On Frank Verelli and Other Sources
Beginnings of a Secret War
excerpted from the book
Break-ins, Death Threats
and the FBI
the covert war against the Central America movement
by Ross Gelbspan
South End Press, 1991
On Frank Varelli and Other Sources
My involvement in this book began near the end of 1984. As
a Boston Globe reporter, I covered two break-ins at the Old Cambridge
Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which had recently
joined the Sanctuary movement and which housed the offices of
several Central America-oriented political groups. While the stories
ran only a few paragraphs, I found the break-ins at the church
In both cases, the intruders who ransacked the offices and
rifled and apparently copied organizational files, left-untouched-cash,
office equipment and other items of value. Since it was clear
this was not a case of normal street crime, I wondered why these
political groups had been targeted. At the time, I had little
interest in-and less knowledge of-events in El Salvador, Guatemala
and Nicaragua. But I had (and continue to have) an almost religious
belief in the United States' bedrock commitment to free speech
and the sanctity of the democratic process. The break-ins, as
inconsequential as they appeared, evoked an ominous premonition
of a "brownshirt" type of political thuggery.
Over the next few years, I was appalled to learn that the
break-ins in Cambridge were merely the early symptoms of a nationwide
epidemic of such events. Over the next six years, Central America
activists experienced nearly 200 incidents of harassment and intimidation,
many ~ ~ involving such break-ins and thefts or rifling of files.
Many of those reports came from the Movement Support Network of
the Center for Constitutional Rights, which had set up a hotline
for political groups to report various types of political harassment.
A number of other reports of such harassments came to me from
people who were aware of my reporting for the Globe. In the case
of virtually all such reports, confirmed them personally, both
through interviews with the victims and, wherever possible, interviews
with investigating police officers.
While many of the victims felt virtually certain that the
break-ins were the work of the FBI, which had established a track
record for "black-bag jobs" in the 1960s, I was more
prone to accept the Bureau's explanation that the FBI played no
direct role in the break-ins. What did disturb me about the FBI,
however, was its failure to investigate what surely constituted
an interstate conspiracy to deprive political activists of their
civil liberties. Time and again, the FBI declined to investigate
the break-ins, saying they constituted sub-felony level burglaries
which fell under the jurisdiction of local police and did not
warrant the intervention of a federal enforcement agency. But
local police, many of whom asserted their belief that the break-ins
were political in nature, had neither the resources nor the inclination
to devote serious time and personnel to low-level break-ins during
a period when family violence, street crime and drug-related brutality
were reaching alarming proportions.
Beginning in 1985 ... [r]eports surfaced of a number of public,
overt activities by the FBI which seemed designed to harass and
frighten political activists concerned with Central America. First
came the reported interrogations by FBI agents of more than 100
American citizens who had traveled to Nicaragua. Later, we learned
of the confiscation by Customs officials of personal diaries,
books and newspapers from U.S. citizens returning from Central
America. There were reports as well of Internal Revenue Service
audits of low-budget political groups which seemed to have no
explanation except for political motivations.
My convictions about the importance of this story were strengthened
by the famous November 1986, Reagan-Meese press conference, and
subsequent revelations, about a covert government operation, run
out of the National Security Council, to provide illegal support
to the Nicaraguan contras. We later learned that our allies in
El Salvador played a key and, as yet, largely unexplored role
in the covert contra-support operation.
As the cumulative revelations of the Iran-Contra affair indicated
an increasingly extensive public-private apparatus that had contravened
and undermined our constitutional form of government, I became
more and more convinced that the break-ins, as well as the massive
FBI investigation of Central America groups, represented the domestic
side of a national scandal of which only the international aspects
had been partially revealed to the public and the Congress.
That conviction was strengthened when I came to learn that
the covert assault on political activists involved not only the
FBI and the Salvadoran security forces, but also the CIA, the
National Security Council and a range of private, right-wing groups-most
of whom had been integrally involved in the secret contra operation.
What troubled me more, perhaps, than the clarifying picture
of a well coordinated, multi-pronged assault on political dissenters
was the apparent indifference of the press and the public to a
brazen attack on the civil liberties of a significant segment
of U.S. society. The implicit message in the lack of press attention
was that there is nothing improper about widespread domestic surveillance.
Equally disturbing was the tacit assumption that there is nothing
newsworthy about the government condoning the harassment and intimidation
of political dissenters. The attitude of many of my journalistic
colleagues seemed to be a mix of deference to the overwhelming
popularity of the President and indifference to an alarming threat
to civil liberties. To this day, I am puzzled by the news judgment
of peers who determined that a clear pattern of break-ins, thefts
of files and death threats aimed at political dissenters is not
a compelling subject of coverage.
So it was with eager anticipation that attended a two-day
hearing on the break-ins before the House Judiciary Subcommittee
on Civil and Constitutional Rights in February 1987.
The star witness at that hearing was Frank Varelli, a naturalized
Salvadoran-born U.S. citizen and a former employee of the FBI
who had infiltrated the Dallas branch of one of the largest Central
America groups, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of
El Salvador (CISPES).
In his prepared statement to the House committee, Varelli
alluded to a bizarre subterranean collaboration between the FBI
and the Salvadoran National Guard designed to target U.S. Iiberal
and left-wing activists as well as Salvadoran refugees. That collaboration
involved the passing of names of both U.S. activists and Salvadorans
between the FBI and the Salvadoran security forces and death squads.
Varelli cited his role in preparing a Terrorist Photo Album for
the FBI, which included entries on a former U.S. ambassador as
well as several members of Congress. And he implicated his former
case agent in the Dallas FBI office, Special Agent Daniel Flanagan,
in the break-in of the apartment of a political activist in Texas.
(That allegation was later denied by the FBI following an internal
investigation by the Bureau.)
Varelli's testimony was effectively sabotaged-and his presentation
discredited-by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican
member of the committee. During his testimony, Varelli told the
Committee that "not once did I find, see, hear or observe
any illegal conduct of any nature. The CISPES organization was
peaceful, nonviolent, and devoted to changing the policies of
the United States towards Central America by persuasion and education."
But Sensenbrenner interrupted Varelli's testimony to produce a
copy of a report-attributed to Varelli-which indicated that the
group was plotting to assassinate President Reagan at the 1984
Republican Convention in Dallas. The production of that report
effectively put an end to Varelli's testimony.
It was only later, after hearing Varelli's account of how
a former right-wing colleague in Texas had altered the report
on the colleague's word-processor-and after listening to tape
recordings of Varelli's private briefing by Secret Service agents
entrusted with the security of the convention-that I became convinced
of the essential truth of the bulk Varelli's testimony.
The Roles of Frank Varelli
The roles of Frank Varelli-both in the FBI's campaign against
Central America groups and as a central character in this book-are
complex and multi-faceted. Initially viewed by the FBI as an intelligence
analyst to help advise the Bureau in its investigations of Central
American terrorism, he became, just a few months into his FBI
employment, an "operational asset" through his infiltration
of the CISPES chapter in Dallas. The FBI would later cast Varelli
as a "mere informant'' to dismiss his allegations of FBI
misconduct on the ground that he was too marginal and insignificant
a player to speak with authority about FBI policies and operations.
But his infiltration of CISPES was only one of the roles Varelli
In addition to establishing a back-channel of communication
between the Bureau and a network of intelligence sources in El
Salvador, Varelli also provided a great deal of the political
and historical context that underlie the FBI's terrorism investigations.
He identified various factions both in the U.S. and El Salvador
for the Bureau, and provided the FBI with the Salvadoran intelligence
community's version of the permutations and linkages between various
radical and revolutionary groups in Central America and elsewhere.
His acceptance by the Bureau as an expert in Central American
terrorism peaked in 1983 when he was invited to address a gathering
of elite FBI and CIA counter-terrorism officials at a special
seminar at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Because of that special status, he was given access to far
more information by his FBI superiors than would normally be furnished
to an informant. As a result, he was much more knowledgeable about
the overall outlines of the FBI's operations-as well as those
of the CIA- than most "operational assets."
I am sending this small book out into the public arena with two
hopes. One is that readers will be sensitized to the fragility
of their personal and political freedoms. Won at terrible costs
to countless patriots, they can be lost with the ease of a yawn.
The second is to add a small document to the depressingly
persistent history of the FBI as a national political police force.
The Bureau should be in the business of catching criminals. It
should be removed, once and forever, from the business of monitoring
citizens' political beliefs. As a federal police force engaged
in the pursuit of inter-state crime, drug trafficking, fraud and
violence, the FBI is a significant element in the defense of society.
As a political police, mobilized to protect the interests of any
political establishment, it is an affront to the basic rights
of free speech and association and an insult to the letter and
the spirit of the Constitution.
Beginnings of a Secret War
During the eight years of the Reagan Administration, members
of the President's inner circle mobilized the federal law enforcement
and intelligence apparatus in a massive campaign of surveillance,
disruption, information suppression and character assassination
which targeted citizens who opposed the administration's policies,
especially in the area of Central America. This operation involved
at least four federal agencies - the FBI, the CIA, the State Department
and the National Security Council, in concert with a variety of
private conservative groups and the security forces of a foreign
government-in an effort to intimidate, terrorize, discredit and
silence Administration opponents. The campaign not only drew upon
the federal government's awesome intelligence and police powers,
but, perhaps as significantly, it made full use of the government's
instruments of information control to neutralize opposing viewpoints,
to bury uncomfortable facts under an avalanche of rhetoric, and
to alter the public's perception of domestic and international
Driven by the anti-communist obsession of the Reagan Administration,
the campaign ironically came to incorporate aspects of abuse of
official power, intimidation, character assassination and official
Iying which U.S. citizens have traditionally associated with totalitarian
In a cynical exploitation of the public's fear of terrorism,
the Administration branded thousands of law-abiding policy dissenters
as "terrorists." In order to discredit legitimate expressions
of opposition by religious and political groups, it labeled them
as "fronts" through which the Soviet Union and its allies
were "manipulating" the American political process.
Perhaps the most troubling legacy of the administration's
war on citizen activists was the embrace by the FBI, CIA, National
Security Council and State Department of a doctrine called "active
measures," under which political dissenters can be labeled
as "communist proxies" and investigated as "terrorists"
simply because some of their opinions may conform to some positions
held by the Soviet Union or another government which is considered
hostile to the United States.
While elements of the FBI's probe of domestic political groups
in the 1980s may have been discredited by subsequent revelations,
the doctrine of "active measures" remains in force as
a justification for investigating citizens-whose activities are
not only legal but are specifically protected by the First Amendment
to the Constitution-as terrorists. So categorized, an individual
can become subjected to governmental surveillance, harassment
and intimidation which is legitimized by an array of arcane regulations
governing the federal law enforcement and intelligence apparatus;
may become an instant suspect in the event of an outbreak of violence
in the United States; can be denied any public- or private-sector
job requiring a security clearance and can at any time, find his
or her reputation in shambles. During the 1980s, the FBI's terrorism
files swelled by more than 100,000 names, a large portion of whom
were law-abiding activists who participated in demonstrations,
contributed to political groups or subscribed to publications
critical of Administration policies.
At the same time the Reagan White House was using the nation's
intelligence and police powers to "neutralize" adversarial
points of view it was also, under cover of secrecy, pumping a
stream of propaganda through the nation's libraries, universities
and communications media into the public consciousness through
writers and speakers who posed as "independent" experts,
but who were, in fact, acting covertly on behalf of the governing
Administration. That operation was apparently conceived by CIA
director William Casey and directed by Walter Raymond, Jr., a
long-time CIA propaganda expert who worked with Oliver North at
the National Security Council and directed the covert domestic
propaganda campaign through a little known office in the State
The FBI - Death Squad Connection
The Administration, moreover, entered into an alliance with
the Salvadoran security forces to pressure and intimidate liberal
North American activists. Through its contacts with the Salvadoran
National Guard, the CIA passed on forged and altered intelligence
material to the FBI which used it as the basis for its investigations
of liberal groups inside the United States.
This confluence of FBI and CIA operations, of foreign and
domestic spies working against U.S. citizens, marks a distinct
difference between the government's secret domestic war of the
1980s and the Bureau's earlier politically-motivated campaigns
against civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, Black Liberation and American
Indian groups in the 1960s and 1970s. The National Guard of El
Salvador is one of the more repressive and terrorist police agencies
in the world. While Salvadoran intelligence officials helped the
Bureau target U.S. groups by providing falsified material to implicate
them in illegal activities, the Bureau, in turn, entered into
an intelligence-sharing relationship with Miami-based Salvadorans
who had organized right-wing Salvadoran activists into a secret
intelligence-gathering network inside the United States. That
collaboration resulted in, among other things, the harassment
and surveillance of left-wing Salvadorans who had fled to the
In return, FBI agents used their access to records of the
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to provide the Salvadoran
security forces with the names and flight numbers of Salvadoran
refugees who had entered the U.S. illegally only to be denied
asylum and deported back to El Salvador. Although their numbers
cannot be verified, it seems clear that many of those refugees
were met, surveilled and, in a number of cases, assassinated on
In its broad efforts to capture public opinion and discredit
dissent, the Administration also entered into a partnership with
private right-wing propagandists, spies and provocateurs whose
activities were protected from Congressional oversight, insulated
from inquiries by the press and immune to disclosure under such
laws as the Freedom of Information Act.
The government's official, overt campaign against its opponents
included FBI interrogations of members of domestic political groups,
as well as citizens who traveled to Nicaragua. It also involved
the seizure by Customs officials of books, documents and personal
papers by hundreds of U.S. travelers returning from Central America.
It spawned a host of apparently politically motivated audits of
such groups by the Internal Revenue Service, as well as hundreds
of incidents of reported mail tampering. The investigations, moreover,
involved the surveillance and compilation of FBI files on at least
a dozen U.S. Senators and Congressmen who were opposed to Reagan
foreign policies in the hemisphere.
Simultaneous with the official investigations of intelligence
and law enforcement agents, political and religious activists
around the country reported more than a hundred break-ins and
thefts of files at their homes, offices and churches. In virtually
all cases, lists of names and organizational material were stolen
or copied while valuable items were left untouched. None of those
break-ins-several of which involved the abductions and terrorizing
of political activists, as well as arson attacks on at least two
of their homes-have been solved. From the accumulated clues surrounding
the episodes, it seems clear that the perpetrators might be found
in a network of private, right-wing groups which worked in concert
with the nation's law enforcement and intelligence agencies to
terrorize policy opponents.
Even before Ronald Reagan took office, it was apparent that
the refinement of democracy through the free play of ideas was
not a priority of his administration. Between his election and
his inauguration, a transition team headed by his campaign manager,
William Casey, was laying the groundwork for a massive domestic
operation to stifle dissent and engineer the terms of the national
debate over U.S. foreign policies.
In 1980, the conservative Heritage Foundation compiled a report
which laid the groundwork for a number of Reagan-era governmental
policies, particularly in the areas of intelligence-gathering
and information controls. The report recommended the restoration
of extraordinary powers to the intelligence agencies, many of
which had been restricted by Congress following the inquiries
into FBI and CIA abuses by the Church, Pike and Rockefeller committees
in the mid-1970s. Those hearings yielded stunning revelations
of assassinations abroad and spying at home by the CIA, as well
as disruptive and illegal activities by the FBI's counterintelligence
program (COINTELPRO), including forgeries and burglaries aimed
at people involved in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
The 1980 Heritage report recommended, for example, reinstating
a much broader use of wiretaps and domestic spies and infiltrators
as well as the reinstatement of burglaries as a tool for gaining
intelligence on citizens suspected of "subversive" activities.
The Heritage report also recommended exploiting a political
asset of the Reagan Administration. The new president's ideological
rhetoric and ultra-conservative agenda provided tremendous encouragement
for activists on the far right who had been excluded from the
inner circles of power for three decades. In keeping with the
President-elect's emphasis on privatizing some of the functions
of government, the Heritage Foundation recommended that the intelligence
agencies be permitted to contract secretly with private sources
for intelligence-gathering and, moreover, be authorized to conceal
the existence of such contracts.'
A year after the publication of the Heritage Foundation report,
President Reagan ordered most of its recommendations into effect
by way of a classified executive order. At the same time, the
President ordered the Department of Justice to draft new and less
restrictive FBI guidelines which were implemented two years later
Shortly after taking office, the President further sought
to bolster the morale of the FBI by pardoning two FBI officials
who had authorized a series of break-ins against Civil Rights
and anti-Vietnam War groups in the 1960s and early 1970s. Responding
to requests by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups
that he forbid the Bureau from committing such "black-bag
jobs" in the future, the President responded that it was
not his intention to tie the Bureau's hands and that such a prohibition
Government By Secrecy
The Heritage report, which proved to be a partial blueprint
for the Reagan transition team, also recommended a number of measures
for controlling information, including severe restrictions on
the Freedom of Information Act. Using that report as a springboard,
Administration officials instituted a series of measures designed
to tighten the cloak of secrecy around the federal apparatus.
Virtually all those measures were implemented through secret presidential
orders which bypassed the processes of Congressional ratification.
As early as 1981, the President ordered the seizure of thousands
of Cuban publications, claiming the import of such books and magazines
violated an act prohibiting "trading with the enemy,"
although the material had been permitted to enter the country
freely for 20 years. In 1982, he signed an order which dramatically
increased the amount of federal documents which could be "classified"
and withheld from public view. That same order authorized the
"re-classification" of information which had previously
been released into the public domain. That same year, the President
signed the "Intelligence Identities Protection Act,"
which, while it purported to protect the identities of CIA agents,
also threatened to subject anyone who exposed illegal activities
by U.S. intelligence agents to up to 10 years in jail and $50,000
in fines. The act threatened to silence journalists and government
"whistleblowers" who have traditionally served the country
by exposing illegal intelligence abuses.
The following year, announcing that his presidential powers
were being undermined by "leaks" from civil servants,
the President announced an initiative to subject more than five
million bureaucrats and one and a half million government contractors
to random lie detector tests. The unreliable nature of polygraphs
aside, the use of the tests flew in the face of a report from
the President's own Office of Information Security Oversight that
the Administration had suffered only "between six and 10
significant leaks" in the first three years of the Reagan
Presidency. Around the same time, President Reagan signed an order
requiring officials with access to certain categories of classified
information to sign secrecy agreements which would require them
to submit any speeches, books or articles to censorship boards
for the rest of their lives.
Throughout the Reagan presidency, moreover, the State Department
denied visas to scores of foreign speakers whose views were antithetical
to the Administration, thus depriving the public of the right
to hear from a range of foreign authors, experts and officials
whose opinions were likely to challenge assumptions promoted by
The effect of these information restrictions was to intimidate
civil servants into silence, to place off limits whole categories
of information which were previously accessible to the public,
and to marginalize, if not eliminate, viewpoints which the Administration
wanted to keep outside the mainstream of political dialogue. It
also fortified the wall of secrecy which protected a host of covert
and, in some cases, illegal operations. Were it not for the exposure
of the government's covert dealings with the Iranian government
in a Lebanese newspaper, for instance, the Iran-Contra scandal
may never have come into full public scrutiny. But even while
that operation attracted a good deal of attention in the late
1980s, a veil of secrecy covered the domestic aspects of the Administration's
Central America policies.
President Reagan's Central America position was initially
presented in terms of a new set of foreign policy priorities:
human rights, the guiding policy of the Carter administration,
was to be subordinated to counter-terrorism-the new policy umbrella
under which the administration would wage its fight against the
advance of communism in all its forms. But despite the best efforts
of the Reagan Administration, the controversy surrounding the
United States' role in Central America grew into one of the most
polarizing and inflammatory issues in the nation's political life.
Almost from the beginning of the 1980s, the controversy spawned
a proliferation of grassroots political groups which supported
the fight of the Salvadoran rebels, who had unified under the
banner of the FMLN to oppose a government marked over the last
fifty years by repression, death squads and institutionalized
terrorism. At the same time, religious and political activists,
moved by the plight of thousands of Salvadoran and Guatemalan
refugees seeking safe haven in this country from the relentless
violence in their homelands, began a movement that eventually
grew to include more than 200 churches and synagogues around the
country whose members worked to change the Administration's immigration
policies and to provide sanctuary for the undocumented aliens.
Other groups formed to support the new Sandinista government
of Nicaragua which was enjoying the widespread support of its
citizens despite the escalating attacks from the United States-at
first through trade embargoes and the mining of that country's
harbors, and later through the ClA's creation and support of an
armed opposition force popularly known as the Nicaraguan contras.
The Administration's activities gave rise to a third set of
organizations which, beginning around 1986, set out to investigate
and expose the covert and illegal policies which came to be known
as part of "the Iran-Contra affair" and which threatened
not only to destabilize the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua but
to undermine and subvert the Constitution of the United States
Active Measures and Privatized Intelligence
Three developments at the beginning of the Reagan presidency
would prove critical to the Administration's war against dissenting
citizens. The first was the commissioning of the FBI by the new
President and his Director of Central Intelligence to take the
lead in the fight against international as well as domestic terrorism.
That charge was embodied in the 1981 executive order which governed
the conduct of intelligence.
That order authorized the FBI to ``conduct counterintelligence
activities outside the United States in coordination with the
CIA as required by procedures agreed upon by the Director of Central
Intelligence and the Attorney General. 'The same order authorized
the Bureau to "produce and disseminate foreign intelligence
and counter-intelligence." The international scope of the
Bureau's new mandate would become more visible later in the decade
when the FBI asserted its right to travel to foreign countries
to arrest foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorist
operations directed against U.S. citizens.
Early in his tenure as CIA Director, Bill Casey ordered two
studies done by analysts within the Agency. One study, aimed at
implementing the new executive order, recommended ways of breaking
down barriers between the CIA, on the one hand, and the FBI and
other intelligence agencies on the other. It is not known what
that study recommended nor to what extent it was implemented.
The second development involved a newfound concern by Casey
and others in the intelligence establishment with traditional
Soviet attempts to influence the U.S. political process through
a set of activities which, in the past, had been marginally successful,
if at all. Despite a finding that the Soviets had been unable
to ever significantly affect the decision-making process in the
United States, Casey also ordered the CIA to produce a second
study containing a set of recommendations to counteract Soviet
"active measures." ``Active measures" is a term
used by the Soviets to denote ``soft', propaganda and disinformation
activities designed to promote Soviet interests in the political
processes of other countries. The techniques include such time-honored
tactics of political advocacy as propaganda, disinformation and
manipulation of the media. The CIA study cited the recently formed
Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)
as an "active measures" front group. And in March of
1981, shortly after the completion of the CIA study, the FBI requested
and won approval from the Justice Department to launch an investigation
into CISPES on grounds it was representing a hostile power-the
Salvadoran FMLN rebels-and, as such, had violated the Foreign
Agents' Registration Act. That was the beginning of a massive
FBI operation which targeted more than one thousand domestic political
groups-and hundreds of thousands of citizens-opposed to the President's
policies in Central America.
A third initiative promoted by Casey and others in the Reagan
national security establishment involved the "privatization
of some of the government's intelligence-gathering functions.
A little-noticed but extremely important provision of the
1981 executive order authorized U.S. intelligence agencies "to
enter into contracts or arrangements for the provision of goods
or services with private companies or institutions in the United
States and need not reveal the sponsorship of such contracts or
arrangements for authorized intelligence purposes."
During the Reagan presidency, the Administration enlisted
the aid of a host of domestic conservative activist groups in
its campaign against domestic political opponents. Many of those
same organizations, together with a number of foreign intelligence
and security forces, would eventually surface as players in the
Administration's secret and illegal initiative to train, arm and
support the Nicaraguan contras.
One of the earliest and most influential of these private
conservative groups was the Western Goals Foundation, founded
at the end of 1979 by Larry McDonald, U.S. Representative from
Georgia and chairman of the John Birch Society. Western Goals'
agenda included the creation of the largest private database of
"subversives" in the U.S. in order to help the intelligence
community root out domestic "terrorists" and augment
the power of the FBI, which had been "crippled" in the
previous decade by a "runaway" Congress. McDonald's
partner in the operation was John Rees, a right-wing journalist,
publisher since 1967 of a newsletter about the left, a consultant
to police in Newark, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and a paid
informant of the FBI.
Much of the bogus allegations, character assassinations and
red-baiting contained in Rees' newsletters and in Western Goals
publications later turned up in the files of the FBI and other
federal agencies, where it was used to open files on groups and
individuals as "terrorist" threats or Soviet "fronts."
Similar material was recycled and generated by other private,
conservative groups-the Council for Inter-American Security, Students
for a Better America, the Young Americas Foundation and the Rev.
Sun Myung Moon's organization, among others-until it became cited
as gospel by conservative activists and commentators. Much of
the material generated by those groups was also disseminated by
an obscure division of the State Department, the Office of Latin
American Public Diplomacy, which turned out to be the center of
a secret CIA-conceived domestic disinformation and propaganda
campaign designed to promote the Administration's Central America
It was not until 1987 that the FBI's massive campaign against
political dissenters surfaced briefly into public view with the
Congressional testimony of Frank Varelli. Varelli, a former FBI
employee, began to detail both the FBI's secret collaboration
with Salvadoran security forces as well as its illegal assault
on liberal activists in the United States before his testimony
was sabotaged by conservatives in Congress who wanted to protect
the reputation of the Reagan-era FBI.
The full scope and extent of the FBI's investigations into
domestic political groups became publicly known in January, 1988,
when attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights won a long
and difficult Freedom of Information lawsuit, which the Bureau
fought tenaciously, which resulted in the release of some 3,500
pages of FBI documents.
Defenders of the FBI point out that the Bureau's political
neutralization campaign of the 1980s was less intrusive and more
restrained than the COINTELPRO activities of the 1960s and early
1970s. But it is clear that the difference in degree reflected
only the fact that the Central America movement never attained
the breadth and impact of the radical movements of the 1960s.
Had the issue of Central America attained the same proportions
as those earlier movements, it seems evident that the Bureau's
campaign would have intensified apace with the strength and influence
of the dissenters.
Finally, there remains the mystery of the little-publicized
epidemic of low-grade, domestic terrorism. It includes break-ins,
death threats, and politically motivated arson attacks which have
plagued hundreds of activists and organizations across the country
for the past seven years. While the FBI has repeatedly denied
any role in those activities, the Bureau has, at the same time,
refused scores of requests to investigate what is clearly an interstate
conspiracy to violate the civil liberties of the victims.
From 1984, when the first reports of mysterious political
break-ins and death threats began to surface, the list of such
episodes has continued to escalate. Nevertheless, the FBI has
maintained they were all local crimes subject to the jurisdictions
of local police. But America's urban police departments, overburdened
by serious crime, have few resources to expend on solving crimes
which, taken in isolation, seem insignificant as well as virtually
impossible to solve, given the care and expertise of their perpetrators.
Of nearly 200 political break-ins and thefts of files reported
by Central America and Sanctuary activists, not one has been solved.
... it should be borne in mind that the Administration's early
groundwork in hiding a substantial portion of the government's
operations behind a maze of regulations and laws designed to strengthen
the wall of official secrecy was quite successful. So was its
practice of privatizing some of those operations and putting them
beyond the reach of conventional journalistic tools of inquiry.
As a result, this picture of the multi-faceted assault on thousands
of concerned citizens remains an approximation of the reality
that haunted many U.S. citizens during the 1980s-and continues
to haunt them as a still-persisting threat to their constitutionally-protected
political liberties even as the Reagan Administration recedes
Death Threats and the FBI