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Commentary / By Professor Miguel Tinker Salas
Guess Who Came to My Office Hours
ONE DAY IN MARCH, TWO CASUALLY DRESSED men visited my faculty office at
Pomona College. As students waited in the hall, they identified
themselves as agents from the Los Angeles County Sheriff/FBI Joint Task
Force on Terrorism (JTTF), opening a folder revealing a copy of my
faculty profile from the official Pomona Website, and other materials.
After praising my academic credentials, they indicated they were there
to gather information about Venezuelans in Southern California. Most
disturbing, their questions implied that the Venezuelan community might
pose a threat to United States’ security.
When I suggested that as government intelligence officers they had more
effective ways of collecting this public information, they switched to
personal questions. Over and over they asked if anyone from the
Venezuelan government, or embassy had tried to influence my views on
Venezuelan politics and relations with the U.S. (the answer is no) and
whether such contact would influence what I said in class and to the
media about U.S.–Venezuelan relations (also no).
Interspersed with these questions were queries about whether I was a
United States’ citizen, (I am) and where I had attended graduate school
(University of California, San Diego). But they obviously knew this
Their line of questions increasingly disturbed me. After some verbal
sparring, they conceded that I was not under investigation. They simply
wanted to develop a profile of the community and any Venezuelans in the
area. Beyond the worrisome nature of questions, was their claim that the
visit to my office was part of a larger effort to interview academics on
other college campuses in the area.
After they departed, the students outside my office, who had been
attentively listening to this unusual exchange, rushed in to inform me
that the agents had asked them about my classes and whether they liked
them. The officers even took note of the political cartoons that adorn
my bulletin board (such as Boondocks, La Cucaracha and Candorville).
The students were worried. They asked if I was being targeted for my
views. I was worried too. I have been asked for my analysis on numerous
occasions by television, radio and print media. Was this why I was being
interviewed? Why are Los Angeles County Sheriff agents cooperating with
the FBI Joint Task Force on Terrorism and using the power of their
authority to intimidate academics? More importantly what signal does it
send to make legitimate criticism of U.S. policy towards Latin America a
subject of a Terrorism Task Force?
Moreover, the specific concerns these investigators had raised are
misplaced. Members of the Venezuelan community in the United States,
like other immigrants, are mainly concerned with their own families and
jobs. Searching for a link between the Venezuelan community and
terrorism is a waste of the Task Force’s valuable time.
But what is at stake here is more than an abstract concept of academic
freedom in some ivory tower institution, however important that may be.
As a historian, I am aware of the track record of U.S. police and
intelligence agencies in marginalizing—or worse, silencing—opposition to
official policy. The historical record is clear: the government engaged
in Cold War era witch hunts (where over 100 academics lost their jobs),
spied on Civil Rights leaders and took covert action against anti-war
activists, labor unions, and other dissenting groups.
Visits such as this one can serve to silence critical analysis that does
not fit the government’s viewpoint, or even conventional wisdom. If they
do, the damage to our democracy will be great. As the controversy over
weapons of mass destruction has shown, our country is desperately in
need of intelligent scholarship that questions government assumptions
and policies. Moreover, the recent revelations that the Bush
administration ordered the NSA to engage in wholesale wiretapping in the
United States emphasize how our civil liberties are already being
It was only a short visit in my office, but it reflects a much greater
challenge for our society. I will continue to research, write and freely
express my views.
Miguel Tinker Salas is the Arango Professor of Latin American History
and Chicano/a Studies at Pomona College.