The FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION’s (FBI) four-year pursuit of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of EL SALVADOR (CISPES) began in June 1981 when Salvadoran native Frank Varelli approached the Dallas field office with a tale of right-wing Central American murder squads roaming around the United States. Agent Gary Penrith, second in command of the Dallas FBI, sent an inquiry to the CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY and secured a reply that Varelli’s information might be accurate. (In fact, it was false.) By that time, Varelli had expanded his story to include CISPES, a group created to solicit funds for humanitarian aid to war-torn El Salvador. Varelli insisted that CISPES was the leftist counterpart of his mythical right-wing assassins, and the bureau took him at his word. In September 1981 a criminal investigation was opened, seeking evidence that CISPES members had violated the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act. G-men found no evidence of any illegal acts, and the case was officially closed in February 1982.

FBI historian Robert Kessler reports (in The Bureau, 2002) that “[b]ecause of poor supervision by headquarters, the Dallas office reopened the CISPES case two years later,” but records declassified in January 1988 indicate that the CISPES investigation resumed in March 1983 on direct orders from FBI headquarters, employing Attorney General William Smith’s expanded guidelines for “foreign counterintelligence—international TERRORISM” cases. Kessler further states that the investigation “had no political motives,” and while headquarters instructed G-men that “the purpose of the investigation was not to investigate the exercise of First Amendment rights of CISPES members,” agents proceeded as they might have done for any COINTELPRO operation ordered by late Director J. EDGAR HOOVER. A headquarters memo issued to all field offices on October 28, 1983, commanded agents to develop “information on the locations, leadership, and activities of CISPES chapters within each field offices’ jurisdiction.”

Before the CISPES surveillance finally ended on June 18, 1985 (without producing any criminal charges), the FBI had opened new files on 2,375 individuals and 1,330 organizations that were found to have some marginal link with CISPES or its members. The other groups included more than 100 organizations opposed to President RONALD REAGAN’s Central American policies, plus local chapters of the United Auto Workers and the National Education Association. The writings of one member of the CISPES clergy were cited in an FBI report as evidence of a “mind totally sold on the Marxist Leninist philosophy.” When one G-man reported that a group he had investigated was nonviolent and legitimate, FBI headquarters refused his suggestion to drop surveillance; instead, he was ordered to “consider the possibility” that the organization “may be a front org for CISPES.” A memo from the New Orleans field office, dated November 10, 1983, advised Director WILLIAM WEBSTER that:

It is imperative at this time to formulate some plan of attack against CISPES and specifically, against individuals . . . who defiantly display their contempt for the U.S. Government by making speeches and propagandizing their cause while asking for political asylum. New Orleans is of the opinion that Departments of Justice and State should be consulted to explore the possibility of deporting these individuals or at best denying their re-entry once they leave.

A subsequent review of the CISPES investigation by the House Committee on Civil and Constitutional Rights found that all 59 FBI field offices were involved in the futile search for “subversive” activity. The committee also documented 50 unsolved break-ins committed during the same period, targeting churches, homes, and offices of persons opposed to Reagan’s Central American policies. FBI spokespersons denied any bureau involvement in those burglaries, and while Director William Sessions confessed that “the scope of the investigation was unnecessarily broadened” in October 1983, he called the case “an aberration” in FBI behavior. One agent was disciplined for his role in the CISPES case: G-man Daniel Flanagan, assigned as Frank Varelli’s case officer in Dallas, confessed to stealing money earmarked for Varelli and was resigned after reimbursing the FBI $1,000.

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