Sometime between October 15-18, the office of Dr. Angelina Godoy, Director of the University of Washington (UW) Center for Human Rights, was broken into and her desktop computer and a hard drive containing sensitive information about a recent lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency were stolen. Godoy reported that the hard drive contained “about 90 percent of the information” relating to the center’s research in El Salvador that is the foundation of a freedom-of-information lawsuit the center filed October 2 against the CIA. The lawsuit alleges that the CIA has illegally withheld information about a U.S.-supported El Salvador army officer suspected of human-rights violations during that country’s civil war in the 1980s against leftist rebels.
“What worries us most is not what we have lost but what someone else may have gained,” the center wrote in a news release about the thefts. “The files include sensitive details of personal testimonies and pending investigations.”
The break-in coincided with a campus visit by CIA Director John Brennan, who spoke at a symposium at the UW law school. Only Godoy’s office was targeted in the break-in and there was no sign of a forced entry, according to the news release. It appeared that the office was carefully searched rather than ransacked and the door was relocked upon exit, “characteristics that do not fit the pattern of an opportunistic campus theft.” The timing of the theft — just weeks after publicity surrounding the CIA lawsuit — “invites doubt as to potential motives.”
In response, the UW AAUP chapter passed the following resolution at its December 2 meeting:
The UW Chapter of the American Association of University Professors expresses dismay about the October, 2015, burglary at the UW Center for Human Rights, in which a computer containing sensitive human rights information disappeared. We agree with our colleagues at the Center that it is suspicious and disturbing that the burglary of materials followed the UW filing of a lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency for withholding documents relevant to a massacre in El Salvador, and followed a UW-based conference on Access to Information as a Human Right.
The AAUP expresses strong support for the Center and its work in El Salvador. The AAUP’s mission is to advance academic freedom, to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good. We applaud UW administration for supporting its faculty in raising critical questions about what the United States government knew about atrocities being committed in El Salvador and about the history of U.S. involvement in Central and South America more generally.
Human rights work is by its nature a courageous endeavor. State violence, often exercised in conjunction with paramilitary forces, aims at repressing popular movements, journalists, academics and anyone who speaks out against injustice. Efforts to hold perpetrators accountable are an essential component of restoring democratic, rights-respecting polities that are essential to a free academy.
The FOIA lawsuit was filed by the UW, the Center for Human Rights and Mina Manuchehri, a fellow at the Center for Human Rights and a third-year law student at the UW. It alleges the agency has illegally withheld records regarding retired Salvadoran army Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, who is under criminal investigation in that country for alleged involvement in massacres of civilians. It also alleges the CIA has withheld documents pertaining to UCLA professor Philippe Bourgois, a survivor of a 1981 massacre of hundreds of civilians that was allegedly led by Ochoa Perez in the El Salvadoran town of Santa Cruz. The case is related to the center’s “Unfinished Sentences” project aiming to promote truth, justice, and reparations for survivors of the armed conflict in El Salvador.
The center claims to be aware of “at least 20 CIA documents responsive to our request that have already been declassified. The fact that the CIA has failed to, at minimum, grant us access to those same documents suggests they chose not to take their FOIA obligations seriously. For this reason, after conversations at the highest levels of UW leadership, the University of Washington decided to sue the CIA under FOIA.”
In its press release reporting the break-in and theft, the center wrote:
We are gratified by the response of the University of Washington authorities, who are investigating this as a potentially serious security issue and advising our Center on the adoption of new security measures in the future. We are also grateful for the messages we have received from supportive colleagues near and far. We resolve to redouble our commitment to promoting hands-on human rights education across the University of Washington, and to strengthen our partnerships with Salvadoran human rights defenders seeking truth, justice, and reparations for survivors of crimes against humanity.