Human rights group suing CIA over El Salvador war crimes victimized by suspicious burglary

Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

University of Washington police are investigating after an apparent break-in at the office of a professor who recently sued the CIA.

Angelina Godoy, director of the university’s Center for Human Rights, reported early this week that her desktop computer and a hard drive had been taken from her on-campus office. The burglary came shortly after Godoy and her center sued the CIA for records related to human rights violations in El Salvador.

“While we have backups of this information, what worries us most is not what we have lost but what someone else may have gained,” a spokesperson for the center said Wednesday in a statement. “The files include sensitive details of personal testimonies and pending investigations.”
The break-in came two weeks after the center filed a federal lawsuit against the CIA seeking access to documents related to the Salvadoran wars from 1980 to 1992. The center has filed about 200 document requests under the Freedom of Information Act aimed at several federal intelligence and military agencies.

The documents at issue in the lawsuit relate to Salvadoran Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Perez. The CIA has refused to release the documents, as well as documents related to an American academic who witnessed a massacre purportedly conducted by Ochoa’s troops.
“While we cannot rule out the possibility of this having been an incident of common crime, we are deeply concerned that this breach of information security may increase the vulnerability of Salvadoran human rights defenders with whom we work,” the spokesperson said.

The targeting of Central America-focused solidarity activists and human rights investigators would certainly not be without precedent. During the 1980s the Central American peace movement found itself targeted by the FBI and a privatized network of right-wing spies. At the time it was subject of numerous Congressional hearings and an investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. This campaign of surveillance and intimidation was meticulously documented by Boston Globe reporter Ross Gelbspan in Break-ins, Death Threats and the FBI. Other useful sources include Chapter 10 of Christian Smith’s Resisting Reagan, prepared Congressional testimony from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Chip Berlet’s The Hunt for Red Menace.

Before the Reagan administration entered office, the Heritage Foundation issued a wishlist of desired policies that included draconian measures against left-wing dissidents. It asserted with an alarmist tone that “the threat to the internal security of the Republic is greater today than at any time since World War II.” It directed criticism at “many of the current restrictions on internal security functions” and declared that “it is axiomatic that individual liberties are secondary to the requirement of national security and internal civil order.” The report called upon Reagan to recognize “the reality of subversion” and “the un-American nature of much so-called ‘dissidence.'” Most disturbingly, it demanded the loosening of standards that required suspicion of criminal activity before engaging in “such standard surveillance techniques as wiretapping, mail covers […], informants, and at least occasionally, illegal entries” [emphasis mine]. This was an explicit endorsement of the type of political burglaries that would later plague the Central America movement throughout the rest of the decade.

The main target of the FBI’s investigations into the Central America movement was the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). According to Chip Berlet:

The FBI probe of CISPES involved 52 of the 59 Field Offices of the FBI. Dossiers were compiled on hundreds of other organizations which intersected in some vague way with CISPES during the course of the investigation. […] Among the many groups named in the CISPES FBI files were: Central American Solidarity Committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned, Church of the Brothers, Chicago Interreligious Task Force, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Friends Religious Society, Maryknoll Sisters, National Education Association, Southern Christian Leaderhip Conference, United Steel Workers Union, and the United Auto Workers union. Also named in the files were a number of individual churches, colleges, religious orders, community organizations, women’s groups and political groups.

To get an idea of how zealous certain elements within the FBI were about the investigation, a 10 November 1983 teletype from New Orleans FBI field office declared that:

It is imperative at this time to formulate some plan of attack against CISPES and, specifically, against individuals [redacted] who defiantly display their contempt for the U.S. Government by making speeches and propagandizing their cause while asking for political asylum.

The FBI’s key infiltrator within CISPES, Frank Varelli, would eventually become disenchanted with the investigation and declared before a Congressional hearing on 20 February 1987 that:

I was told the main reason for the concern for CISPES was because it was the largest and most active group opposed to the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America. […] I now realize that the purpose of the FBI’s attention directed towards the CISPES was political and not criminal. The aim of the FBI was to break CISPES for its stand against Reagan’s policy in Central America.

A run down of the type of tactics used against CISPES and similar organizations can be found in CCR’s testimony before the US House’s Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, mentioned earlier. Examples of their findings include:

  • “The FBI questioned over one hundred U.S. persons after they visited Nicaragua. Agents also contacted scores of others involved in dissent from Administration Central American policies.”
  • “Customs agents are taking a special interest in returnees from Central America: copying and seizing personal written materials, and subjecting such travelers to unnecessary questioning and verbal abuse”
  • “An abnormally large percentage of individuals who travel to Central America, and the legal political organizations involved in Central American dissent, have been audited by the IRS”
  • “The data on more than 58 burglaries directed against groups and individuals dissenting from administration Central American policies, indicate that the purpose of the burglaries is to gather intelligence, intimidate and disrupt groups involved in lawfully protected First Amendment activities.”

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this campaign of domestic repression to this very day remains the burglaries. Organizations such as the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Amnesty International, Sojourners, Nicaragua Solidarity Network and Witness for Peace all were victimized by suspicious break-ins at some point or another in which files (sometimes containing confidential membership information) were rifled through or stolen outright. It is still generally unknown who was responsible for these burglaries and to what extent the FBI was involved or knew what was going on. According to the CCR testimony, the evidence has occasionally pointed in the direction of private right-wing groups:

Ross Gelbspan’s article in the Boston Globe of January 18, 1987, quoted an unnamed source, who is an expert on right wing paramilitary groups, and a CIA consultant, as saying that the break-ins could well be financed by a number of well-endowed right-wing organizations. We know that a number of right-wing groups collect intelligence data. For example, the Western Goals Foundation was given secret computer intelligence files stolen from the Los Angeles police department’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division. Western Goals used the material to create files on as many as 6,000 people.

Information has surfaced on a possible Western Goals-NSC connection. The head of the Western Goals is Carl Russell Channell, and until 1984, retired Army Major General Singlaub was a member of the foundation’s advisory board. The Corvill (Mass.) Sun reported on December 14, 1986, that Channell had received funds from Oliver North. Robert White, whose offices were burglarized, speculated that the break-in at his office might be the work of anti-communist vigilantes: “There’s a whole private network that’s been built up…to reinforce what Oliver North has been doing.”

A detailed list of suspicious incidents targeting left-wing activists in the US throughout the 1980s can be found here. It includes numerous cases of death threats, intimidation and arson.

Probably the most serious incident occurred on 7 July 1987. A young Salvadoran woman who volunteered for CISPES in Los Angeles named Yanira Corea was abducted by three men who threw her into the back of a van and tortured and interrogated her for the next six hours. They cut the Spanish acronym for “death squad” into the palms of her hands, cut open the skin on her neck and raped her with a foreign object. She was questioned about other members of CISPES and her union organizer brother in El Salvador. Injuries backing up her story were subsequently confirmed by an LAPD officer and a local doctor who examined her.


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