The Deep Under-Cover Officer One Response to the Terrorist Threat

Speaking from personal experience as a former deep undercover officer in the New York City Police Department I submit that the most effective, and ultimately least intrusive method for the general population to endure in order to prevent a repetition of the September 2001 attack, is through infiltration of groups likely to be involved in such acts.

Human nature has demonstrated through the ages that people are reasonably consistent in their traits of behavior. One habit I’ve observed over time which may be put to good use by us for our protection is that most people can’t keep a secret. They are compelled to drop hints of the great adventure they play a part in to their best friends, their girlfriend or their wife. Furthermore, when some significant act, such as the attack of 9/11, is being planned, a significant number of individuals will –knowingly or not– have been contacted and used in support of the effort.

It is this need to both confide in fellow true believers, plus the practical requirements of the terrorist to seek assistance (money, shelter and support), where a properly placed (and well managed) undercover police officers can prove vitally useful.

Historical Overview
Police infiltration of violent (and some not so violent) groups has been going on for some time in our country. This kind of mission has been run through a number of agencies, some within the states, certainly a number within federal service. Author Frank Donner dates such police practices back to the Hay market bombing of 1886; “The Hay market bomb was responsible for the first major red scare in American history, and led to the immediate popular condemnation of Socialism, Communism and Anarchism by the national press and opinion leaders. In addition, the bomb resulted in the establishment of the first sustained American police intelligence operation aimed at leftist groups. Two years after the Hay market riot the Chicago police declared that they had learned an invaluable lesson in 1886, that ‘the revolutionary movement must be carefully observed and crushed if it showed signs of growth.”1

1 Protectors of Privilege, Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (1990)

At the turn of the 19th century into the 20th this nation faced threats from a number of groups including anarchists (bomb throwers), radicals and organized crime. It was a time in the world’s history when new philosophies arose, among them:

A totalitarian system of government in which a single authoritarian party controls state-owned means of production

Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

A political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups

1 : A revolutionary doctrine by which workers seize control of the economy and the government by direct means (as a general strike)
2 : A system of economic organization in which industries are owned and managed by the workers
3 : A theory of government based on functional rather than territorial representation

I think it fair to say that all of the above theories were started by well meaning, honorable people. Some were later co-opted by individuals who were willing to commit whatever acts of violence they thought necessary to see to it that their personal beliefs prevailed.

Among the terrorist activities which arose from these new social theories and philosophies were the following:

1886 Hay Market Bombing: On May 1st of that year there was a massive strike (340,000 people involved) organized by the International Working Peoples Association (IWPA) in support of an eight hour work day.

The IWPA in Chicago held a rally outside the McCormick Harvester Works, where 1,400 workers were on strike. They were joined by 6,000 lumber-shovers, who had also withdrawn their labor. While August Spies, one of the leaders of the IWPA was making a speech, the police arrived and opened-fire on the crowd, killing four of the workers.

The following day Spies, who was also an editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, published a leaflet in English and German entitled: Revenge! Workingmen to Arms! “They killed the poor wretches because they, like you, had the courage to disobey the supreme will of your bosses. They killed them to show you ‘Free American Citizens’ that you must be satisfied with whatever your bosses condescend to allow you, or you will get killed. If you are men, if you are the sons of your grand sires, who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms we call you, to arms.”

On May 4th over 3,000 people turned up at the Hay market meeting. Speeches were made by various individuals. At 10 AM. A police captain and 180 policemen arrived on the scene. The captain was in the process of telling the crowd to “disperse immediately and peaceably” when someone threw a bomb into the police ranks from one of the alleys that led into the square. It exploded killing eight men and wounding sixty-seven others. The police then immediately attacked the crowd. A number of people were killed (the exact number was never disclosed) and over 200 were badly injured.

1894 ~ 1914: Between 1894 and 1914 anarchist assassins struck at icons of the ruling elite. They killed six heads of state including presidents of the United States2 and France, two premiers of Spain, and the king of Italy.3 They also killed attendees at the opera, innocent passers-by, aristocrats, politicians, provincial governors, policemen, judges and jailers.

Wall Street bombing of 1920: In New York City, just after noon on September 16, 1920, a horse cart filled with dynamite and sash weights (heavy cast iron rods used in window construction) exploded in front of the Assay Office,near the intersection of Wall and Broad, killing 30 people instantly. Eventually 40 would die with another 300 people injured in total. The lunch hour had barely begun, and many of the bomb’s victims were messengers crossing the street or clerks hit by shattered glass as they ate at their desks. The hundreds of pounds of sash weights acted like shrapnel.One piece of iron was blown to the thirty-fourth floor of the Equitable building; canopies burned and windows broke a quarter-mile away. People were dropped in their tracks around the site, some of them with their clothing afire.

Then, as now, most Americans held a particular ethnic picture of a terrorist;at that time, it was based on Italian and Russian radicals, who had been credited with bombings over the previous ten years in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston, and Washington. A tremendously ambitious terror scheme –in which 36 bombs were mailed to well known Americans in Gimbel Brothers boxes to be opened on May Day 1919– had nearly succeeded. Half the packages reached their intended targets, while the rest were discovered in a New York City post office.

Then Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, thought the Wall Street attack must have been the work of anarchist or Bolshevik groups. His response was to immediately arrest the head of the Industrial Workers of the World, “as a precaution.”

Postal workers found circulars mailed a block away between 11:30AM and 11:58AM on the fatal day: “Remember / We will not tolerate / any longer / Free the political / prisoners or it will be / sure death for all of you / American Anarchist Fighters.”

The Anarchist Fighters had been linked to, among other things, the May Day bombing scheme of a year earlier and to other radical groups (including what newspapers called the notorious “Galliani gang”) around Lynn, Massachusetts, a place federal authorities of the day considered “the most dangerous spot in America.”

2 Sep 6, 1901 ~ While shaking hands at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President William McKinley was shot twice in the abdomen at point-blank range with a .32 caliber revolver.He died a week later. The assassin, an anarchist by the name of Leon Frank Czolgosz, actually is a lone gunman (for once).

3 Between 1894 and 1912, anarchist assassins took out President Carnot of France, Premier Canovas of Spain, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, King Humbert of Italy, President McKinley of the United States, and Premier Canalejas of Spain.

The actual perpetrators of the Wall Street bombing were never discovered. The NYPD’s deep cover unit was part of a sub-unit of police intelligence called at various times the Italian Squad, the Red Squad, New York City Bomb Squad, the New York Radical Bureau, Bureau of Special Investigations and Bureau of Special Services. When I served in it its members simply referred to the organization as BOSSI. Its members, during that period (late 1960s and early 1970s), had successfully infiltrated various organizations. These included; the American NAZI party, the Communist Party, and an assortment of potentially violent hate groups. Some years earlier BOSSI even had one of its officers infiltrate the Merchant Marines during WWII. Why the Merchant Marines? Because, during that period in our history, there was concern of NAZI infiltration of that service. I was told by my handler at BOSSI that a young NYC police officer, who had infiltrated the Merchant Marines, had two ships torpedoed out from under him during the war. After his undercover assignment he eventually rose to the rank of Inspector.

It’s important to keep in mind that the kind of undercover activity I’m speaking of is not simply a soft clothes unit of officers such as seen with detectives, Street Crime unit members or narcotic detectives doing street level investigations, but rather individuals who are not known to anyone outside of a small group of law officers, their identities as law officers kept secret even from members of their own families and the general law enforcement population.

Deep undercover officers carry no police identification, or police issued weapons. They are truly “out in the cold” as the writer of spy novels John Le Carre wrote. This discussion is about police infiltration of dangerous groups. It is a dangerous job.Lt. Joseph Petrosino –commanding officer of the then so-called Italian Squad– was killed (assassinated really) in Italy, while on official department business, on March 12, 1909. This was after Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham, showing off at a public press conference, announced Petrosino was conducting an undercover investigation into the Mafia and was just then in Italy.

Recent Restrictions
The Handschu Agreement, named after a plaintiff in a 1971 suit that accused the NYPD of using intelligence and infiltration to chill and punish lawful dissent, came into effect in 1985 as a consent decree that monitors police intelligence. This agreement requires the New York Police Department to get permission from a three-member panel in order to investigate or conduct undercover police surveillance of political groups.

I recall a conversation with a member of the NYPD’s Intelligence Unit shortly after Handschu came down. His intelligence gathering at that time was limited to cutting out and collating newspaper and magazine articles on various groups the department had concerns about.

The Bloomberg administration is just now asking the courts to eliminate almost every part of the Handschu agreement, particularly its core requirement that the police show actual criminal activity before infiltrating a group or watching a person.The administration wants the police to be able to record names from organizational mailing lists and petitions, photograph and videotape protesters, and plant undercover agents within groups and events.

Which police departments should even consider the running such an operation? Clearly the answer to that question would be determined by the nature of the threat faced, the size of the department considering this option and, as a practical matter, if they have the necessary resources available to see the operation through.

Some concerns and practical considerations which must be taken into account in order to succeed in running a deep undercover operation, and why it would be impractical for all but the largest of police organizations to undertake such a task,may be seen below;

  • Cost of the program;
    1. To be effective you’d need a number of undercovers (at police officer salary), plus a half dozen or so support investigators whose sole function is the undercovers support. These individuals can be assigned no other function when a deep-undercover infiltration operation is being attempted. Therefore, none of these personnel can be counted on for general police functions.
    2. A non-police building (it is best to rent some space –you can’t know in advance when you’ll need to change locations, which, in any case, has to be done regularly for security reasons) for the support detectives base as well as a site needed in order to meet the undercover officer from time to time for debriefing and pay purposes, as well as for the undercover to store his/her paperwork.
  • The undercover; How do you find the right person for the task? It is important to remember that the undercover cannot come from the ranks of known officers.The only protection a deep undercover officer has is anonymity.
  • Where do you interview potential candidates and what do you tell them while you’re doing so?
  • Training? How much to give, how little to give. This is an important aspect of the program as too much information given to the undercover may put them in jeopardy.
  • Background of undercover? This depends on the need of the department. Political Correctness does not apply; their race, ethnic group, religious affiliation, all must be taken into consideration.
  • How to pay the UC? Pay must be in cash. The undercover can’t go to a bank with a city check, they aren’t supposed to be working for the city!
  • Taxes, how are they dealt with?
  • Who should know about true identity of the undercover?
  • Health Insurance – how is that handled?
  • Armed or unarmed?
  • Paperwork – how should it be managed? Every contact the undercover makes should generate a report and names of organizations and persons recorded and collated. The reports need to be vetted and filed for possible future intelligence use or prosecution of the case.
  • How does the undercover infiltrate the target group? This is one reason deep undercover assignments take so much time and money. The only viable option for the undercover is to permit themselves to be “seduced” by the target rather than force themselves on it.

Speaking from personal experience I can state that the position of being a deep undercover operative is a very disruptive one for the individual officer. For example, because I had been given a second Social Security number by the NYPD in order to hide my true identity my personal Social Security account did not get straightened out until only a few years ago! Furthermore, people are largely known to others by where they work and by their actions. In my case, one moment I was excitedly telling the world I’m about to join the NYPD, the next I’m informing the same people I’m no longer interested in the career and I’m driving a cab in NYC and going to Brooklyn College part time.

A deep undercover from BOSSI who I met after we both surfaced was a 2nd grade detective. The man was a fourteen year veteran of the NYPD, and, at the time, a fellow police academy student. He told me that his assignment had him become a member of the Communist Party. He worked his way into a position where he was put in charge of social events. Why was such an assignment considered important? This detective was one of the first to be informed when any important person from the Communist block was coming to the United States, as he had to arrange for the hiring of the meeting hall,the catering and the hotel accommodations for the visiting person.

Responsible members of the police intelligence gathering community seem to agree on the following guideline prior to implementation of a deep undercover program: Prior to undertaking a deep undercover operation the agency considering such an action must hold a reasonable belief that a crime is likely to be perpetrated by a member or members of the group to be infiltrated. The group or organization in question must present a credible threat to public safety. Simply stated, you cannot infiltrate the Democratic or Republican party because you don’t like the politics of their candidates −prior to an infiltration you must first be able to demonstrate a credible threat to public safety.

Should you ignore the above admonition your department, and perhaps you, will ultimately be held accountable for your actions, no matter how well meaning or “correct” you believe them to have been at the time. At a minimum the operation would prove to have been an embarrassment, at worst, you may have committed a crime against a group or some individual.

Having pointed out the above I think it fair to state that the bar has been lowered since 9/11. Citizens are now looking to the law enforcement community to protect them from the kind of predation we experienced on that day. The pendulum of acceptable police behavior has moved from concern over civil rights and liberties to that of national protection. Keep in mind, this pendulum never stops.

Richard P. Rosenthal is Chief of Police in Wellfleet Massachusetts

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