One night late last November burglars broke into the Washington offices of the International Center for Development Policy, a group that opposes U.S. interventionist policy in Central America. They ransacked files and stole a document in what a local police officer called “clearly a political break-in.” On Jan. 4, just four days after officials of Boston’s Arlington Street Church declared it a sanctuary for Salvadoran refugees, the church was burglarized and its files rifled. The same thing happened two days later at the Reform Christian Church in Washington. In fact, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New Yorkbased lawyers’ group, there have been some 50 such break-ins nationwide over the past two years. “It is clear,” said the centre’s legal director, Michael Ratner, “that there is a broad surveillance campaign against critics of Central American policy.”
While the Iran-contra scandal continues to hold the Washington limelight, the rash of suspicious break-ins
has emerged as a kind of domestic sideshow that, like the main event, is starkly reminiscent of the Watergate scandal. That affair exposed a campaign of break-ins ordered by the administration of then-president Richard Nixon against opponents of the Vietnam War. With critics contending that a similar pattern exists now, the House of Representatives subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights is scheduled to begin hearings on the current series of burglaries next week. In each case, the critics say, files have been rifled or even stolen, while items of obvious street value have been left curiously untouched. And the critics speculate that the suspicious breakins have been carried out either by government agents or by right-wingers supporting—and perhaps even working for—the Reagan administration.
The Center for Constitutional Rights has also documented several hundred cases of other types of harassment. Those include tax audits of the government’s critics and Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) interrogations of U.S. activists returning from perfectly legal visits to Nicaragua or El Salvador. In April, 1985, under congressional pressure, FBI director William Webster agreed to stop those interrogations. But while the FBI denies that the government is doing any illegal domestic spying, critics point out that the limits of legal surveillance are wide. After Watergate, curbs on surveillance and break-in operations were voted by Congress or decreed by Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But in December, 1981, Ronald Reagan effectively countermanded those reforms by signing Executive Order 12333. Under that presidential edict the Central Intelligence Agency has been released from a ban on domestic surveillance if it can declare that there is a foreign intelligence connection. And the FBI, which had been required to get court approval before engaging in “surreptitious entry,” has a virtual free hand if it claims “suspected terrorist activity” is involved in a case.
Of the current break-ins, that of the International Center for Development Policy has drawn the most media attention. The group has been a prime source of information for congressional critics of Central American policy, which its president, Robert White, has actively opposed since he was removed in 1981 from his post as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. But other cases may be more damaging. In August, 1984, Salvadoran Frank Varelli told a Dallas Morning News reporter that for two years he had been spying for the FBI on the Dallas office of a group called the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. He claimed that the FBI had urged him to put several nuns belonging to the group into “compromising” situations and then blackmail them—an instruction he said he had refused to obey.
The subcommittee hearings may well turn up more evidence. And although much of it may remain circumstantial, a member of the subcommittee staff said last week that “there is too much of a pattern for it to be freelance work by some overzealous right-wing groups.” At the Center for Constitutional Rights, Michael Ratner agreed. He said it was obvious that “someone sat back and said, ‘What’s our opposition, and what can we do about it?’ ” If the answer is shown to have been breaking and entering, Watergate-wary Americans will experience a disturbing sense of having seen it all before.
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