Spying, notes, and what 24 hours?

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@MVS.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Fri, 27 Jan 1995 17:07:00 CST

Whew. I'm overwhelmed at the volume of replies, to me personally as
well as to ANTHRO-L. So my promise to shut up for 24 hours goes by
the board . . . This is the only way to answer so many of you.

Operation (not "Project"--my error) Phoenix was a step in the
development of counterinsurgency theory in the US defense establish-
ment. They were taking off from prior experience of, e.g., the
British in Malaya. Assassinating potential leaders became a central
part of the conventional understanding of "low-intensity warfare".
That part of counterinsurgency theory was deliberately taught, by
the CIA, to "security" forces throughout Latin America. It became
the basis of how the military operated in El Salvador and how the
contras operated in Nicaragua. It still is the way things are done
in Guatemala. Even without CIA lessons being directly involved
(but there are Argentinian "experts" on the scene), it's also the
way things are done in Chiapas, to my certain knowledge, and in
other parts of Mexico by reliable report.

(To Carter Pate: No, I don't have references handy on Operation
Phoenix. It seems to me that the story originally broke in a source
similar to THE PROGRESSIVE magazine, and had followups in The Nation
and the NY Review of Books, at least, but I don't have references
handy at the moment. Maybe somebody else on the list can provide.)

As to the involvement of the Peace Corps with the Department of Dirty
Tricks (aka CIA), to begin with you have to know that there never was
or is a single Peace Corps. Each in-country station is another
Peace Corps. For example, back in 1980 I was offered the chance to
direct a Peace Corps training center in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and I
talked to the PC-Honduras team on-site. Every single Peace Corps
employee from the US that I talked to in Honduras failed my local
cultural awareness test. I asked each one "Who was Lempira?" They
all answered "That's not a who, it's a what. Lempiras is what they
call the local money." True, but unaware: the monetary unit is
named after the last major Indian leader of resistance to the
original Spanish conquest. And that was only the beginning of their
ignorance of the country they were working in. I concluded that the
assignment was not for me. (I did collect enough information on
costs and ways and means that NIU's bid to run the training center
was successful. And I'm sorry I did even that.)

What got me, on the ground in Honduras in 1980 with Jimmy Carter
still the President, is that there were an awful lot of ex-Nicaraguan
military wandering around in company with an awful lot of clearly
US military types. I got the feeling that PC-Honduras was part of
some kind of big covert operation, thought I didn't know what it
was. Of course, what it was was the first steps toward the Contra
war in Nicaragua. (Just to cite one of many lines of evidence that
made me think something was coming in Nica: the large numbers of
luxury cars--Mercedes and such--driving around Tegucigalpa with
expired Nicaraguan license plates.) Eventually, Honduras became
the largest aircraft carrier in the US Navy--US airbases were built
all over the place. And, of course, it was the home base of the
Contras and stacks of US military advisors.

The situation stank as early as 1980. I decided I wouldn't--and
couldn't--touch it with a TWENTY-foot pole. And that's what I
learned in the school of the 1960's.

At the same time, Peace Corps-Costa Rica seemed to me to be a very
straight operation engaged in activities that really were a help to
the peoples of Central America. (PC-CR reached way beyond the
borders of Costa Rica at the time.) In fact, and as an example,
PC-CR people I talked to even knew who Lempira was.

OK, folks, what we should have learned from all this is that you
have to be paranoid about whose auspices you work under and just what
they want to do with your participation. As for field notes: well,
I know it may not satisfy some believers in the openness of science
and all that, but I regard my field notes as sacred secrets I will
not share with ANYBODY. Not only that, I even go so far as to use
code names for informants who give me sensitive information--and I
regard practically any information as potentially sensitive. I do
not, will not, and can not accept any research support that requires
turning over my notes to anybody. And I still keep the most
sensitive stuff out of my notes entirely.

What do I mean by "sensitive stuff"? First off, what people tell me
they regard as secret and sacred. Even more important, those things
I learn that could harm the people I learn them from if they got out.
I'm not talking comparative disadvantage or declining prestige here:
where I work, the kinds of information I gather could lead directly
to the assassination of the people who give it to me. I know it
because I know who has been killed for what kinds of reasons, and I
don't ever want those reasons to include the fact that I blabbed
where I shouldn't have. (Example, again: two people I interviewed
in Guatemala in July were killed in September, one by a death squad,
the other by a Guatemala City cop. One person I talked with in
Chiapas in August was assassinated by "white guards" last month.)
Luckily for my sleep, I know none of these folks were killed because
of anything I did. But if I were loose with people's confidences
it could happen to them.)

Hey--professional ethics is not just a vocal exercise. It's about
not killing people; it's about not dirtying up the scene so later
anthropologists will never be able to go there; it's about not
screwing up your students' lives or short-changing anybody. It's
about considering all the implications of what we do. And Boas was
right: spying under the cover of anthropology is just plain wrong.

-- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu>