Solidarity or Foreign Agent?

An organization in the US with long, historic ties to El Salvador's left, is warning that the US government is harrassing it. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) has denounced a letter it received from the US Justice Department which asks CISPES to provide information about its relationship with the FMLN and the presidential campaign of Mauricio Funes so that the Justice Department can determine if CISPES must register as an "agent of a foreign principal" under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The Justice Department letter states:
It has come to our attention through published accounts in The Washington Post and numerous online sources including your organization's public web page,... that the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), and/or possibly its candidate for El Salvador’s 2009 presidential election, Mauricio Funes, hired your organization for the purposes of conducting a public relations media campaign to include political fundraising which may require your registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act...

(The Washington Post article which I highlighted in a post last December never mentions CISPES at all).

Burke Stansbury, executive director of CISPES, was quoted in a piece on the website of describing CISPES' response to the letter:
"Everything they have asserted in this letter is categorically false," Stansbury emphatically stated.

CISPES has a relationship with FMLN, Stansbury continued, just as it has relationships with El Salvadoran labor unions, women's groups, and campesino organizations. "But it is by no means a relationship of foreign agency, as they call it," he said.

Stansbury described the DOJ letter as politically motivated and aimed at suppressing opposition to Bush administration policies.

"I would characterize it as an attempt to focus in on CISPES as an actor in what is playing out as a pretty important political struggle right now in Latin America," he suggested.

Stansbury referred to the emergence of left-wing and social reform minded administrations recently elected to power in several Latin American countries....

"I would suggest that this letter is coming more from the State Department than the Justice Department," said Stansbury. "It's a message to CISPES and to the people in this country who would support the self-determination and the progress of these progressive movements in Latin America. It's a message that we should back off and they're going to be watching our actions."

To be sure, CISPES probably left itself open to this type of interpretation by the Justice Department. Consider this press release sent out by CISPES on December 17, 2007 in connection with Funes visit to the US. The press release describes Funes' candidacy for the presidency in El Salvador as the candidate for the FMLN, describes events at which Funes will be present, and lists the executive director of CISPES as a contact person if the press has inquiries. On the surface, this press release could be read to bring CISPES within the language of this definition of a foreign agent in the statute:
1) any person who acts ... at the ... request ... of a foreign principal...and who directly or through any other person--

(ii) acts within the United States as a public relations counsel, publicity agent, information-service employee or political consultant for or in the interests of such foreign principal; (22 U. S. C. §611(b)).

The question becomes, did the FMLN or Funes "request" CISPES to send out the press release. If it did, then arguably CISPES falls within the definition in the law. Is it harassment for the Justice Department to ask CISPES if there was a request or a contract?

CISPES responded to the Justice Department on February 19, 2008 stating that CISPES had no relationship with the FMLN which would require registration and had no contracts with the FMLN to turn over. There is no word on whether the Justice Department has taken any action since that point.

Bottom line -- there's no doubt that CISPES has a long relationship in solidarity with the FMLN and with other social organizations in El Salvador, and there's no question who CISPES wants to win in the upcoming elections. But that doesn't make CISPES a foreign agent, and it is acting within its free speech rights to tell the world that CISPES believes a president from the FMLN is best for El Salvador.


Hodad said…
thanks so much for THIS blog, Tim,
the State department flunkies all need to be hung in public with their bosses for treason
and for being such losers as the mouthpieces for a failed government in USA
Viva El Frente/Verde[.org]
love CISPES keep it going
Anonymous said…
A matter of facts --

Though you eventually did defend the legality and critical importance of U.S. support for social justice in El Salvador, your post did cast a dubious eye on CISPES' actions first (exhibit A: a press release! aha!), and I don't understand that approach. How might anyone who reads this blog benefit from such an indulgence? Surely people can sense the threat that is being communicated within this "request".

Attempting to capitalize from the 'fear of protest' climate the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security have worked so diligently to engineer, the D.O.J. has made their concerns in this letter purposefully vague and open to interpretation.

You didn't point out that to qualify as a foreign agent, CISPES would necessarily have to be taking orders or money from the FMLN for its work. Playing on the public's cynicism -- not to mention its severe lack of basic news and political education -- Washington is attempting yet again to paint this group as another political "player"; another "paid minion of authoritarian Hugo Chavez", I suppose would be the next leap of logic under this sort of publicity spell. At times your blog has (perhaps inadvertently) help push this theme along.

What could you or your readers (I'm one of them)possibly gain by lending any credibility to the Bush administration's absurd attempts to brand social justice activists as "foreign agents" or "enemies of the state" or to characterize Latin American uprisings as acts of terrorism or mini-revolts. I'm just not sure why, given your experience of U.S. policy in El Salvador you would give the State Department any more space on the page, much less an investigative hook.

This letter opens up absurd notions that fly in the face of the spirit of volunteerism, popular education, direct action, and solidarity movement building CISPES is best known for. And we're not alone.


The Washington Post revealed Friday that the FBI is continuing its systematic violation of Americans' Fourth Amendment guarantees against "unreasonable searches and seizures."

A Justice Department report concluded that the Bureau had repeatedly abused its intelligence gathering "privileges" by issuing bogus "national security letters" (NSLs) from 2003-2006. On at least one occasion, the FBI relied on an illegally-issued NSL to circumvent a ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain records the secret court deemed protected by the First Amendment.

While the Bush regime claims that the Bureau requires sweeping authority to invade the privacy of American citizens to "protect the homeland" from the Afghan-Arab database of disposable intelligence assets, al-Qaeda, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine determined that fully "60 percent of the nearly 50,000 security letters issued that year [2006] by the FBI targeted Americans," according to Post reporter Dan Eggen.

Despite the FISA court twice rejecting Bureau requests to obtain sensitive private records, determining "the 'facts' were too thin" and the "request implicated the target's First Amendment rights," the FBI used an NSL as a "work around" and proceeded anyway.

The stunning disregard for all legal norms under the Bush regime is encapsulated by FBI general counsel Valerie E. Caproni's statement to investigators that "it was appropriate to issue the letters in such cases because she disagreed with the court's conclusions."

Fine asserted in the Inspector General's report that the Bureau has recklessly used NSLs to sweep-up vast quantities of telephone numbers and internet searches with a single request.

Jameel Jaffer, national security director at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Eggen,

"The fact that these are being used against U.S. citizens, and being used so aggressively, should call into question the claim that these powers are about terrorists and not just about collecting information on all kinds of people. They're basically using national security letters to evade legal requirements that would be enforced if there were judicial oversight."

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesperson, said Fine's report "should come as no surprise," tendentiously claiming new "procedural changes" would ameliorate future problems.

According to FBI Assistant Director John Miller, a former correspondent and anchor for ABC News, NSL requests "are now reviewed by a lawyer before they are sent to a telephone company, Internet service provider or other target."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has quietly stripped the independent Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) of much of its authority to root out illegal spying activities by the intelligence "community," Boston Globe journalist, Charlie Savage reports.

A little noticed February 29 executive order signed by Bush gutted the board's mandate to refer illegal activities by an ever-expanding national security state to the Justice Department.

According to Savage,

Bush's order also terminated the board's authority to oversee each intelligence agency's general counsel and inspector general, and it erased a requirement that each inspector general file a report with the board every three months. Now only the agency directors will decide whether to report any potential lawbreaking to the panel, and they have no schedule for checking in.

In other words, we'll police ourselves. Move along!

The IOB was created in 1976 by president Gerald Ford following congressional revelations that a panoply of U.S. intelligence entities including the CIA, FBI, NSA and DIA, had engaged in illegal domestic spying operations, organized the assassination of foreign leaders, incited coups and other destabilization campaigns around the world to advance U.S. geopolitical goals during America's anticommunist Cold War jihad.

On the domestic front, the FBI's COINTELPRO, the CIA's Operation CHAOS, the NSA's Project SHAMROCK and the DIA's domestic operations under control of various Military Intelligence Groups, conducted illegal surveillance of antiwar, socialist, feminist and black liberation groups targeted for "disruption and neutralization" during the 1960s and '70s.

Federal intelligence agents, in addition to conducting illegal surveillance and infiltration of domestic dissident groups, worked closely with local police "red squads" and actually financed and controlled far-right terrorist gangs such as the Minutemen, the San Diego-based Secret Army Organization and the Legion of Justice in Chicago. Dozens of attacks, including fire-bombings, physical assaults and attempted "targeted assassinations" of vocal antiwar activists and socialist organizers were the result.

Even after the "COINTELPRO era" presumably ended with the 1971 Media, PA raid by the "Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI" that exposed the Bureau's illegal operations, abuses continued--and multiplied.

* In 1979, five members of the Communist Workers Party were murdered by a combined Ku Klux Klan/American Nazi Party hit team in Greensboro, NC. The anticommunist death squad had been recruited, organized and led by an FBI infiltrator, Edward Dawson. Dawson was also a paid informant for the Greensboro Police Department.

* During the 1980s, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), opposed to U.S. intervention in support of El Salvador's death squad state, was infiltrated by FBI informants and far-rightists' associated with Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles (CARP). The ultra-right wing Council for Inter-American Security, working as public relations apologists for death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, compiled a dossier on CISPES that was subsequently passed to the FBI. The Bureau then recommended "active measures" be taken to destroy the group.

* In May 1990, Earth First! leaders Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were targets of a politically-motivated assassination attempt. A bomb was detonated in their car by unknown assailants. At the FBI's instigation, Oakland Police immediately arrested the pair and charged them with terrorist crimes. After two months of adverse media publicity targeting the victims, charges were dropped. Twelve years later, the environmentalists were awarded $4.4 million in a federal civil suit when a jury determined the FBI had acted recklessly in their handling of the case. The FBI was doomed when their own forensic lab specialist testified the bomb was under the car seat not on the floorboard behind Bari as Bureau counterterrorism "experts" alleged.

* Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) is another in a long-line of corrupt Pentagon "public-private partnerships." Initially authorized by president William Clinton's Presidential Decision Directive (PDD)-75, CIFA and its associated TALON/CORNERSTONE database provide "threat assessments" for DoD facilities and personnel.

One CIFA-supported database project, managed by defense giant Northrop Grumman was designated "Person Search." It was designed to "provide comprehensive information about people of interest." Its intended use included the ability to search government and commercial databases "to track and monitor activities of suspect individuals."

However, numerous reports and internal memoranda published by the National Security Archive clearly document that CIFA's military and private contractors systematically conducted surveillance and data-mining operations against the antiwar movement. The Archive has posted 9 TALON reports collected by the 902nd Military Intelligence Group documenting CIFA's repressive activities.

Originally falling under the purview of Stephen A. Cambone, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, CIFA's intelligence and data-mining programs are being spun-off to private contractors. Cambone has since gone on to an executive position with QinetiQ North America. QinetiQ signed a $30 million Pentagon contract in January 2008 for unspecified "security services" to CIFA, according to CorpWatch investigative reporter, Tim Shorrock.

* CISPES is again a target of the Justice Department. Citing the Foreign Registration Act of 1938, Bush's DOJ is questioning the organization's relationship with the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN), a legal political party in El Salvador.

With elections looming in 2009, the Bush regime is terrified that another Latin American country will elect a leftist government, thus further weakening U.S. regional domination and control over its shrinking imperialist empire. The Bush plan? Target solidarity activists in an attempt to smear the group as "foreign agents," or worse.

The gutting of the Intelligence Oversight Board's authority to investigate criminal activities by the Bush administration comes at a time when domestic spying operations have multiplied exponentially.

Last week The Wall Street Journal exposed the NSA's data-mining capabilities and revealed that the agency was targeting millions of Americans in its electronic driftnet and has compiled terabytes of data on every aspect of lives.
Tim said…
A value which I try to uphold in writing these blog posts is trying to avoid jumping to conclusions. I don't disagree that there have been in the past and continue to be today, many actions by the federal government which violate privacy rights and which involve surveillance of groups the government doesn't like. The Reagan years surveillance/harassment of CISPES is a good example.

The existence of that current and historic activity does not let me jump to the conclusion that the letter from the Justice Department is nefarious, and I tried to make that point by showing that the language of the law can be met by sending out public relations materials at the request of a foreign political party.

I fully aired CISPES views that there is an illegitimate motive behind the letter, but I thought it reasonable to also point out that the CISPES press release at least opens the door to a reasonable inquiry about whether the law was triggered.

It is open to debate whether the law requires "orders" from the FMLN -- the language of the statute is "request."

It's also worth remembering that none of this was in the public spotlight until CISPES chose to put the issue in the public spotlight.
Chalate Dude said…

To start, you were well meaning in your post. You recognize the historical context of the past U.S. government harassment against CISPES In the 1980s, something rtaher well documented.

To say, however, that CISPES may have left itself open to question is, as anonymous says, to cast a dubious eye on the actions of CISPES.

First, did it occur to you that perhaps CISPES needed to get legal advice before going public and bringing this into the spotlight. In these post 9-11 days of national security paranoia and whipping up fear of terrorism in the general public it would only be prudent to do so.

While this is not a case of the national security letters that people have received, and which forbids them from speaking about what they're supposedly accused of, or even acknowledging they received the letter, to receive a letter from the U.S. government of the sort that CISPES did is definitely intimidation.

Given the current administration's use of the fear of terrorism, intimidation, and repression against social movement groups and non-governmental organizations would it not be wise of CISPES to get legal advice and a sense of where they stand before making the letter public? Making such letters public to bring attention to the actions of the U.S. government and holding our government accountable for its actions is the best way to respond to such actions.