The BoSS is Back

Ann Schneider Jan 13, 2006

IndyBoSSSuspension of constitutional liberties in the name of national security and the “war on terror” is fashionable not only in Washington, D.C., but right here in our city.

National Lawyers Guild member Eileen Clancy, founder of I-Witness Video caught on film ten officers attending rallies and bike events undercover over the past 16 months. The story made Page 1 of the Dec. 22 New York Times. It’s not a far step to guess that the police were infiltrating peace and activist groups, too. They have a long history of doing so.

Back in the bad old days there was the Bureau of Special Services (BoSS, aka the Red Squad), the largest of all the past century’s domestic surveillance programs, with a collection of 1.2 million index cards, files, photos and films on 250,000 people, dating back to 1904.

BoSS actively questioned teachers, neighbors, landlords, family members and employers about activists, sometimes getting them fired or evicted. It kept track of all “groups that because of their conduct or rhetoric may pose a threat to life, property, or governmental administration;” of “malcontents;” and of any activity likely to result in “a serious police problem.”

Like the FBI, it used the covert methods of informants, infiltrators, wiretaps and electronic bugs. They successfully fomented paranoia in the Black power movement, the Young Lords and the burgeoning women’s movement, debilitating their organizing activities and undermining the movement. Their files were shared with other cities and provided to right-wing intelligence groups such as “National Goals Inc.,” part of a network of private counter-subversion groups that spy on progressive dissidents and then demand investigation of their activities.

The dimensions of the local domestic spying were exposed by the 1971 Handschu lawsuit, which resulted in a federal decree prohibiting the NYPD from investigating any individual or group without specific information of criminal intent. However, the full record of BoSS’s crimes against political organization and expression may never be known, because in response to Handschu’s file access provision, the NYPD deliberately dumped its files into a room at 1 Police Plaza where they told the court it would now take “41.5 man years” to reorganize

The Handschu Decree was dissolved in 2003 after the city claimed that it was “simply unworkable in the context of terrorism.” A compromise was reached where the police still agreed to abide by constitutional standards that protect free speech. But the ink was barely dry on the compromise when the NYPD began issuing its own rules that negated the settlement. For instance, in October 2004, NYPD announced it had the right to maintain files and film of peaceful protests “for training purposes.”

Litigation will continue before Judge Charles Haight, who issued the original consent decree. But the matter should not be left to the courts. The NYCLU has called for city council oversight hearings. We should demand that all use of undercover cops and infiltration stop, and that all tapes from peaceful demonstrations be destroyed. Otherwise, we may get what we deserve.

In the words of Judge Peter McQuillan who presided over one of this city’s most egregious trials during the early 1970s, “A ubiquitous secret police and an obsequious society go hand in hand.”

The People’s Lawyer is a project of the Nat’l Lawyers Guild, NYC Chapter. Contact the chapter at or at (212) 679-6018.

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