A trained professional, he wrote of the daily stresses, anxieties and tension of posing as a ‘jewel thief’, all the while keeping his social antennae attuned to the fluid dynamics of rival factional loyalties. He did this for the purpose of gathering meaningful intelligence about the criminal operations of the Mafia family he infiltrated.
Pistone detailed the backstabbing, duplicity, deception and violence that were part of the daily life of being involved in a criminal enterprise. It took a toll on his family life and well-being. Can a juvenile, however excellent their academic skills, handle the unique pressures of being an undercover informant? Michelle Jones and Dustin Johnson, two scholars who work in the field of child psychology, wrote that:
Quality, accurate information that can be acted upon quickly by security forces is vital in covert operations. A child doesn’t have the cognitive abilities to recall or collect the kind of nuanced information that is likely to offer significant benefit to the investigation. So if the child is only providing low-level intelligence or information, is it really worth risking their safety to get it?
Just Security, an online forum based at New York University School of Law, published an article about the use of child spies in the UK. Authored by two practicing barristers, Shaheed Fatima QC and Hanif Mussa from Blackstone Chambers in London, the writers elaborate on what the use of juvenile undercover operatives says about British society. They quote the words of Nelson Mandela, who said that “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Rights Watch (UK) commented on this issue, saying that:
Enlisting children as foot soldiers in the darkest corners of policing, and intentionally exposing them to terrorism, crime or sexual abuse rings — potentially without parental consent — runs directly counter to the government’s human rights obligations, which demand the interests of children be placed at the heart of decisions which affect them. It’s also an affront to the government’s own safeguarding guidance, which requires our public authorities to help children escape crime, not become more deeply embedded in it
The Guardian newspaper, in its editorial commentary back in July, made a telling observation. It noted that years of neoliberal austerity have undermined social services to the point of breakdown, leaving children, among others, particularly vulnerable:
Years of austerity have stretched services to breaking point. Youth and social services and educational provision cannot meet the demands. This, as well as broader social and economic marginalisation, is the context of the frightening rises in knife crime and gang violence.
If the economic programme of a society leaves children vulnerable and marginalised, then it is high time to ditch that economic platform for one that prioritises the needs and welfare of the society’s most precious citizens.