The visits were unexpected, unannounced and unusually disconcerting.
From March 31 to April 2, FBI agents called on a dozen professional people in San Diego, Washington and four other cities. The agents arrived at the individuals’ workplaces, in most instances, and announced that they were conducting national security investigations.
None of the 12 were told they were suspected of a crime. What linked them, instead, was that they all had visited Nicaragua during the previous year under the auspices of TecNICA, a Berkeley-based group that has sent 350 volunteers to the Central American country in the last four years to provide technical advice to public and private agencies.
The agents wanted to know more about TecNICA. They wanted to know more about a retired La Jolla computer expert who had made frequent trips to Central America. And in some cases, the agents said, they simply wanted to warn the TecNICA volunteers--teachers, tradesmen, book editors and the like--against becoming “dupes” of the Soviets and their Communist allies.
Still unexplained by the FBI, the interrogations last month have fueled the suspicions of groups opposed to the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America that they are the targets of an illegal, politically inspired campaign of harassment--a campaign comparable, they say, to the FBI’s counterintelligence operations against New Left and black militant groups in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The FBI will say only that the bureau harasses no one, and that all interviews conducted with returnees from Nicaragua comply with secret guidelines governing foreign counterintelligence operations.
Nonetheless, a congressional subcommittee is planning hearings in the next few weeks into the FBI’s conduct--the fourth round of hearings in the last two years to raise questions about alleged abuses of U.S. citizens’ civil rights because of their criticism of policy in Central America.
“We Americans have an almost constitutional right to go anywhere we want to and a right to come home and get off an airplane and not have an FBI agent there,” said Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Judiciary Committee, which is planning the latest hearings. “We want the FBI to catch crooks, spies and terrorists, not to chill travel by interviewing Americans who travel to some controversial place.”
Meanwhile, TecNICA and other groups sympathetic to the Sandinista regime and leftist oppositions in neighboring Central American countries are trying to turn the perceived intimidation to their advantage--by publicizing the alleged government misconduct and by utilizing the strengthened resolve of supporters angry at being harassed.
“On the one hand, it’s very intimidating to have the FBI go to your job or appear at your door,” said Adelita Medina, coordinator of the Movement Support Network of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, the legal group that represents TecNICA and other Central American activist groups.
“But the long-term effect is that it strengthens people’s commitment,” she added, “because they know firsthand that the government is out to harass individuals just because they disagree with government policy.”
Deborah Menkart, who teaches electronics at a Washington-area vocational high school, was one of those visited by the FBI on April 1.
Menkart, 30, spent two weeks in Nicaragua in August, 1985, translating for other volunteers teaching a microprocessing course. A 10-year resident of San Diego who worked for National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. before returning to her native Washington in 1983, Menkart said she wanted to see firsthand if the Nicaraguan revolution was working.
She was not at school when the agents arrived, and she refused to answer their questions when they came to her apartment--even though the agents said she would be well-advised to talk to them.
“They said it would be in my best interest, because I was not in any trouble yet,” Menkart recounted.
Elsewhere, agents were asking other TecNICA volunteers what they knew about Karl Amatneek of La Jolla, a 75-year-old retired computer expert and longtime political activist who has visited Nicaragua on several occasions.
The agents said they had pictures of Amatneek meeting with Soviet and Cuban agents, and they warned the other volunteers against becoming “dupes” of the Soviet Bloc through their associations with TecNICA, according to Medina.
“One woman was told that TecNICA and people who work with TecNICA are aiding the Soviet government,” Medina said. “They’re trying to intimidate people by saying, ‘You don’t know who you’re associating with.’ ”
‘No. 1 Subject’
Edwards last week described Amatneek as “the No. 1 subject of all the inquiries by the FBI,” but declined to answer questions about the La Jolla man’s activities. Amatneek himself declined to be interviewed, referring all calls to TecNICA.
Defenders of the purported FBI activities say the agency has a legitimate interest in monitoring the dealings of groups and individuals in contact with regimes that are at odds with the United States.
“In case you haven’t noticed, Nicaragua is being turned into a satellite of the Soviet Union,” said Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), a minority member of Edwards’ subcommittee. “I think the FBI is perfectly correct in gathering as much intelligence as they can from people who have gone to Nicaragua.”
Dannemeyer noted that U.S. citizens generally are under no obligation to answer an investigator’s questions, but he acknowledged that it could prove “a little unsettling” for FBI agents to show up at a person’s workplace and announce their desire to conduct an interview.
“I think that’s an appropriate point for the committee to take testimony on, to find out how the FBI is conducting itself with respect to these questions,” the conservative Orange County representative said.
Besides general intelligence-gathering, the FBI has responsibility for investigating violations of the U.S. embargo against trade with Nicaragua. Travel to and from Nicaragua is legal, as is the sale or donation of medical supplies, but all other forms of commercial trade are banned.
David Creighton, TecNICA program director, says the group--which is supported by grants, donations and the fees charged to volunteers who visit Nicaragua on TecNICA-sponsored trips--does nothing to violate the embargo.
“We’re a personnel-oriented organization, a service organization,” he said. “Our objective is to provide talent to Nicaragua, as opposed to supplying materiel or technology per se.”
FBI spokesmen declined to talk in detail about the TecNICA interrogations, saying simply that whatever interviews the bureau has conducted fall within classified guidelines for foreign counterintelligence operations.
“The FBI doesn’t harass anyone--that’s one statement we can make,” said Bill Carter, a spokesman at FBI headquarters in Washington.
At a hearing before Edwards’ subcommittee in April, 1985, FBI Director William H. Webster acknowledged that the agency had interviewed about 100 Americans returning from Nicaragua.
“In every instance, there was a specific counterintelligence reason for doing so,” Webster testified. “It has nothing to do with the political issues involved in Nicaragua or whether the FBI favors or opposes the current government, the current regime, or the contras. “
During the hearing two years ago, Webster denied knowledge of any instances in which agents had chastised U.S. opponents of the Reagan Administration’s policy in Central America.
“I certainly agree with you that it is not the function of the FBI to educate individuals with respect to political issues, nor is the function of the FBI to in any way chill the free exercise of expression with regard to those political views,” Webster told Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.)
Yet political education seemed to be on the minds of the FBI agents who came to Ellen Finkelstein’s office at a Chicago publishing company April 1.
Finkelstein, a TecNICA volunteer who taught word processing at a Managua research institute during a four-week visit to Nicaragua last July, said a female agent wanted to talk to her even after Finkelstein refused to answer any questions.
“Basically, what she told me was that they were part of an ongoing national security investigation, and that TecNICA and its volunteers, by aiding the Nicaraguan people, were somehow or other aiding the Soviet and Cuban governments,” Finkelstein said. “And the FBI was concerned that innocent and well-meaning American people were being duped by the Soviets. They were concerned that I and other people not do things they would later regret.”
Finkelstein said she and others in Chicago who met with the agents last month did not appreciate the unsolicited advice.
“The people who were visited that I talked to were obviously a little taken aback and frightened by the experience and a little intimidated. But more than anything, they were angry,” she said. “It was an attempt to intimidate us, to frighten us, to jeopardize our jobs, certainly. It was also clearly an attempt to get us to stop doing the kind of aid to Nicaragua that people have been involved in.”
Leftist groups say the latest round of interrogations is only further evidence of a government campaign of harassment that has lasted at least five years and has targeted churches, educational groups and lobbying organizations supportive of the Sandinistas, the Salvadoran opposition and the sanctuary movement, which provides protection in the United States to Central American political refugees.
Other examples of alleged government intimidation, they say, include 60 unsolved break-ins at such organizations’ offices in the last four years, seizures of notebooks and personal records from travelers returning from Nicaragua, infiltrations of activist groups by government informants, and wide-ranging federal investigations revealed in documents obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Testimony at a hearing conducted by Edwards in February indicated that the FBI for five years had been gathering information on the Washington-based Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador.
The star witness at the hearing, one-time FBI informant Frank Varelli, testified that he was paid by the bureau to infiltrate the committee, but had uncovered no evidence of illegal conduct by the group.
Varelli’s credibility was tested, though, when Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the ranking minority member of the House subcommittee, produced a report showing that the informant previously had claimed to have uncovered a plot by the solidarity committee to assassinate President Reagan at the 1984 Republican Convention.
In other testimony, top FBI officials denied any role in the break-ins at the left-wing groups’ offices. And earlier this month, FBI agents arrested two Oklahoma men who allegedly had plotted to assassinate Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega--not the kind of case that an agency on an anti-Sandinista crusade would be likely to break, the FBI’s defenders say.
“Don Edwards is on a fishing expedition, and he hasn’t caught anything more than minnow,” Sensenbrenner said in an interview last week.
FBI investigations, he said, have adhered to the guidelines developed by Edwards and others in Congress after the disclosure in the mid-1970s of the bureau’s “Cointelpro” operations, in which domestic leftist and black organizations were infiltrated to disrupt and debilitate their activities. No revival of improper conduct is under way, Sensenbrenner said.
“I think Judge Webster during his tenure as FBI director has really professionalized the bureau,” he said.
Yet Edwards, a former FBI agent, is concerned that the bureau may be overstepping its bounds--imperiling innocent people’s employment by contacting them at work and seeking to question them about matters in which federal investigators should have no interest.
“We want to know why they’re doing it,” Edwards said. “Have they been told by somebody that’s the kind of work they want them to do? Because we don’t want them to do it. That’s political work.”