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Volume 41. No. 2.
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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 information.

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 eroded.

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.
 
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