I am writing today because I would like all of you to be informed about some very disturbing information I received last week. September 11 was certainly one of the most horrifying tragedies we have ever witnessed on our own soil, but I fear it is being badly exploited by certain government officials in order to justify both human rights violations abroad, including torture, as well as extreme repression against our own citizens. Our civil rights are eroding with a speed which I find frightening.
Given the situation, I have not been a bit surprised to find myself a target. Not long after Sept. 11, various government officials, including many of the CIA people exposed in Everardo’s case, began to publicly insist that it was all my fault. When asked again and again if the tragedy did not represent the biggest failure of our intelligence system in U.S. history, they replied that I was to blame, that CIA operatives in the field had been afraid to aggressively seek out information from unsavory characters. In fact, the 1995 reforms simply required an operative to inform his superiors before hiring a known human rights abuser, and the CIA itself admits that permission has never been denied. Nevertheless the accusations were made again and again, especially on a lengthy BBC program. I took all this with a grain of salt and figured things would come out in the wash. They did indeed….I know that all of you have seen the lengthy disclosures about exactly how much the CIA and FBI did in fact know, but somehow never acted upon. Similarly, I have not been particularly upset by harassing phone calls or right wing articles which have appeared in remote publications.
I was however, very taken aback by the most recent news I received, specifically, that an FBI official told an Amnesty International staffer that they consider me a top suspect in the death threats and assaults against Barbara Bocek. Barbara is the Amnesty worker who has received death threats for a year now and who has been assaulted twice, once in Guatemala and once in Washington state. All threats have made it very clear that she is being targeted for her work for Guatemalan human rights. The FBI has made it very clear that they do not believe her at all. As in the case of Sister Diana Ortiz, there seems to be a government effort to suggest that Barbara somehow, inexplicably, assaulted and threatened herself, not once but twice. I am sure most of you saw the recent New York Times article. Now, apparently, the story has shifted a bit to suggest that I have carried out the threats, to somehow make my own case stronger. In fact, as a matter of law, the assaults on her, some ten years after Everardo’s abduction, has a legal relevance of zero for my own case. I have, however, been outspoken in my support for her, which is evidently more than enough. I get the message: Shut up about the Guatemalan terrorists here in the US who happen to have CIA links, or else suffer the consequences.
Barbara first began receiving threats a year ago when she wrote an op ed piece about the Bishop Gerardi murder trial. When she went to Guatemala with a delegation in June 2001 she was assaulted outside her hotel room and left bound and gagged at the bottom of a stairwell. Her abductors were telling her she would be tortured and killed for her human rights work. Clearly, a warning was being sent to the international human rights community. Foreigners should not feel safe, even members of the highest level ngo’s could and would be attacked and perhaps killed whenever the killers so desired. The Guatemalan response was predictable. It didn’t happen, or else she did it to herself for whatever reason. The U.S. government response was a throwback to the not so good old days. No real action was taken and slowly but surely we began to hear insinuations that perhaps Barbara indeed was either fabricating the threats or staged the abduction.
While this was going on, my own witness was having grave problems as well. He is living here in the US with his family, and began to receive very frightening death threats against himself and his children. His friends and family back in Guatemala too were having the same problems. Upon the request of an Amnesty staffer , we did go to the FBI offices to give them the details. The response was shocking. The officer read through a few lines of the police report and asked if the assertions were true. He then stated that no threats had been made, only obscenities. When we pointed out the portion of the report specifically describing the threats, he refused to accept them, stating that the witness should have mentioned them earlier in the interview. The witness, however, was never asked. Later, an FBI agent approached the witness at home, stating that he had spoken with local Guatemalans, and none had noticed any military types or death squad members around town. This was rather laughable, and the witness asked that he not be contacted again.
I was particularly incensed by this because it was more of the same from the mid-1990s. In the spring of 1995 just after the disclosures by Sen. Torricelli, the FBI arrived late at night on my doorstep in Texas to let me know that the Guatemalans were hiring a hit man to kill me. The iron security door of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission was torn off its hinges and left in the street. Only the answering machine was taken. A few months later, in January 1996 my lawyer, Jose Pertierra, had his car firebombed at his Washington D.C. home, and the religious community where I was living in D.C. was shot at by someone in a pickup truck with dark glass windows. The FBI agent in charge opened the case under potential international terrorism. We also received a tip from a high level insider, indicating a Guatemalan military person who fought in Vietnam, owned a car repair shop, a luxurious home, and had unexplained income. The FBI agent was very interested but was swiftly tran sferred off the case. None of us ever received any further communications from the FBI, although some truly foolish statements have come back to me through the grapevine.
When I heard about the incipient smear campaign about Barbara, I immediately sent in all of this information as to the same or similar events to corroborate her story. The Guatemalan army clearly has a modus operandi of sending or hiring people here to terrorize human rights activists and witnesses living in this country. And our own government has a practice of looking the other way when the perpetrators happen to be working with the CIA.
Things went from bad to worse. Barbara was attacked again, this time in the United States near her place of work. She was returning home one night and heard a grating sound beneath her car. When she got out to investigate, a car with its headlights off pulled up behind her and she was seized and tied up and told not to return to Guatemala for the investigation as planned, or she would be killed. The men spoke in Spanish. Her eyes were taped, she was gagged, and she was locked into her car where police found her later, semi-conscious. According to the New York Times article which followed, the police found her story questionable. Yet most of their questions could have been easily answered had they spoken with Barbara. But they failed to do so.
Barbara was also sent to the FBI to give her story. As soon as she arrived it became clear that she was a suspect and not the victim. Her sister had accompanied her but was not allowed to attend the “interview”. Instead, Barbara was given a hostile interrogation of many hours, and then told that she was probably fabricating the whole story. What on earth her motive would be has never been elucidated.
Barbara is a quiet and mature woman who has a PhD from Stanford which she is too shy to mention, and who worked for several years in Guatemala. She then chose to return to the U.S. and do public service work for Native Americans in a remote northwestern reservation. This is clearly not a woman seeking attention for herself. This is a modest and courageous woman who has long dedicated herself to working for the human rights of others with little or no recognition for herself.
Now I learn that because I have outspokenly defended her and offered up evidence of the same and similar events when her credibility was questioned, that I too have become a “suspect”. Evidently these statements were made some time ago. It is clear to me that I have not only received an insult, but also a direct threat. Silence about these matters, or else. Since I am not too good at silence, I am considering my legal alternatives at this time. But most importantly, I wanted to keep all of us in the network fully informed. I have no doubt that more is coming.
Should you wish to call anyone in Congress in this regard, I would recommend three Members on the Judiciary Committees who have been truly heroic on the issues of human rights : Rep. Conyers, Rep. Frank, and Senator Leahey. If you call them, please remember that they are our friends, and simply call their attention to yet one more example of abuse of power by government officials. They have long been very interested and supportive. The Congressional Switchboard telephone number is 202-224-3121.
Jennifer Harbury is a human rights lawyer, who represents Leonard Peltier, among many other clients. She the author of Bridge of Courage: Life Stories of Guatemalan Companeros and Companeras and Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala.