Are you being illegally surveilled by the New York Police Department (NYPD)?
The Gothamist website recently exposed a NYPD undercover officer, “Melike Ser,” who had been spying on Muslim students at Brooklyn College. As it reported, three college graduates had “intimate ties” with the officer, with “her presence during some of the most private moments of their lives, and the fear they endured when they learned her true identity.” No charges were brought against anyone the agent supposedly investigated.
The NYPD dismissed the story. “There’s truth in the Gothamist story, if you pick out certain facts you can say, ‘Well, this is true,’ or ‘That’s true’,” claimed John Miller, Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism. “But it’s wrapped around this narrative that there was this over-arching blanket surveillance, which is not the case,” he claimed. He also suggested that the undercover agent had, in April, exposed the role of two Queens women as Islamic State terrorists by building and planning to deploy a home-made bomb.
The Brooklyn College episode is but the latest example of how the NYPD uses undercover officers, really secret police, to investigate — and sometimes provoke through agents provocateurs — illegal actions. This practice dates back more than a half-century and is part of the establishment of a new Red Squad and is unlikely to change anytime soon.
* * *
In 2012, the Associated Press (AP) broke the Pulitzer-Prize winning esposé on the NYPD surveillance of Muslim throughout the Northeast. It reported that the NYPD’s Intelligence Division Cyber Unit surveilled students throughout the City University of New York (CUNY) system including Brooklyn and Baruch Colleges as well as using “secondary” undercovers operatives Hunter, CCNY, Queens and LaGuardia colleges during at least from 2003 to 2006.
The NYPD surveillance activities raised a host of questions as to their legality. The AP found that some CUNY personnel may have shared student records with the police in violation of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); if convicted, a school could lose federal funding. In addition, undercover cops may have violated a 1992 agreement between CUNY and the NYPD that restricted police “to CUNY campuses, buildings and other property only upon the request or approval of a CUNY official.”
More troubling, on Octoer 12th, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, ruled to reinstate a lawsuit, Hassan v. City of New York, originally brought by a group of 11 Muslim people, businesses and organizations that were allegedly the subject of NYPD surveillance by its now-disbanded Demographics Unit.
The Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed the original lawsuit in June 2012; it was dismissed in 2014. According to CCR, “the NYPD’s goal under this program – both ambitious and chilling – was to create a human mapping system that monitored Muslims all along the Eastern Seaboard and beyond. No Muslim individual or entity appears to have been beyond suspicion.” The NYPD targeted adherents of the Muslim faith from 28 “ancestries of interest” including Egyptian, Pakistani, Somali, Sudanese and an array of other Asian, Middle Eastern and African ancestries along with “American Black Muslim.”
In its reversal, the Third Circuit judges noted in their 60-page opinion that the NYPD’s practices recalled now-condemned government actions from the past, “We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the civil-rights movement and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind.”
* * *
In the wake of the colossal federal intelligence failures that culminated in the September 11, 2001, attacks, the NYPD both “federalized” and “militarized” its counter-terrorism operations. It began working closely with the CIA, FBI and DHS, among others federal agencies, and received a considerable amount of military gear, including machine guns, ammunition and armored personnel carriers, from the Pentagon and DHS.
Following 9/11, four CIA operatives were embedded in the NYPD and, in 2002, it launched a clandestine surveillance campaign of regional Muslims and Muslim organizations through its Demographics Unit that led to the recent Third Circuit decision. (These activities were in violation of National Security Act of 1947 and the 1981 Executive Order 12333 that barred the CIA from engaging in domestic spying.) Also in 2002, it marshaled its forces against protesters of the World Economic Forum (WEF), infiltrated various anti-globalization organizations, including the NYC Independent Media Center, and arrested 500 people. Nevertheless, a half-million people came out to voice their rage, the largest protest in the city’s history.
In 2004, the NYPD employed an aggressive counter-terrorism strategy to suppress popular protest against the Republican National Convention (RNC). It deployed its “RNC Intelligence Squad” to conduct massive surveillance of political groups and to arrest (some preemptively), detain and fingerprinting over 1,800 protesters, journalists, legal observers and bystanders; in 2014, the city paid out nearly $18 million for the unlawful arrests.
In 2011, the NYPD lead a massive campaign against Occupy Wall Street that was distinguishing by the active collaboration of the police and a host of national security agencies and corporate representatives. The NYPD’s worked with DHS, including ICE, the Coast Guard, the TSA’s Federal Air Marshals, as well as the FBI, the Secret Service and U.S. Marshals Service. According to a DHS memo, its officials were “actively engaged with local law enforcement and trade partners to establish contingency plans.”
* * *
The NYPD has a long history as an undercover security service. In 1955, it established the Bureau of Special Services (BOSS), popularly known as the “Red Squad.” Like similar groups operating in Los Angeles, Detroit and other cities during the Cold War, its goal was, in the words of New York State’s chiefs of police, “to drive the pinks out of the country.” Two undercover female police officers and numerous FBI agents infiltrated the Communist Party (CP) and various municipal agencies, including the schools; it even kept a file on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker from 1955 to 1968.
From 1957 to ’71, the NYPD actively collaborated with the FBI’s COINTELPRO (i.e., Counter Intelligence Program) and, initially, targeted the CP and Puerto Rican nationalists. In July 1959, HUAC held hearings held in New York and San Juan on “Communist activities among Puerto Ricans in New York City and Puerto Rico.” More then a dozen witnesses were subpoenaed; most of the alleged communist witnesses refused to testify. One of those who testified was Mildred Blauvelt, an undercover BOSS officer. “I became a member of the New York City Police Department in December of 1942, and upon entrance into the department was assigned by them to infiltrate the Communist Party as an undercover agent,” she revealed. Her actual infiltration of the party is a bit unclear: “I succeeded in doing so by becoming a member of the Communist Party in April of 1948. I was expelled from the Communist Party in September 1943, but gained reentrance into the party once again in April of 1944, and stayed in the Communist Party until my expulsion in November of 1951.”
In the ’60s, a BOSS undercover cop, Gene Roberts, served as Malcolm X’s chief of security and was at the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm was assassinated. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Red Squad targeted political groups like the Black Panthers, Yippies, Young Lords, antiwar activists and “white hate groups.” In the mid-‘60s, it began to deploy video surveillance that is now ubiquitous. In the wake of the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the NYPD joined forces with the FBI and the CIA to fight terrorism.
Deeply troubling, the NYPD has violated legal agreements limiting its surveillance powers. Over the last three decades, it has circumvented what is known as the Handschu Consent Decree. It is named for Barbara Handschu, an attorney defending the Black Panthers and Abbie Hoffman, who filed suit against the Red Squad in 1971. After nine years of litigation, the NYPD agreed to cease investigating any individual or group without specific information of criminal intent; it also agreed to release secret files it kept on 250,000 New Yorkers. In 2002, the Decree was modified in the wake of 9/11, but in 2007 the NYPD was found in violation of the agreement due to its videotaping of public demonstrations.
* * *
The attacks of 9/11 introduced the era of “war on terror” and paramilitary policing. Now, a decade-and-a-half later, a potential national security threat can include any disturbance, whether political protest, civil uprising, publicity spectacle like the pope’s visit or simply being “Muslim,” a very ill-defined category. Mass preventive arrests are common; undercover agents and agents provocateurs are assumed to infiltrate local activist groups; isolated incidents can rapidly metastasize; and nonviolent actions can quickly be turned into criminal activities.
NYPD conducts surveillance operation using both undercover operatives and high-tech equipment. One of its surveillance “toys” is a sophisticated Bell 412EP helicopter costing $10 million and acquired through a Justice Department grant. It operates through a shell company and maintains a special FAA “undercover” registration so it can’t be tracked. It is equipped with sophisticated photo- and video-surveillance capabilities that Wired magazine says can capture “clear images of license plates—or the faces of individuals—from 1,000 feet away.” The story noted that it could even “pick up the catcher’s signals at Yankee Stadium.” John Diazo, crew chief for the aircraft, replied, “Obviously, we’re not looking into apartments. We don’t invade the privacy of individuals. We only want to observe anything that’s going on in public.” And who would know if they did?
Another NYPD device is known as the StingRay, an IMSI catcher (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) that is a cell site simulator. It appears as a cellphone tower and services as a mobile wiretapping device and is used to capture metadata, record the content of phone conversations and SMS text messages.
And then there is the Z Backscatter Van, a mobile fortress used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to scan for drugs and explosives costing between $729,000 and $825,000. Two were reportedly deployed at the 2004 Republican convention, one on each side of streets near Madison Square Garden, to X-rayed every vehicle that passed for explosives.
Over the last century, New York has witnessed innumerable civil disturbances that can be divided into four categories: (i) race riots (i.e, whites attacking blacks) like the 1900 riot; (ii) urban riots (i.e., blacks uprising against racist conditions) like the 1935 Harlem riot and those in 1964, 1991 and 2013; (iii) civil disorders like the 1977 blackout that witnessed widespread arson and the looting of over 1,500 stores (the 1965 Blackout did not result in disorder); and (iv) mass political protests like the 2002 mobilization against the WEF and the 2011 Occupy mobilization.
A violent militant protest by political activists or a riot by African-American or other people-of-color in New York in the near future seems unlikely. If economic conditions get significantly worse, a relatively inconsequential act, like the ones that sparked the riots or protests of the past, could precipitate a very violent civil disturbance. In the face of such a disruption, one can expect the coordinated might of the integrated security state – with its army of undercover secret police — rain down mercilessly.
Be prepared for the worst.