And We're Confiscating Those Cartoons, Professor
March 9, 2006 9:46 PM   Subscribe

Miguel Tinker Salas is the Arango Professor in Latin American History at Pomona College, a political historian and sometime commentator on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. On Tuesday, an FBI/LA County Sherrifs Office Joint Terrorism Task Force came calling during Tinker Salas's office hours. "After identifying themselves, they proceeded to ask about my relation to Venezuela, the government, the community, my scholarship, my politics...After they departed, the three or four students who were outside my office informed me that these individuals had asked them about my background, my classes, what I taught, my politics and they even wrote down the cartoons that are on my door."
posted by BT (47 comments total)

 
That's very nice.

This is intimidation. If they had real reason to suspect Salas was a spy or criminal, they'd be much more likely to arrest him or surveil him, methinks.

That they go to his office and ask him "So are you a good comrade?" makes me think this is disgusting.

What the hell happened to this country?
posted by teece at 10:07 PM on March 9, 2006


It's about time. The menace of unfettered history teachers has held us in its evil clutches for far too long.
posted by spock at 10:10 PM on March 9, 2006


After identifying themselves, they proceeded to ask about my relation to Venezuela, the government, the community, my scholarship, my politics. They were especially interested in whether or not I had been approached by anyone in the Venezuelan government or embassy to speak up on Venezuelan related matters. In addition, they raised a whole host of other troubling questions, too long to summarize here.

Without knowing what the other "troubling questions" are, it seems that asking people if they have been asked by a foreign government to act in a particular way as part of an ongoing investigation is not altogether absurd. It would not shock me if Venezuela was actively recruiting spies in the US and elsewhere. Why is it wrong for the FBI to ask about it?
posted by loquax at 10:12 PM on March 9, 2006


Because they likely had no reason to suspect he was a spy, maybe? And he wasn't funneling any money offshore or anything?
posted by raysmj at 10:21 PM on March 9, 2006


Because they likely had no reason to suspect he was a spy, maybe? And he wasn't funneling any money offshore or anything?

Maybe. Maybe not. How do you what what reason they had to suspect him of anything? As far as see, they seemed to be investigation the actions of the Venezuelan government and he's caught up in it somehow. Investigating and asking questions is not detention or intimidation (barring further information about the incident or other developments). Presumably there was a reason why they wanted to talk to him, as opposed to picking his name out of a phone book. Why is there an automatic assumption that the FBI is in the wrong, and somehow maliciously targeting this guy? They very well may be, but we hardly have enough information to make that judgement.
posted by loquax at 10:26 PM on March 9, 2006


Increasing anti-Chavez rhetoric from the Bush administration, disparaging stories in the press, and now this, and more to follow. What we are beginning to see here is the U.S. reaction to the "threat of a good example". The primary job of a U.S. government is to maintain a favorable climate for corporate capital, and a left-of-center state threatens it. The reform might spread.
posted by jam_pony at 10:27 PM on March 9, 2006


I'm with loquax for the surface qualities of this one.

I mean... They could have just walked in and put a bag of coke in his desk.
posted by roguescout at 10:31 PM on March 9, 2006


Sure they could have, but that's not effective. They don't want to target this guy specifically. They want to chill speech for everyone in academia - indefinite threatening acts are far more effective than any specific legal action for creating an atmosphere of oppression and paranoia.
posted by stenseng at 10:39 PM on March 9, 2006


There could be some reason to suspect something illegal. But in that case wouldn't the agents just focus on that in particular?

I don't mean to come across as a simple Chomskyist, but it fits a pattern and I'm finding it hard to give much credit to anything associated with the Feds these days.
posted by jam_pony at 10:39 PM on March 9, 2006


Oh it's a pattern alright. Disgusting police state tactics.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:51 PM on March 9, 2006


Sidereal wept.
posted by sidereal at 10:53 PM on March 9, 2006


Yea, they suspect he's a SPY! That's why they questioned his students and made note of the cartoons on his door. All spys display revealing cartoons on their office doors.
posted by Goofyy at 10:53 PM on March 9, 2006


loquax: But you didn't state that they had to have reason to question him. You made it sound like it was OK because, A) He has a connection to the country, via academic studies, and B) People might be spying for the country. To go questioning him just for that would make the questioning fall into the category of "fishing expedition," which is generally not thought of as ethical.
posted by raysmj at 10:54 PM on March 9, 2006


[UPDATE, 11.46 pm CST: According to vemos, who got the word from one of Miguel’s grad students, two bits of bizarro information. First, Miguel gave a talk in DC last weekend on US policy toward Venezuela, which is what apparently triggered the interest. And second, the guys who questioned him may have been only affiliated with the Sheriff’s department, and not the FBI at all...]
posted by iamck at 10:59 PM on March 9, 2006


whoops, the above is at the bottom of the linked story.
posted by iamck at 10:59 PM on March 9, 2006


Today is the anniversary of the break-in that exposed the FBI's
Cointelpro. counter intelligence program.
posted by hortense at 11:12 PM on March 9, 2006


I'm going to echo raysmj, as well as point out that, if you're worried about somebody being a covert agent, it's probably not a good idea to go tip them off that you're onto them before you've got a solid case built up. Do you expect that the FBI is trying to warn the guy? "HEY! Be more careful in your spying!

Furthermore, they're being real dicks coming to the guy during office hours. There were three or four students waiting outside, and the FBI's cutting into their opportunity to ask questions. Harass the man in his home for God's sake, like the government is supposed to do.
posted by dsword at 11:16 PM on March 9, 2006


First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me
posted by growabrain at 11:51 PM on March 9, 2006


"Harass the man in his home for God's sake, like the government is supposed to do."

That's not nearly as embarrassing or intimidating.
posted by stenseng at 12:09 AM on March 10, 2006


Then they came for the chicken farmers.
posted by homunculus at 12:25 AM on March 10, 2006


"I mean... They could have just walked in and put a bag of coke in his desk.
posted by roguescout at 10:31 PM PST on March 9 [!]"


Yeah, people can be framed and randomly imprisoned.....

The Soviets did that too.

So what ?

Are you advocating totalitarian government ?
posted by troutfishing at 12:28 AM on March 10, 2006


"Maybe. Maybe not. How do you what what reason they had to suspect him of anything? " -

Well, we'd barely know anything at all given the current mania for secret government.

loquax, your quacks grow low, indeed.
posted by troutfishing at 12:33 AM on March 10, 2006


The FBI makes the CIA look good, which is saying a lot. It's a cliche in cop shows and movies that the FBI dudes are incompetent, because it's entirely true. God bless J. Edgar Hoover.

If these guys were sheriffs, OK, they took a lunch break and went to ask some questions. If they were Feds, they're making pretty decent salaries to go and act tough in a friggin' history department building to intimidate the guy, his students, and his colleagues.

loquax, you've heard of telephony and the internets I presume?
posted by bardic at 12:42 AM on March 10, 2006


And then they came for the Scientologists, and I did not speak out.
posted by zaelic at 3:50 AM on March 10, 2006


Then they came for Danni Behr
And I said,
'She's over there,
behind the wardrobe'

posted by jack_mo at 4:51 AM on March 10, 2006


If these guys were sheriffs, OK, they took a lunch break and went to ask some questions. If they were Feds, they're making pretty decent salaries to go and act tough in a friggin' history department building to intimidate the guy, his students, and his colleagues.

It's certainly a little less disturbing if it's now apparent that the FBI weren't involved. My apologies for not catching that before the FPP. But for some reason the "task force" was given the name of an academic who takes lefty positions on U.S.-Venezuela foreign policy, and told to investigate. This is so of a piece with the government's acting on prejudice and politics -- rather than evidence of real threats that it's hard to believe it was motivated by a more legitimate collection of evidence.
posted by BT at 4:55 AM on March 10, 2006


When will the republicans realize what a frankenstein they've created? When will the democrats figure out a way to capitalize on this?

I really really really just want my country back. And no, John McCain is not going to get it back for us.
posted by zpousman at 5:11 AM on March 10, 2006


It's certainly a little less disturbing if it's now apparent that the FBI weren't involved.

It's not actually apparent yet that the FBI wasn't involved. The post I linked to is the only suggestion that I've got of that, and at the outside, the FBI was involved enough to pass a name to the Sheriff's office and to lend their authority to this task force. And that's alarming enough for me -- the FBI catches wind of an academic giving a lecture, and even if it's just the local guys who do the dirty work, it's still a governmental intrusion into academic life that we should all be made angry, or at least nervous, by.
posted by KF at 5:15 AM on March 10, 2006


I had suggested when the NSA story broke that if that coutfit could eavesdrop with impunityh and without FISA, the what about FBI, who in theory required court sanction for wiretaps. I can not speak to the pomono indicdent but I would have told those guys that they needed an appointment to see me during olffice hours.
posted by Postroad at 5:57 AM on March 10, 2006


Hell, I could be in trouble. I have been to Cuba twice and although I have not been asked by their government to speak on their behalf, I sure as hell will anyway!! Did you hear that HOMELAND SECURITY??? I have met Castro, Alarcon, and other government officials and feel strongly for the Cuban cause. I entirely disagree with American policy towards Cuba and Venezuela and have pressured my representatives to try and reverse absurd legislation which harms them. I will never reverse my opinion even if harassed by the government.
posted by JJ86 at 6:00 AM on March 10, 2006


I sure would like to see the recorded subversive cartoons.
posted by srboisvert at 8:08 AM on March 10, 2006


Agents' report summary:

"The professor said:

'The only thing we will learn from historians
is that we learn nothing from historians.'

"So he admits he is part of a wider and deeper conspiracy ...."
posted by hank at 8:35 AM on March 10, 2006


loquax, your quacks grow low, indeed.

Your trouts are growing ever fishier as well, my friend.

From reading his work, it doesn't appear that Mr. Salas is particularly anti-US, or pro-Chavez for that matter. This does seem a bit odd, but barring any action on the part of the police, such as detention or harassment, I don't see the comparisons to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany being bandied about being apt. I wish I knew what the "disturbing" personal questions were. It's also very possible that the officers were personally heavy handed or obnoxious, and that their behaviour was not indicative of the level of interest or the seriousness of the nature of the interview. One 15 minute interview with a professor where he's told that he's not the subject of an investigation and not detained or otherwise pressured does not a systemic campaign of academic intimidation make. If that was the goal, the backlash against it will be far greater than any attempt to stifle this or any other professor. It looks like it's already begun, regardless of the facts.
posted by loquax at 8:41 AM on March 10, 2006


The story has now been picked up by the Pacific News Service, which claims that the agents involved were in fact connected to, if not literally employed by, the FBI...
posted by KF at 8:41 AM on March 10, 2006


Find me the examples of right-of-center professors being questioned by authorities for their views (or or any big, right-of-center people who generally engage in reasoned discourse) in the complete absence of even the hint of wrongdoing, and we'll talk about this being routine.

It's become increasingly clear in the last 6 years that COINTELPRO never died. And that America is not the freedom-loving country it claims to be.
posted by teece at 10:29 AM on March 10, 2006


Find me the examples of right-of-center professors being questioned by authorities for their views

You make the assumption that he was being questioned for his views. He himself states that:

According to Tinker-Salas, the agents told him they were interested in the Venezuelan community and concerned that it may be involved in terrorism. They asked him if he had relationships with the Venezuelan embassy or consulate, and if anyone in the Venezuelan government had asked him to speak out about Venezuela-related matters.

That's a far cry from pestering him because of his speeches regarding Chavez and the US. At face value, they are gathering information about the actions of a foreign government on US soil, and his possible ancillary involvement in those actions. Again, the officers stated that he was not the subject of the investigation. If the cops come and ask me about my drug dealing neighbours, or brother, does that make me the subject of a DEA campaign of intimidation? Or is it the cops being thorough and looking for information about possible wrongdoing?

As far as I am aware, if the issue here is compromise of a US citizen by a foreign government, it doesn't matter who the other government is, or the leanings of the citizen.
posted by loquax at 11:23 AM on March 10, 2006


If the cops come and ask me about my drug dealing neighbours, or brother, does that make me the subject of a DEA campaign of intimidation?

Is your livelihood and vocation the study of the history of the war on drugs and informing students of the facts on the matter?

Then your comparison would be apt.
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:40 AM on March 10, 2006


Fine, assume it is. My point is that he hasn't been charged with anything. He hasn't been disappeared. He hasn't been told to change his views, or fired, or censured, and he certainly was not prevented from discussing and condemning the incident. If any of that changes, my opinion of the incident will change along with it. If this is a campaign intended to terrorize teachers and suppress free speech instead of a good faith investigation, it's the most ridiculous, hare-brained scheme I've ever heard of, and will certainly backfire.
posted by loquax at 11:44 AM on March 10, 2006


loquax, you're missing a middle-ground reaction to this incident which is this (and my own, obviously): Why the fuck are tax-dollars being wasted on what was obviously a stunt meant to rattle this guy's cage? If he's a spy, arrest him. If he's not, leave him alone. Otherwise, go catch some crooks Mr. County Sheriff, or some big bad terraists Mr. Fed. Simple as that.
posted by bardic at 12:08 PM on March 10, 2006


bardic, in general I agree with you, I just don't know that we have enough information to make the claim that this was "a stunt meant to rattle this guy's cage". Especially if their stated goal was to investigate not the professor, but the actions of the Venezuelan government.

I understand at the emotional level why FBI agents asking a university professor questions is disturbing, I'm just saying that logically, there may be a purpose to it that we, and the professor, don't understand. Not being privy to the details of the investigation, it's not fair to automatically assume that tax dollars are being wasted here. When I was robbed recently, I was asked a variety of questions over and over, over the course of weeks, by the police that seemed totally irrelevant, and I was getting impatient with the progress of the investigation and the fact that they would give me no details about the case. Turns out they wanted the guy not only for robbery, but for his Hell's Angels connections, among other things. Obviously not an exact metaphor for this case, but not having the whole story can lead to an awful lot of wrong assumptions.
posted by loquax at 12:18 PM on March 10, 2006


First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me


What with communism being moribund, if not outright dead, and trade unionism on a swift decline in the USA, I suppose it's either the Jews or [the generic] you next.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:06 PM on March 10, 2006


Not being privy to the details of the investigation, it's not fair to automatically assume that tax dollars are being wasted here.

Yes it is. The government is beholden to the people. It should be the default position of the people that the government's motives are impure, and the government should prove otherwise.

You keep saying there is no reason to assume this was simple intimidation. Well, there is no reason to assume it is NOT, either. There are logical reasons why this would NOT have happened if the guy was actually some kind of criminal or spy (again, you either surveil him or arrest him if he's one of those, if he's neither and simply a source of info, you contact him discretely and less asshole-ishly).

It is incumbent upon the government to prove that this was warranted. They have not done so, and us such, it should be assumed that the action was petty and unwarranted. And it was -- there is not going to be any magical, hidden reasoning justifying this action, like you want to imagine.

Your argument is bunk.
posted by teece at 1:37 PM on March 10, 2006


I'm not making an argument. I'm saying there's not enough data to make an "argument" either way. It seems to me that assuming an intentional campaign to harass professors on the grounds of their beliefs requires more leaps of faith and logic than assuming the relative benignity of the actions of the police in this case. But I am willing to agree to disagree.
posted by loquax at 2:41 PM on March 10, 2006


I hope you'll forgive the auto-linking, but rather than reproduce my most recent update here (involving a quasi-apology from the FBI), I thought I'd just send you there. Feel free to ignore.
posted by KF at 6:19 PM on March 10, 2006


Good for the FBI for being so forthright.
posted by loquax at 6:55 PM on March 10, 2006


And that America is not the freedom-loving country it claims to be.

Never was, my friend. :(

I believed what they told me when I was a kid. Stupid, little, naive, gullible me. Then I grew up.
posted by beth at 11:56 AM on March 12, 2006


missing link for previous comment
posted by hortense at 3:33 PM on March 13, 2006


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