New Powers for NYPD Spies

Revolutionary Worker #1195, April 20, 2003, posted at

On February 12, U.S. District Judge Charles Haight issued a decision scrapping rules on NYPD spying. In a "Memorandum Opinion and Order," the judge agreed to the NYPD's request that the restrictions on police spying--known as the Handschu discussion--be thrown out. The decision opens the door to NYPD spying without the pretense of restraint. This is a dangerous move that has already had implications on people protesting the system's juggernaut of war and repression.

In 1985 New York City officials signed a consent decree to settle a lawsuit brought by various political and antiwar activists against the NYPD. The settlement ended a 1972 case against the police for, among other things, dispatching agent provocateurs to infiltrate organizations, wiretapping, taking photographs of people at demonstrations, sending agents to public meetings, and building dossiers on hundreds of thousands of people.

Under the settlement the police were not to launch these "investigations"-- which were really attempts to derail and destroy political opponents--without at least the pretext of probable cause that a crime was being planned or committed. The settlement established a three-member panel, known as the Handschu Authority (named for one of those in the initial lawsuit), to approve political police operations and limit the intelligence-gathering that police were officially allowed to undertake. In September 2002, the NYPD went to court and asked that all of this be eliminated, leaving the Handschu panel to review cases only when there were complaints. The court has now agreed to this.

The judge in this case, to justify his decision, cited a quote from Admiral James M. Loy, the new Under Secretary of Transportation for Security which said, "It is so important for us as a nation to realize that we are living--and will live for a long time--in a very different security environment than we had ever experienced in all of our adult lives."

With this declaration that "everything is different since 9/11," the NYPD--which was widely exposed in the '60s and '70s for everything from setting up and framing members of the Black Panther Party (the Panther 21 case in which it took a jury 90 minutes to acquit everyone) to having 250,000 dossiers on all kinds of political activists--is now free and clear to do it all again, and then some.

Targeting the Antiwar Movement

In making their case to the court, the NYPD's David Cohen, a former top CIA agent and now head of the NYPD's intelligence division, said, "The entire resources of the NYPD must be available to conduct investigations into political activity and intelligence-related issues." In other words, spying is not to be limited to the Public Security Section of the Intelligence Division, but can be undertaken by the entire force.

In fact, during the massive demonstrations on February 15, there were signs that this has already begun. One witness reported to the RW that police "were grilling people with questions about what organizations they were with." Police would not let lawyers in to see the arrestees, keeping them waiting outside in the 10-degree windy weather for hours, presumably so they could question folks without a reminder from an attorney that they shouldn't talk. The Village Voice reported, "while they were in custody, police asked [people] not only their names and addresses, but what organizations they were affiliated with and where they were located. Some say they were even questioned about their opinions of the 9/11 attacks."

One of those arrested, Josh Roberts, a carpenter from Massachusetts attending his first rally, told the Voice how after he and a friend put on bandanas/handkerchiefs to cover their mouths from the cold: "This guy in plain clothes hops over the railing next to me and tells a cop to come over by the railing and they order me to show them my ID. I showed him and so did my friend, and we saw he was writing our names and license numbers down on this sheet of paper." At the top of the page, printed in sharp black letters, Roberts saw the title "Counterterrorist Intelligence." Roberts asked him what it was all about, "and he's like, `I can't tell you that.' I said, `Hey, don't you think this is harassment?' and he said, `If you want to see harassment, I'll pull you over this barricade and kick your ass in front of your girlfriend.' "

There was widespread outrage and protests at how the NYPD has questioned hundreds of people arrested at antiwar demonstrations. The New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter complaining that the questioning of protesters about their political affiliations raised grave questions about the constitutionally protected right to free speech. In April the NYPD was forced to say it would destroy the database it had created from these "interviews" and that they will no longer use the "Demonstration Debriefing Form." But a spokesman for the NYPD said the police would continue to ask arrested protesters what group they were affiliated with and would retain the information in the form of a tally-- supposedly without any individual people's names.


What [police commissioner] Kelly has done with [head of the counterterrorism bureau] Libutti and Cohen, essentially, is to create his own FBI and CIA within the New York City Police Department.

New York magazine, September 2002

An important aspect of overturning Handschu is to more fully allow the NYPD's intelligence operations to contribute to national political police operations. The Village Voice reported that "once the judge approves the guidelines, NYPD intelligence gatherers will `automatically' begin significant information-sharing with the feds."

The guidelines referred to are internal NYPD guidelines that set broad criteria for when police can begin snooping. The judge has now approved them, and on March 25 the old Handschu rules became history.

To facilitate all this, the NYPD has not only dramatically increased the number of detectives assigned to the joint FBI/NYPD Terrorism Task Force (from 17 to 125) but they have set up their own counterterroism unit, with 125 cops assigned to it. According to New York magazine, the NYPD now has agents in London, in France (at the headquarters of Interpol), Germany, Tel Aviv, and Toronto. They have officers assigned to FBI headquarters in Washington and have gone to Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, and Guantánamo Bay to conduct interrogations. And members of the department's command staff have also attended sessions at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

The counterterrorism bureau itself is indicative of how much emphasis the NYPD is putting on its spy operations. It is located in an undisclosed location in a semi-industrial area in one of the boroughs outside Manhattan. By the description, it is a mega-spy center. New York magazine, which was allowed access, described how "headlines race across LED news tickers. There are electronic maps and international-time walls with digital readouts for cities such as Moscow, London, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Islamabad, Manila, Sydney, Baghdad, and Tokyo." There is a Global Intelligence Room with 12 large flat-screen TVs tuned, to among others, Al-Jazeera with NYPD translators, who speak among other languages Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, and Fujianese, monitoring the broadcasts. Along with this there are "racks of high-end audio equipment for listening, taping, and dubbing; computer access to a host of superdatabases; stacks of intelligence reports and briefing books on all the world's known terrorist organizations."

The Handschu decision never stopped the political police from carrying out repressive spy operations. One former intelligence officer told Newsday , "I had heard of Handschu, but I didn't know its details." But it did stand as a certain barrier to completely unrestrained spying.

Now, the whole Handschu decision has been undone. This is a lesson about the system's dictatorship underlying the facade of democracy. People fought for 13 years to win some kind of relief from the dirty work of the NYPD. Now, after a process that took less than three months, the whole thing has been scrapped. People active in the movement against war and other outrages of this system now find themselves in an environment where the NYPD has much more official freedom to run spy operations.

Of course all this is officially touted as a necessity to make people safe. But the spy center, the moves to employ all 40,000 cops to feed into the NYPD's intelligence gathering, the use of the police to chill and suppress political dissent, should make any honest person extremely uneasy. This is not about keeping people safe but about squashing dissent and ratcheting up repression as the U.S. rulers unleash murderous ferocity against people around the world.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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