Visitors to Nicaragua Target of FBI Scrutiny : Questioning at Their Jobs Seen as Harassment of Foes of Reagan Policies
JIM SCHACHTER | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
The visits were unexpected, unannounced and unusually disconcerting.
From March 31 to April 2, FBI agents called on a dozen professional people in San Diego, Washington and four other cities. The agents arrived at the individuals’ workplaces, in most instances, and announced that they were conducting national security investigations.
None of the 12 were told they were suspected of a crime. What linked them, instead, was that they all had visited Nicaragua during the previous year under the auspices of TecNICA, a Berkeley-based group that has sent 350 volunteers to the Central American country in the last four years to provide technical advice to public and private agencies.
The agents wanted to know more about TecNICA. They wanted to know more about a retired La Jolla computer expert who had made frequent trips to Central America. And in some cases, the agents said, they simply wanted to warn the TecNICA volunteers—teachers, tradesmen, book editors and the like—against becoming “dupes” of the Soviets and their Communist allies.
Still unexplained by the FBI, the interrogations last month have fueled the suspicions of groups opposed to the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America that they are the targets of an illegal, politically inspired campaign of harassment—a campaign comparable, they say, to the FBI’s counterintelligence operations against New Left and black militant groups in the 1960s and ’70s.
The FBI will say only that the bureau harasses no one, and that all interviews conducted with returnees from Nicaragua comply with secret guidelines governing foreign counterintelligence operations.
Nonetheless, a congressional subcommittee is planning hearings in the next few weeks into the FBI’s conduct–the fourth round of hearings in the last two years to raise questions about alleged abuses of U.S. citizens’ civil rights because of their criticism of policy in Central America.
“We Americans have an almost constitutional right to go anywhere we want to and a right to come home and get off an airplane and not have an FBI agent there,” said Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Judiciary Committee, which is planning the latest hearings. “We want the FBI to catch crooks, spies and terrorists, not to chill travel by interviewing Americans who travel to some controversial place.”
Meanwhile, TecNICA and other groups sympathetic to the Sandinista regime and leftist oppositions in neighboring Central American countries are trying to turn the perceived intimidation to their advantage–by publicizing the alleged government misconduct and by utilizing the strengthened resolve of supporters angry at being harassed.
“On the one hand, it’s very intimidating to have the FBI go to your job or appear at your door,” said Adelita Medina, coordinator of the Movement Support Network of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, the legal group that represents TecNICA and other Central American activist groups.
“But the long-term effect is that it strengthens people’s commitment,” she added, “because they know firsthand that the government is out to harass individuals just because they disagree with government policy.”
Deborah Menkart, who teaches electronics at a Washington-area vocational high school, was one of those visited by the FBI on April 1.
Menkart, 30, spent two weeks in Nicaragua in August, 1985, translating for other volunteers teaching a microprocessing course. A 10-year resident of San Diego who worked for National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. before returning to her native Washington in 1983, Menkart said she wanted to see firsthand if the Nicaraguan revolution was working.
She was not at school when the agents arrived, and she refused to answer their questions when they came to her apartment–even though the agents said she would be well-advised to talk to them.
“They said it would be in my best interest, because I was not in any trouble yet,” Menkart recounted.
Elsewhere, agents were asking other TecNICA volunteers what they knew about Karl Amatneek of La Jolla, a 75-year-old retired computer expert and longtime political activist who has visited Nicaragua on several occasions.
The agents said they had pictures of Amatneek meeting with Soviet and Cuban agents, and they warned the other volunteers against becoming “dupes” of the Soviet Bloc through their associations with TecNICA, according to Medina.
“One woman was told that TecNICA and people who work with TecNICA are aiding the Soviet government,” Medina said. “They’re trying to intimidate people by saying, ‘You don’t know who you’re associating with.’ “
‘No. 1 Subject’
Edwards last week described Amatneek as “the No. 1 subject of all the inquiries by the FBI,” but declined to answer questions about the La Jolla man’s activities. Amatneek himself declined to be interviewed, referring all calls to TecNICA.
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