Keeping Watch

Keeping WatchKeeping WatchKeeping Watch

W hile photographing 600 State Street, it’s easy to feel paranoid—particularly if you know what it is you’re photographing. The brick, tinted-windowed building, skirted on all sides by a gated lot, has cameras hanging off it. Your eyes may register “No Trespassing” and “100% ID Check” signs. Your brain may imagine a nondescript van pulling up and grabbing you, driving you into some sequestered zone and questioning you as to why you were taking pictures of the New Haven Division of the FBI.

The field office has jurisdiction over the entire state of Connecticut and, along with the broader FBI, has maintained certain responsibilities—like investigating public corruption and white-collar crime—while repeatedly reinventing itself in response to the times. From the Cold War to cybercrime, the New Haven outpost has tried to anticipate and thwart perceived threats, and while its purview is thoroughly domestic, the line between domestic and international concerns is often blurry.

In 1940, as WWII had begun to convulse Europe and Asia, the FBI was tasked with investigating Selective Service violators, weeding out foreign spies and conducting security inspections at wartime assets like Newhallville’s Winchester Repeating Arms factory. As the firestorm of World War II ended and the Cold War blizzard began, the Bureau played a central role in the Red Scare, actively investigating Communist Party activities while warding off theft or malevolent use of nuclear material.

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The FBI’s Cold War-era program COINTELPRO (“COunter INTELligence PROgram”) infamously evolved into an effort to infiltrate and disrupt—often illegally, including here in New Haven—domestic political groups deemed subversive. In 1970, members of the New Haven Black Panther Party, in an attempt to rid its ranks of informants, tortured and killed party member Alex Rackley. (Although the New Haven chapter had indeed been infiltrated by informants, there’s no evidence Rackley was one of them.) Rackley’s three killers were apprehended and sentenced to jail time, but outcry was sparked when officials tried to ensnare party leaders Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins via the murder, claiming they’d issued the order.

The ensuing trial provoked more than a year of public protests. At its fever pitch, as the FBI’s website puts it, “thousands of Black Panther Party supporters and radicals from other extremist groups descended on New Haven. … For several days, these supporters set off bombs and threw rocks while FBI agents worked with local authorities to quell the violence.” In the end, the jury deadlocked, and both Seale and Huggins went free.

Throughout the 1970s, mobsters from New York and other parts of New England moved into Connecticut, bringing their rackets and gambling operations. In the 1980s and early ’90s, the FBI took advantage of stronger racketeering laws and disrupted—in some cases, effectively shut down—the in-state operations of crime families such as the Genoveses, Gambinos and Patriarcas.

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Also during the ’80s and ’90s, the FBI worked to combat increases in violent gang activity and drug trafficking. Successful anti-drug operations like EXPRESSWAY led to the indictment of at least 27 individuals involved in laundering cocaine money linked to the Medellin cartel, the biggest player in cocaine at the time. In Waterbury, WATERBASE exposed a network of Jamaican crack traffickers, while in New Britain, CLONECANE targeted cocaine and heroin movers.

The New Haven division also investigated and arrested members of the notorious Hells Angels; a Connecticut offshoot of the Latin Kings; and the New Haven-based gang The Jungle Boys, among others.

After the 9/11 attacks, the role of the FBI took a dramatic turn. Field offices all over the country organized Joint Terrorism Task Forces responsible for preemptive action against potential terrorist activity within the US. Besides a team of bomb technicians and a 14-member SWAT unit trained to respond to hostage situations, the New Haven Division is equipped with a HAZMAT (“HAZardous MATerials”) expert that can address chemical, biological or radiological weapons.

Always keeping up with whatever is trending in the criminal world, the FBI also dedicates a good portion of its energies to cybercrime. The Connecticut Computer Crimes Task Force, established in 2004 and based in the New Haven office, addresses cyber attacks, cyberterrorism, cyber-espionage and other tech-savvy crime.

While the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 allows citizens to petition the FBI to release previously undisclosed documents, new laws and executive actions in the years since 2001 have tried to limit even the already-limited transparency the act was intended to provide. And of course, the information the Bureau publishes on its website is carefully curated.

The much-criticized USA PATRIOT Act extended the FBI’s abilities to investigate not only those suspected of terrorism but subjects “two or three times removed from subjects of FBI investigations,” according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Patriot Act’s renewal in 2005 passed with a revision to the law’s transparency provisions: the establishment of periodic audits by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General. Those audits confirmed the FBI’s misuse of its expanded authority.

The New Haven Division does offer a modest peek into its operations via Citizens Academy. Once per year, 25 normal citizens can apply to learn more about the “people, mission, activities and resources of the FBI.” The class is already filled for this year. When I asked the New Haven Division’s press office for information not already publicly available, I received carefully phrased—and ultimately uninformative—responses.

As I was photographing 600 State Street, a man in black suit and tie approached, asking me why I was taking pictures. (If you’re ever in a similar situation, be sure to know your rights.) We had a pleasant chat, and he walked away. No van, no bag, no detainment. But it was a good reminder: when you’re watching the watchers, you can bet they’re watching you back.

FBI New Haven Division
600 State St, New Haven (map)
(203) 777-6311 | newhaven@ic.fbi.gov
www.fbi.gov/newhaven

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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