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 very troubling.

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 played.

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 realities.

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 regimes.

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 Department.

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 United States.

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 their return.

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.

Early Warnings

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 in 1983.

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 was unwarranted.

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 Administration.

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 as well.

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 policies.

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 into history.

Break-ins, Death Threats and the FBI

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