WASHINGTON — An FBI counterterrorism probe of Central America activists in the United States spun out of control early this decade, growing to encompass actions by more than 100 groups from the Socialist Workers Party to the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity, according to internal FBI documents made public Wednesday.
The documents indicate that regional FBI offices led a two-year inquiry into the political activities of hundreds of people who opposed U.S. policy in Central America, despite written warnings from FBI headquarters to limit the inquiry to allegations of terrorist activities by a single group.
That group, the Committee in Support of the People of El Salvador, or CISPES, favored the armed overthrow of the Salvadoran government by a Marxist guerrilla army, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
The terrorist allegations against CISPES were not proved and the investigation was closed after it became public in 1985.
Reams of Data Collected
Before that, however, FBI field offices in Dallas, New Orleans and other cities nationwide collected reams of data on groups opposing the Administration's Latin America policies, many of which had only tenuous links to CISPES.
The bureau investigation varied from interviews to undercover visits to college campuses to photographic and human surveillance of demonstrators and political activists.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, an activist legal group, obtained the documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. The group made them public at a news conference.
Ann Mari Buitrago, the group's freedom of information expert, charged that the documents depict surveillance and harassment of domestic political groups not seen since the FBI spied on dome1937008995Nixon Administration.
"Something is terribly wrong," she said. "The FBI is well on its way to reassuming its . . . role as a secret thought police."
FBI Cites Restraints
The FBI refused to respond directly to the charges, citing restraints imposed by secrecy laws. A written statement said the bureau "is sensitive to the constitutional rights of the American public and the bureau has no interest in interfering with the exercise of these rights."
Outside experts familiar with the papers said they detail an apparently well-intentioned inquiry that was bungled and strayed "over the line" into political intelligence.
"Whatever the basis for the investigation, it turned into a wholesale investigation of political activity," said Jerry Berman, chief legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
Berman said the documents indicate the inquiry was essentially run by the FBI's Dallas field office rather than by headquarters in Washington, an unusual practice that "invites abuse."
A second expert familiar with FBI counterterrorism policies who refused to be named said the inquiry "basically got out of hand. The bottom line here is that this proves how difficult it is to control these investigations," he said. "When you proceed on this enterprise approach, you can't do it without getting into politics."
Two Specific Allegations
The documents released Wednesday indicate the investigation began with two specific allegations of terrorist-related activities by unnamed members of CISPES, but spread to encompass virtually any data about Central America activists.
--The bureau sent to 32 field offices a paper on CISPES submitted by the Young Americas Foundation, a conservative political group whose directors include several members of Congress.
--The Cincinnati FBI office, citing a newspaper clipping on Central America peace activists, asked headquarters to supply guidelines on investigating the Sisters of Charity, a Roman Catholic order named in the article.
--In one extreme instance, the New Orleans field office warned Washington superiors in 1983 that "it is imperative . . . to formulate some plan of attack against CISPES and specifically, against individuals" tied to the group.
Such activities continued despite serious qualms by some regional FBI officials and orders from FBI headquarters in Washington not to monitor domestic political activity.