The New York City Police Department announced July 18 the appointment of Harvard graduate and long-time intelligence department operative Rebecca Weiner as deputy commissioner of the city’s notorious intelligence and counterterrorism unit — better known as its Red Squad. She now helps lead the 1,500 cop spy agency, which is larger than that of many countries.
She’s the first woman to hold this post. This step, along with Weiner’s claims that this unit will be playing an entirely new, more “woke” and open role, is aimed at refurbishing the cops’ image. The long-term goal is to enable the police to step up spying and disruption operations aimed at working people with less interference.
Weiner appealed to all New Yorkers to help. “Document anything you see and send it to us. Never hesitate to reach out,” she said in June.
This goes hand in hand with the Joseph Biden administration’s efforts to whitewash the true function of the FBI, the capitalist rulers’ main national political police, and portray it as a liberal partner of the Democratic Party. This includes its drive to paint supporters of former President Donald Trump as “neo-fascists” and “white supremacists,” and to stop him from running for president in 2024 at all costs.
Under various names, the Red Squad has used informants, surveillance and harassment to target political organizations, unions and struggles of working people for more than a century.
Weiner says intelligence unit leaders “have an expansive view of our jurisdiction.” Agents operate throughout this city and in 14 cities worldwide.
An interview she gave to Christopher Costa, executive director of the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., gives an idea of her disregard for constitutional rights.
“One days stickering or flyering could be another day’s actual crime,” Weiner told Costa. She says there is a “huge uptick in disinformation,” a term used widely by liberals as justification for silencing opponents’ political views. “Disinformation is so crippling,” Weiner complains, because it compounds “widespread distrust of our institutions and government.”
Weiner insists her agents’ operations are essential to combat “Russian disinformation,” the ruse that was used by the FBI to spy on Trump’s 2016 campaign. Claiming this is a mission to protect people from racists, she says NYPD spies are laser-focused on confronting an “uptick in white supremacy.” The threat is different from the past, Weiner says. Today it comes from right-wing extremism. The NYPD needs to know “what conspiracy theories are you consuming and who else might be consuming them.”
Red Squad spying, disruption
Weiner’s efforts to transform the spy agency’s status, alongside that of the FBI, are crucial for the capitalist rulers today. Over the last 50 years, the true extent of FBI and NYPD spying and harassment against unionists, opponents of Washington’s wars, fighters for Black rights, the Socialist Workers Party and other opponents of the U.S. rulers’ anti-working-class operations has been revealed — and is widely hated.
Since 1904, the NYPD has run a spy outfit. For much of its existence it’s been known as the Red Squad for its targeting of communists and union militants.
NYPD intelligence agents have been forced to admit they targeted Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and conducted mass surveillance of protesters outside the 2004 Republican National Convention.
They used the 2001 assault on the World Trade Center to launch a widespread effort to place informants in Muslim Student Associations in the city’s colleges. In collaboration with the CIA, they operated secret programs to spy on Muslims where they ate, shopped and worshipped around the city.
In 2019 the New York City government posted videotapes the Red Squad secretly took between 1960 and 1980. Among the targets filmed were the Socialist Workers Party, Malcolm X, the Communist Party, supporters of independence for Puerto Rico, opponents of the U.S. war in Vietnam, Irish Republican supporters and a number of unions.
The Red Squad hung onto these films, along with spy files on more than a million people and organizations, because of a 1986 court ruling called the Handschu decision. That ruling settled a class-action lawsuit brought in 1971 by victims of NYPD spying.
The settlement — backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union — was a blow to the fight to defend constitutional protections against cop interference. It provided the NYPD with a broad loophole to continue spying. The ruling says cops can spy on any group that they claim is “engaged in, about to engage in or has threatened to engage in conduct which constitutes a crime.” Two of the three-person board members set up to monitor NYPD surveillance programs are cops!
The Socialist Workers Party and a few other opponents of the political police challenged the ruling. But it was upheld and the cops have used it as the basis for intelligence operations ever since.
It stands in sharp contrast to Judge Thomas Griesa’s federal ruling won by the SWP in its 1973 lawsuit against decades of FBI spying, harassment and disruption. In 1986 Griesa ruled the FBI’s use of informants was unconstitutional, as well as its burglaries of SWP offices and disruption of party members’ activities. Overruling an appeal by the Justice Department, Griesa said the FBI was barred from using any of the files its spying had generated.
The capitalist system is organized to defend the profit-driven rule of a handful of big capitalist families against tens of millions of workers and others who produce all the wealth.
Spying on and targeting working people is crucial to their continued rule. This becomes even more important today, as the impact of the capitalist crisis and threat of new wars grow. The rulers’ response is to go after unions and try to stifle any attempt by workers to organize independently of the Democratic and Republican parties.