Human Rights Org Sues The C.I.A., Is Promptly Hit By Tidy Burglary (VIDEO)

Human Rights Org Sues The C.I.A., Is Promptly Hit By Tidy Burglary (VIDEO)

In what the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights alleges is a “possible … act of retaliation,” its Director’s office was broken into — two weeks after the organization sued the CIA to release declassified documents. The potential implications of the allegation are disturbing.

The CIA-backed junta pursued a strategy of displacing civilians in areas where the population was sympathetic to rebels.

The Center reports that it has been researching the El Salvadoran Civil War for three years. It has issued Freedom Of Information Act requests for declassified documents to a number of US federal agencies. The Center is “aware of at least 20 CIA documents” that have been declassified, but the CIA has refused to hand over for research. These documents pertain to Lt. Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez.

Pérez is a notorious figure in the civil war that lasted from 1980 to 1992 and killed at least 75,000 El Salvadorans. The New York Times reported in 1983 that Pérez escaped to the US Army War College after an attempted coup in 1972. The Times reported that many Salvadorans suspected that the sole reason that he survived to rebel again was that he was friends with some of the most powerful US-trained and CIA-backed military leaders.

In 1979, a military coup overthrew the government. The US backed the new junta in its effort to stamp out communist guerrillas resisting military rule. The CIA-backed junta pursued a strategy of displacing civilians in areas where the population was sympathetic to rebels. In 1981, Pérez led a force of over 1,000 government troops into a civilian area, and massacred dozens or hundreds of fleeing civilians near the town of Santa Cruz.

The University issued a FOIA request against the CIA for the 20 documents about Pérez and the massacre that the Center is seeking.

Human rights groups in El Salvador are hoping to see justice served against Pérez. The University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights’ research is attempting to assist in that effort by bringing evidence to light. Mother Jones reports that the US and Salvadoran organizations have been hopeful that “long-stalled cases against him” could be reinvigorated now that the classification of certain documents has expired and “Pérez’s congressional immunity has run out.”

The University issued a FOIA request against the CIA for the 20 documents about Pérez and the massacre that the Center is seeking. The CIA denied the request, citing national security. The university decided to sue the CIA for the documents in response to its failure to meet its obligations under FOIA. A UW law student and plaintiff in the Center’s lawsuit responded that the CIA’s denial was “not credible” since the “documents … have already been made public.”

The lawsuit was filed on October 2, 2015. The office of the Director of UW’s Center for Human Rights was broken into, and important data was removed two weeks later. The Center said, in a statement:

Sometime between October 15-18, the office of Dr. Angelina Godoy, Director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, was broken into by unknown parties. Her desktop computer was stolen, as well as a hard drive containing about 90% of the information relating to our research in El Salvador. While we have backups of this information, what worries us most is not what we have lost but what someone else may have gained: the files include sensitive details of personal testimonies and pending investigations.

This could, of course, be an act of common crime. But we are concerned because it is also possible this was an act of retaliation for our work. There are a few elements that make this an unusual incident. First, there was no sign of forcible entry; the office was searched, but its contents were treated carefully, and the door was locked upon exit, characteristics which do not fit the pattern of opportunistic campus theft. Prof. Godoy’s office was the only one targeted, although it is located midway down a hallway of offices, all containing computers. The hard drive has no real resale value, so there seems no reason to take it unless the intention was to extract information. Lastly, the timing of this incident—in the wake of the recent publicity around our freedom of information lawsuit against the CIA regarding information on a suspected perpetrator of grave human rights violations in El Salvador—invites doubt as to potential motives.

We have contacted colleagues in El Salvador, many of whom have emphasized parallels between this incident and attacks Salvadoran human rights organizations have experienced in recent years. While we cannot rule out the possibility of this having been an incident of common crime, we are deeply concerned that this breach of information security may increase the vulnerability of Salvadoran human rights defenders with whom we work.

The Center raises a number of salient points that lead to one chilling question: Is the CIA targeting human rights groups in El Salvador and the US to neuter their efforts at seeking justice for a former CIA client who massacred civilians?

Before the break-in, Kate Doyle, a senior analyst of US policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive, told Mother Jones,

“The CIA has got a lot of tricks up its sleeve to protect itself from responding to something like this.”

Watch the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights explain the rationale for their lawsuit in this short video:

Feature image via Flickr.