Feds' Files Reveal Dirty War; Secret papers document FBI's campaign against Puerto Rican dissidents
May 23, 2000 | By Juan Gonzalez (New York Daily News)
For more than 40 years, the FBI pursued a secret campaign of surveillance, disruption and repression against Puerto Rico's independence movement - but only now is the full story coming out.
The revelations began in March, when FBI Director Louis Freeh stunned a congressional budget hearing by conceding that his agency had violated the civil rights of many Puerto Ricans over the years and had engaged in "egregious illegal
action, maybe criminal action."
"Particularly in the 1960s, the FBI did operate a program that did tremendous destruction to many people, to the country, and certainly to the FBI," Freeh said in response to questions from Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FBI budget.
To redress past injustices, Freeh told Serrano he was ordering virtually all agency files on the secret campaign declassified and made public.
A few weeks later, the director notified Serrano that the FBI's Puerto Rico file -some 1.8 million documents- was being prepared for him, with only the names of living informants blacked out.
On Wednesday morning, two FBI agents delivered to Serrano's Washington office the first installment on that promise - 8,600 pages in four plain cardboard boxes, and the following day Serrano allowed the Daily News an exclusive look at what's inside.
These documents and the hundreds of thousands to come will provide historians with a gold mine of information.
Most files in the first batch concern the agency's investigation and longtime pursuit of the small but extremist Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico and its fiery leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, who died in 1965 after many years in prison on terrorism and sedition charges.
The first FBI agent arrived in Puerto Rico in 1936, after the local U.S. attorney, A. Cecil Snyder, complained to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that Albizu Campos was doing terrible things like publishing "articles insulting the United States" and giving "public speeches in favor of independence."
Although he had no proof, Snyder said he suspected Albizu Campos was behind several unsolved bombings of federal buildings.
Within months of the first agent's arrival, Albizu and several top party leaders were indicted and convicted of sedition and hauled off to a federal prison in Atlanta.
Even after the arrests, the federal government remained worried throughout the 1940s about the potential for violence by the Nationalists. In 1943, the documents show, Albizu was paroled from federal prison. He moved to New York City and refused to report to a parole officer. The Roosevelt administration, against the wishes of
Hoover and Justice Department officials, would not order him back to prison for fear of unrest on the island.
The bombshells in these first boxes, however, have little to do with Nationalist Party extremism.
Among the most surprising files: n Nov. 11, 1940: Hoover writes the FBI's San Juan office ordering it to "obtain all information of a pertinent character ... concerning Luis Muoz Marin and his associates."
Muñoz, the most popular Puerto Rican leader of the 20th century, was at the time president of the Puerto Rican Senate. He would become the island's first elected governor and the father of its commonwealth constitution. Yet the FBI kept him under surveillance for more than 20 years, with agents compiling information about his
personal debts and his mistresses and periodically updating psychological portraits of him.
* June 12, 1961: Hoover, who had given his San Juan agents the green light for a campaign to disrupt the independence movement, writes: "In order to appraise the caliber of leadership in the Puerto Rican independence movement, particularly as it pertains to our efforts to disrupt their activities and compromise their
effectiveness, we should have intimate detailed knowledge of the most influential leaders. ..."
"We must have information concerning their weaknesses, morals, criminal records, spouses, children, family life and personal activities other than independence activities."
* Dec. 21, 1961: A San Juan agent notifies Hoover that he has met with the editor of the El Mundo newspaper and gotten him to agree to publish an editorial condemning a radical university group, FUPI, without disclosing that the piece was authored by the FBI.
The dozens of memos from Hoover in these boxes show that the legendary FBI chief paid very close attention to events in Puerto Rico.
COINTELPRO, the FBI's infamous 1960s program to disrupt dissident groups, had a far more devastating impact in Puerto Rico than in the States. The commonwealth government has already admitted that - helped by the FBI and Naval Intelligence - it illegally kept files on more than 140,000 pro-independence dissidents. Many of those dissidents were blacklisted and unable to find jobs for years.
"For such a small population, Puerto Ricans must be the most investigated people in history," Serrano said yesterday.
Still unanswered are some key questions that Serrano asked Freeh at the March hearing. Among them is whether the FBI or other federal intelligence agencies were involved in torture and radiation experiments on Albizu Campos while he was in jail in the early 1950s, as Albizu's family and closest supporters have long alleged.
Questions remain also about what role, if any, the agency had in a spate of bombings and assassinations aimed at independence leaders during the 1960s and 1970s by rogue Puerto Rican police and extreme right-wing groups.
The current commonwealth government has already opened its files from that dirty war. Gov. Pedro Rossello has apologized to those who were targeted and has established a compensation fund.
Until now, the FBI has refused to unlock its secrets, to tell Puerto Ricans exactly what happened. Freeh, prodded by Serrano, reminded the agency's bureaucrats that you don't violate people's rights in the name of protecting them. Not in a democracy.
All that's needed now is a team to ferret through the 1.8 million documents.
© 2000 New York Daily News
May 23, 2000 (page 14)
<-More Files in the Media
At the moment there are no recent releases on this area.
|Go to Timeline to view a Chronology of Events with links to specific documents.