Freeh Promises To Probe FBI Abuses In Puerto Rico, FBI Files Will Help PIP Suit
March 18, 2000
San Juan, Puerto Rico -Island politicians who support independence welcomed FBI Director Louis Freeh's recent acknowledgment of past collaboration by the bureau-mostly in the 1950s and '60s-with local law enforcement agencies in persecuting Puerto Ricans for their political affiliations.
Fernando Martin, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, said Freeh confirmed what officials of the PIP, as the party is known in Spanish, have been saying for decades and added that Freeh's statements will have wider legal implications for the PIP's pending civil rights lawsuit against the local government.
"The legal ramifications of statements will be looked at to determine whether to extend the scope of the lawsuit to include the federal government," Martin said.
Freeh's statements came during a House Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday in response to questions from Rep. Jose Serrano (D- N.Y.). The FBI director also vowed to look into possible civil rights violations against Puerto Ricans because of their political affiliation and membership to groups that sought independence for the island. Since 1977, he added, a series of guidelines has been issued to avoid illegal investigations of political activists.
Freeh is the first federal official to acknowledge publicly the FBI 's participation and collaboration in the preparation of dossiers by local law enforcement agencies on more than 150,000 Puerto Ricans who backed independence for the island.
"We are going to go back and make a preliminary inventory on the extent of our participation," Freeh told Serrano during the hearing.
"For the first time the director of the FBI admits that the agency was involved in the dossiers in Puerto Rico ," Serrano said Thursday. "He admitted that the FBI played a role, but what we're lacking are the details."
Freeh's pledge comes the same week that the Puerto Rico Senate approved a resolution across party and ideological lines to probe the local and federal governments' participation and collaboration in preparing the dossiers. Calling it a "shameful chapter" in the island's history, Gov. Pedro Rossello issued a public apology for the dossiers on Dec. 14, and offered those affected from $3,000 to $6,000 compensation.
Some 1,200 people have sued or expressed intent to sue the government
for millions of dollars. The PIP lawsuit alone is for $500 million in damages to the political franchise. A recent Puerto Rico Supreme Court decision denying class action to the lawsuit is expected to swell the number of plaintiffs into the thousands, said attorney Charles Hey Maestre, of the Puerto Rico Civil Rights Institute.
Shortly after Rossello's announcement, many here looked toward Washington to apologize next. That hasn't happened yet, but they say Freeh's pledge is a step in the right direction.
Besides focusing on the Black Panthers and other radicals of the 1960s, the FBI's counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO, also set its sights on Puerto Rican independence activists. The practice of keeping the dossiers as a way to blacklist people began shortly after Nationalist uprisings of the 1950s, including an attack on Congress in 1954 that wounded five congressmen.
In 1976, then-U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi issued guidelines to prohibit this kind of activity, and a year later, Puerto Rico was told about the COINTELPRO's archives. Ten years later, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled the practice of keeping the dossiers unconstitutional and ordered the files handed over to the subjects of the surveillance.
With the cooperation of local police, COINTELPRO was known to infiltrate and sow discord in pro-independence groups up until the 1980s.
The local Senate doesn't have the power to compel federal officials to testify but can call the local authorities who collaborated with the federal government.
For some, Freeh's promise is a way to start healing some old wounds while clearing a path toward reconciliation. "This is good," political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua said. "Let's put those ghosts to rest."