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Break-ins, Death Threats and the FBI
The covert war against the Central America movement

a book by Ross Gelbspan



On Frank Verelli and Other Sources
The Roles of Frank Varelli
Beginnings of a Secret War
The FBI - Death Squad Connection
Early Warnings
Government By Secrecy
Active Measures and Privatized Intelligence
An Epidemic Of Terrorism
Monitoring Subversion in Miami
Targeting Churches
From Dallas to San Salvador
"Gilberto" and "The Doctor"
Allies in the Shadows: The FBI's Private Network
From the Moon Files
Western Goals: The Strange Case of John Rees
"Active Measures"
William Casey's Active Measures
An Early Target: The Nuclear Freeze Movement
A Private Use of Active Measures
An Album of Terrorists, An Underground of Spies
Fingering Congressional Terrorists
The Miami Network
The Decoy or the Duck
The Terrorism Cover
No More Witch Hunts
Privatized Intelligence Salvadoran Style
Storm Flags
The CIA At Home, the FBI Abroad
An Explosion of Names
Passing the Torch: From the FBI to the NSC
The FBI and Oliver North's "Private Network"
A Private Eye of the Private Network
The FBI-NSC Connection
Ollie's Enemies
An Epidemic of Terrorism: Continued
Completing the Cover-Up
A Speculative Scenario: The Guiding Hand of the CIA
Unasked Questions: The FBI and the Disappeared Refugees
CISPES: The Latest Chapter in an Old History
The "DO NOT FILE" File
Criminal Penalties for Criminal Conduct

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 oppo