When the Cops were Spies, and the Terrorists were Everywhere

By David Viola

The New York City Municipal Archives helps shed light on NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services during the time of terrorist bombings in “gigantic proportions.”

Just after dawn on February 16, 1965, two men drove a late-model Chevy through cold, quiet Bronx streets. Robert Steele Collier, twenty-eight, was an Air Force veteran who had received an other-than-honorable discharge after slashing a man in a London knife fight. In the years since his discharge, he had made his way to New York City and become involved in the more militant side of the Civil Rights movement. Even the belligerent Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), which he joined, proved too faint-hearted for his taste.

In the Chevy’s driver’s seat was thirty-two-year-old Raymond Woodall. Arriving in New York after leaving the Air Force himself, Woodall had bounced from job to job and had likewise become involved in the Civil Rights movement. He had become a well-known coordinator and activist with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and had even been jailed alongside other members for attempting a citizen’s arrest of Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr., in 1964.

When the men arrived at their destination — an overgrown parking lot — Woodall put the car in park and both men got out. Collier proceeded through the double-wire fence and found what he was looking for — a Benjamin Moore Paintbox, hidden in the shrubbery, full of dynamite. The deadly load had been deposited there for the men by associates in the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), a Quebecois terrorist organization responsible for well over 100 bombings during the 1960s and 1970s.

Collier walked back toward the car, placing the dangerous cargo into the front seat.

And then it happened, in the blink of an eye. Within moments, several NYPD detectives rushed forward from hidden positions and immediately descended upon the men.

Image 1: NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services often sent undercover detectives into the field to conduct surveillance on political activities they deemed “subversive” – and the Black Panther Party was one of the most frequent targets during the 1960s and 1970s. The lengthy BOSSI investigation that led to the arrests of the “Panther 21” in April of 1969 resulted in a public backlash that eventually spelled the end of the Bureau of Special Services.

Image 1: NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services often sent undercover detectives into the field to conduct surveillance on political activities they deemed “subversive” – and the Black Panther Party was one of the most frequent targets during the 1960s and 1970s. The lengthy BOSSI investigation that led to the arrests of the “Panther 21” in April of 1969 resulted in a public backlash that eventually spelled the end of the Bureau of Special Services.

Soon after the arrests in the Bronx, the FBI sprung into action to round up other known conspirators throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. In all, four men and one woman were arrested that morning. The group had planned to use the Canadian stash of dynamite to destroy not just the iconic Statue of Liberty, but also to bomb the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital.

But what the four others arrested that morning didn’t know was that the pot-smoking CORE activist they knew as Raymond Woodall was, in fact, an undercover New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer with the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations — known as BOSSI — the NYPD’s decades-old secret intelligence “spy” unit.  BOSSI had grown to be, by 1965, the most extensive political intelligence operation of any state, local or municipal police department in the nation’s history. BOSSI maintained regular and ongoing coordination with the FBI, the CIA, and other federal members of the intelligence community.

And on that February morning, the NYPD, in coordination with the FBI, had stopped a potentially devastating terrorist plot in its tracks. But a mammoth wave of similar plots and attacks was close on the horizon.

During a period stretching from the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s, the United States experienced a historic surge of terrorism unprecedented in many ways — the sheer volume of terrorist bombings far outpacing any other period in our history.  And New York City was the violent epicenter of this era of terrorism in the United States.  No other county in the nation was targeted by terrorist bombers as much as Manhattan, let alone New York City’s five boroughs combined.[1]  NYPD Commissioner Howard R. Leary characterized the peak year of the period — between 1969 and 1970 — as the year of bombings in “gigantic proportions” when testifying before Congress.  

Image 2: The Bureau of Special Services maintained regular communication and coordination with intelligence services throughout the nation, from federal members of the intelligence community such as the FBI to other state and municipal police intelligence units in cities such as Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Image 2: The Bureau of Special Services maintained regular communication and coordination with intelligence services throughout the nation, from federal members of the intelligence community such as the FBI to other state and municipal police intelligence units in cities such as Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

And it wasn’t just the sheer numbers; terrorism came at New Yorkers from all directions. In all of U.S. history, never before and never since have such a diverse variety of actors from all across the political spectrum engaged in this particular form of political violence during the same period of time and especially in the same small geographic area.[2] 

The roll call of individuals and organizations engaging in terrorism during this period is dramatic — left-wing, right-wing, and everything in between. The ultra-conservative anti-communist Minutemen organization; Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League; anti-Castro Cuban exile groups; Croatian nationalists; Puerto Rican nationalists; the extremes of the civil rights movement, like the “Black Liberation Front,” the alleged sobriquet of the Statue of Liberty plotters; and of course, the left-wing domestic groups most commonly associated with terrorism during the era such as the Weather Underground.

And NYPD’s BOSSI would be at the very center of the response to terrorism — counterterrorism — as it reemerged so dramatically in New York City.

Like the FBI of the era, BOSSI’s “intelligence” operations included a veritable army of undercover operatives and secret informants, and wiretaps of questionable legality.  But, also like the FBI, BOSSI launched intrusive investigations into not only the wide range of local terrorists who emerged during the era but also completely law-abiding political and social activists and dissidents from all along the political spectrum. And the backlash would spell its demise.

In 1971, sixteen New Yorkers filed a class-action lawsuit — Handschu v. Special Services Division — against the city, NYPD, and BOSSI, claiming routine and widespread violation of their civil rights by the secretive intelligence unit.  The tide of public opinion had turned against the police in the wake of a debilitating scandal, most notably the Knapp Commission investigation, and the highly questionable activities of BOSSI that came to light during the so-called Panther 13 trial. In that trial — at that time the longest and costliest in New York City history — more than a dozen members of the Black Panther Party that had been accused of plotting a widespread terror campaign by undercover members of BOSSI.  The result of the case was the swift acquittal of every single defendant on every single charge, and loud criticism of how NYPD’s BOSSI had conducted the investigation. Reformers from Mayor John Lindsay to NYPD Commissioner Patrick Murphy promised to clean house.  

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Image 5  Image 3-5: The Bureau of Special Services kept a close eye on civil rights activities in the New York City, such as this speech by Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Harlem in 1962. Incidentally, as can be seen in handwritten notes on the flier for the event, BOSS collected the document at the office of District 65, a highly influential (and racially and economically diverse) labor union in New York City during the mid-century. Organized labor, and particularly the social activism of organized labor, was another favorite intelligence target for BOSSI, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.

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Image 3-5: The Bureau of Special Services kept a close eye on civil rights activities in the New York City, such as this speech by Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Harlem in 1962. Incidentally, as can be seen in handwritten notes on the flier for the event, BOSS collected the document at the office of District 65, a highly influential (and racially and economically diverse) labor union in New York City during the mid-century. Organized labor, and particularly the social activism of organized labor, was another favorite intelligence target for BOSSI, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.

Even before the settlement in the class-action lawsuit was eventually reached — what became known as the Handschu Agreement, governing NYPD intelligence functions — BOSSI had essentially been shuttered. The overwhelming majority of BOSSI’s records were purged and destroyed, and researchers have never been able to create a fuller picture of what those extensive intelligence operations actually looked like, other than through the memoirs of the select few former members of the secretive unit who have spoken about their experiences.  But in 2017, the New York City Municipal Archives (NYCMA) announced that a researchers’ treasure trove of 520 previously unknown boxes of BOSSI records would be cataloged and released to the public.  

Those boxes and the records they hold are still being processed by NYCMA archivists, but this researcher has begun digging into the collection and found that scholars going forward will be able to paint a much more comprehensive picture of the operations of the most extensive yet opaque sub-federal intelligence operation in modern American history.

The records hold tremendous relevance to this era of terrorism and counterterrorism in Gotham — but despite this researcher’s particular bias, that is not even scratching the surface of the relevance of the files. The collection includes a treasure trove of records pertaining to NYPD’s posture toward anti-war demonstrations and various left-wing organizations; records covering the student revolt at Columbia University in 1968; the “Hard Hat Riot” in 1970; evidence of an absolute mountain of intelligence gathered on the Black Panther Party; and so many other subjects.  Ultimately, the number of questions that the collection at NYCMA can help researchers answer about NYPD and this tumultuous time in NYC history is limited only by the imagination of the scholars who find themselves digging through the records down on Chambers Street.

I’ll see you down there. Bring coffee.


[1] Similarly, Manhattan alone, and not even New York City more broadly, was the American county with the most incidents of terrorism (the overwhelming majority of them bombings) between 1970 and 2008 – more than double that of Los Angeles, the next county on the list – according to a study by Gary LaFree and Bianca Bersani; “Hot Spots of Terrorism and Other Crimes in the United States, 1970 to 2008,”  In comparison, southern racial terror, including KKK violence, was more often than not in the form of lynchings and similar types of physical violence, and not explosives. I do not intend to assert a false equivalency between bombings and terrorism; a bomb is not always terrorism, and terrorism is not always conducted with a bomb.  Outside of the U.S. south, where racial terrorism manifested in other ways more frequently, such as lynchings, almost all tracked terrorism during the era was conducted with some kind of an explosive.

[2] But what is terrorism? The definitional debate is heated and ongoing, but the vast majority of scholars and experts would agree, at least, generally, on the definition that premiere terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman has posited as a define terrorism:  “The deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence, or the threat of violence, in pursuit of a political change.” 

David Viola completed his Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2017 and is an adjunct professor at John Jay College and a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy. He is presently completing a manuscript, based on his Ph.D. dissertation, exploring terrorism and counterterrorism in New York City during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s.