A Pomona College professor of Latin American history said Friday that he was questioned about his Venezuela connections by two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies working for a federal task force and called the quizzing an intrusion on his academic freedom.
The college’s president weighed in as well, saying he feared the “chilling effect” such visits could have on academia.
Professor Miguel Tinker-Salas said the deputies entered his office without an appointment Tuesday during hours normally set aside for student conferences. He said the deputies were there for about 25 minutes and asked him about the Venezuelan community and his relationship with it. They also told him he was not the subject of an investigation.
“They cast the Venezuelan community as a threat,” said Tinker-Salas, an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in Latin America who was born in Venezuela. “They asked me if the Venezuelan government had influenced me one way or another. I think they were fishing to see if I had any information they could use.”
Sheriff Lee Baca said Friday that his deputies were doing nothing more than gathering information on the political situation in Venezuela for a federal anti-terrorism task force coordinated by the FBI. But he said he would discourage workplace interviews in the future, especially with members of academia.
Venezuela has had strained relations with the United States for years. In recent months, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has broadened his criticism of the U.S. and touched American nerves by strengthening ties with Iran.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress last month that the administration was pursuing an “inoculation strategy” in other Latin American countries to limit Venezuelan influence.
Tinker-Salas figured in a Christian Science Monitor story last month dealing with whether Iran and Venezuela could forge a political counterweight to U.S. power. He said the detectives questioned him on subjects that easily could have been answered elsewhere.
“They asked me about the Venezuelan community. Where do they congregate? Do they have a leadership?” he said. “They asked about the consulate and the embassy. They wanted to know if I had contact with the Venezuelan government.”
Tinker-Salas said the deputies also questioned waiting students about him and examined cartoons on his office door.
“They asked them about my classes,” he said. “My students were intimidated.”
Pomona College President David Oxtoby said Friday that he was “extremely concerned about the chilling effect this kind of intrusive government interest could have on free scholarly and political discourse. I am also concerned about the negative message it sends to students who are considering the pursuit of important areas of international study, in which they may now feel exposed to unwarranted official scrutiny.”
Oxtoby said the school, in Claremont, was consulting with legal advisors about the strongest way to protest Tinker-Salas’ questioning. “He’s a national expert,” Oxtoby said. The deputies “could have called. They could have made an appointment.”
The Venezuelan government weighed in as well Friday, issuing a statement that called the questioning “a violation of freedoms of expression, thought and academic inquiry,” and said the government “views the move as a desperate attempt to link Venezuela to terrorism.”
U.S. law enforcement officials said Friday that the concerns raised about the interview have only underscored the importance for federal agents -- or others handling interviews -- to follow accepted procedures.
“We’re mindful of the need to be sensitive about these discussions, no matter how benign the subject may be,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the controversy the incident has generated.
In a statement, the FBI said law enforcement officials should be mindful of the timing and location of an informational interview. As for the Pomona College meeting, the FBI said there was no intent “to place the professor, his students or Pomona College in an uncomfortable situation.”
Baca, meanwhile, said the deputies were not working on any particular case. But he said he would have preferred it if the deputies had avoided the college grounds or at least called ahead.
“It is important not to go to college campuses and interview professors and students in such a way that leads to questions like, ‘Why are they under suspicion?’ ” he said.