The Hunt for Red Menace: The FBI Probe of CISPES
The genesis of the FBI probe of CISPES was a complex network of groupsand indviduals with a common counter-subversive worldview: · Theunderlying theories which prompted the FBI investigation of CISPES weredeveloped at the start of the Cold War, and reflect the same discreditedview of subversion that the American public finally rejected to end theMcCarthy period. · Individual and groups who hold this discreditedview of subversion played influential roles in shaping the policies ofthe Reagan Administration in this area, and then in some cases movedon to become consultants and staff members in Adminstration and Congressionalposts. · These same groups and individuals then set out to rebuilda private counter-subversion network among conservative and rightistgroups with the goal of assisting the government, and specifically theFBI, in investigating subversion. The results of their investigationswere published in a range of newsletters and journals in articles whichfrequently cross-cited each other and often traced back to unsubstantiatedcharges of communist subversion made by persons testifying before congressionalwitch-hunting committees. · Young conservatives from colleges anduniversities were recruited and trained to participate in monitoringand analyzing the activities of alleged subversive groups through a networkof interlocking conservative institutions based in Washington, D.C. · Informationand documents collected by private right-wing groups were provided togovernment law-enforcement agencies that would otherwise be preventedfrom obtaining the information by constitutional and legislative restrictions.This biased and unverified information was then used to justify criminalinvestigations of dissidents in general and the anti-interventionistCISPES in particular.
Many activists involved in Central America issues became aware of ham-handedsnooping by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in the early 1980's.In 1986 the Center for Investigative Reporting in California used thefederal Freedom of Information Act to obtain FBI files which suggesteda large-scale probe into CISPES. In 1987 testimony by a former FBI informantFrank Varelli also suggested a broad attack on CISPES by the FBI. Varellilater told reporters of the involvement of other governmental and privateright-wing groups in targetting CISPES.
Some 1300 pages of additional FBI files released in 1988 by New York'sCenter for Constitutional Rights (CCR), on behalf of CISPES, reveal insharp detail the extent and nature of the FBI probe into CISPES. Moreimportantly, the files show that the FBI, to justify its actions, acceptedas fact a right-wing conspiratorial world-view which sees dissent astreason and resistance to oppression as terrorism.
The first FBI investigation of CISPES was launched in September of 1981to determine if CISPES should be forced to register under the ForeignAgents Registration Act. Among the documents used by the FBI to justifythis CISPES probe, according to Congressional testimony by FBI officialOliver "Buck" Revell, was a 1981 article by a former FBI informantand ongoing right-wing private spy-John Rees. The Rees article appearedin Review of the News a magazine published by the paranoid ultra-rightJohn Birch Society. This FBI investigation was terminated without indictmentsin December of 1981.
A second FBI investigation of CISPES began in March of 1983. It waspremised on the right-wing conspiracy theory that CISPES was a coverfor "terrorist" activity. To justify this view, the FBI reliednot only on reports from its informant Varelli, but also in part on aconspiratorial analysis contained in a report written by Michael Boos,a staffer at the right-wing Young Americas Foundation. This FBI "counter-terrorism" investigationwas terminated without indictments in 1985.
The FBI relying on the malicious musings of paranoid right-wing ideologuesto justify probes of the anti-Administration CISPES is rather like theIRS assigning Jerry Falwell to audit the financial records of the AmericanCivil Liberties Union.
The June 1984 report on CISPES by Michael Boos, the staff member atthe Young Americas Foundation, was titled: "Group in Nation's Capitolto Aid Left-Wing Terrorists." In the report Boos wrote that theD.C. Chapter of CISPES would "soon launch a fundraising campaignto provide direct military assistance to the Soviet supported Marxistterrorists seeking to overthrow the recently elected government in ElSalvador." This conclusion was reached when Boos made the Kierkegaardianassumption that the shoe factory CISPES planned to help build in El Salvadorwould not really benefit civilians, but would secretly make and repairboots for rebel soldiers-and thus constituted military aid for "Sovietsupported Marxist terrorists."
Boos wrote his report after attending a public CISPES meeting in Washington,D.C. According to a spokesperson at the Young Americas Foundation, Booswas apparently engaging in a freelance information-gathering activitynot directly connected with his staff position. Boos filed his reportwith the right-wing newsletter American Sentinel, and sent anunsolicited copy to the FBI. The FBI promptly distributed it to 32 ofits field offices and apparently sent it to other federal agencies aswell.
It is ironic that the Boos report on CISPES for American Sentinel wasrevealed in the FBI documents on CISPES since the Young Americas Foundationis only a minor player in the right-wing information network. The Foundationprimarily is involved in recruiting college students into the conservativeanti-communist movement. Boos, while at Young Americas Foundation, circulateda newsletter reporting on campus activists, but it too is not influentialin right-wing circles.
The Young Americas Foundation is a haven for aging former members ofthe right-wing campus-based Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). Whileit was started by a former YAF staffer, the Foundation is not formallytied to that group. They are certainly right-wing ideological soul-mates,however, and they cooperate closely. The Foundation once sent out a fundraisingmailing calling former Senator George McGovern "anti-American," andclaimed "our classrooms are full of teachers and textbooks thattear down our system of republican government and free enterprise whileglorifying communism and socialism."
The American Sentinel, the newsletter which published the Boosreport on CISPES (without attribution) is, however, one of the core right-wingoutlets for red menace diatribes. The Sentinel frequently toutsits relationship to law enforcement. The Sentinel raised funds to sendits blacklist-style report to "723 FBI offices and local policedepartments," pledging to keep track of "the liberals, theleft-wingers, the radicals and the Communists."
That the views of the paranoid right wing find safe harbor at the FBIis supported by the documents they released under the FOIA concerningthe probe of CISPES. As Alicia Fernandez of the Center for ConstitutionalRights explained in an article appearing in the Movement Support NetworkNews:
=== "In order to justify its investigation, the FBI utilizedtwo rationales: it posited the existence of a covert program and itresurrected a 1950's favorite, the concept of a `front group.' Thesetwo notions were extremely useful. By positing a covert program, FBIheadquarters was able to reason away the lack of findings in investigationsconducted by the field offices. === "When a field office reportedthat assiduous investigation had revealed that a local CISPES chapterpursued only such projects as teach-ins, slide shows, and pickets,headquarters would remind the field office of the `covert program'This, headquarters explained, was known to only a few CISPES members,but represented CISPES' true intentions and activities. Thus headquarterswould caution the field office not to be deceived and urge it to digdeeper. The deeper the field office dug, with no results, then clearly,reasoned the FBI, the deeper they needed to dig. === "When fieldoffices cabled headquarters to inform it that they had located no CISPESchapter but had found a Central American solidarity committee, or aLatin American human rights group, or a sanctuary church, headquarterswould recommend aggressive investigation and explain that CISPES operatedthrough `fronts,' in which respectable people were duped for its `terroristpurposes.'
In this way, any group which ever worked with CISPES or shared membersbecame a potential `front.' "The very logic of these rationalesincreased the pressure to expand the hunt for fronts and intensify thesearch for covert activities," Fernandez points out.
The FBI probe of CISPES involved 52 of the 59 Field Offices of the FBI.Dossiers were compiled on hundreds of other organizations which intersectedin some vague way with CISPES during the course of the investigation.
Margaret Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights called the FBIprobe of CISPES a "sweeping and intrusive investigation. . .theFBI utilized wiretaps, undercover agents, and informants in additionto the type of intensive physical surveillance that is normally reservedfor investigation of serious crimes." According to Ratner:
=== "The investigation, which was begun in 1981 to determineif a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act existed, wasquickly turned into a `Foreign Intelligence/Terrorism' inquiry, eventhough no basis for such existed. The new category, however, allowedthe FBI to utilize `special techniques,' that are considered illegalwhen applied to domestic investigations. It allowed the FBI to avoidstrictures developed to remedy the abuses that came to light in thepost-Vietnam protest era."
Ratner charges that "the investigation was used as one of the pretextsfor the harassment and surveillance" being reported by those whooppose the Reagan administration's foreign policy.
FBI director William Sessions, however, defended the CISPES investigationas a legitimate probe into criminal activity. But one FBI agent assumeda more sinister motive for the CISPES investigation in a memo which warned:
=== "It is imperative at this time to formulate some plan ofaction against CISPES and, specifically, against individuals [deletion]who defiantly display their contempt for the US government by makingspeeches and propagandizing their cause while asking for politicalasylum. === "New Orleans is of the opinion that the Departmentsof Justice and State should be consulted to explore the possibilityof deporting these individuals or at best denying them re-entry afterthey leave.
Among the many groups named in the CISPES FBI files were: Central AmericanSolidarity Committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned, Church of the Brothers,Chicago Interreligious Task Force, Fellowship of Reconciliation, FriendsReligious 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 numberof individual churches, colleges, religious orders, community organizations,women's groups and political groups.
The following excerpt from the Pittsburgh FBI field office file on thelocal CISPES affiliate, the Central American Mobilization Committee (CAMC),showed the ideological framework which forms the basis of the FBI investigation:
=== "The membership of the CAMC and its affiliated groups appearsgenerally to be of two type groups: the `core' membership and the `affiliate'membership. The `core' membership consists of individuals with strongCommunist or Socialist beliefs who have a history of being active inCommunist or Socialist political organizations, some since the VietnamWar era. The `affiliate' membership, on the other hand, consists inlarge part of local college students relatively new to the politicalscene. It has at least one female high school student member. Someof these younger `affiliate' members appear to be politically unsophisticatedin that they know little of current international events save whatthey read or hear at their political meetings. Pittsburgh has notedat least two of these members or affiliates both were young females."
The CISPES FOIA revelations came on the heels of charges by former FBIinformant Frank Varelli that he was pressured into inventing informationto show that CISPES was tied to terrorists. Varelli told a Congressionalsubcommittee in 1987 that his reports were designed to provide an excusefor the FBI to intimidate critics of Reagan's Central America policies.
According to Varelli:
=== "The FBI led me to believe that CISPES was a radical `terrorist'organization. . . .Ironically, never once during thenext three years of my association with CISPES did I encounter anythingeven close to the picture painted by the FBI. The CISPES organizationwas peaceful, nonviolent, and devoted to changing the policies of theUnited States towards Central America by persuasion and education.
Varelli sued the FBI, alleging they refused to pay him $65,000 in backpay. Varelli was terminated as an informant when the FBI agent controllinghim carelessly lost in a car burglary files containing secret informationthat might have blown Varelli's cover.