A Hidden History Of Expungement
Former Oklahoma Senator David Boren once led a campaign to seal FBI records
Shortly after taking over as director of the FBI in 1987, career civil servant and former federal judge William Sessions found himself in a difficult position. The then-Democratic senator of Oklahoma, David Boren, wanted him to expunge thousands of classified FBI documents totalling over 10,000 pages of bureau records.
Sessions countered that once the FBI had created them, federal law required that they be preserved for the national archives, because they were considered part of a terrorism investigation. “I don’t know if I should rewrite history,” Sessions told Boren when asked about expunging names contained within the records.
The exchange illustrates just how difficult it can be to contain and control the flow of information held by law enforcement agencies once that information exists in a government database.
The material that Boren wanted the FBI to expunge described two years of surveillance activities conducted by the bureau that wrongfully targeted domestic political activist groups in the United States who opposed the Cold War policies of President Ronald Reagen in Latin America.
The target was a network of liberal protest organizations in the United States known as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, or CISPES. They opposed U.S. policy toward the military-led junta government of El Salvador, which was frequently accused of human rights atrocities during the 1970s and 1980s.
According to a scathing report eventually released by Boren’s committee, bureau investigators had ensnared some 2,400 people and 1,300 groups in the far-reaching FBI surveillance campaign of CISPES and its supporters in the United States.
The effort included a 15-month investigation of a CISPES leader and political activists in the Oklahoma City area that netted no evidence of criminal activity. Boren’s report concluded that “there was no indication from beginning to end that the individual or the Oklahoma CISPES group had any connection with terrorism in the United States or abroad or any other illegal activity.”
Further, the report said, investigative and surveillance records from the case “never should have been gathered in the first place” and the files “have the potential to damage the reputation of innocent persons who have involved themselves in no illegal activity.”
“Unjustified investigations of political expression and dissent can have a debilitating effect upon our political system,” the committee said. “When people see that this can happen, they become wary of associating with groups that disagree with the government and more wary of what they say or write. The impact is to undermine the effectiveness of popular self-government.”
Boren’s harsh conclusions could not have arrived at a worse time for Sessions and the FBI. The bureau had only recently emerged from a series of domestic surveillance scandals that Boren, as chair of the newly created Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was now responsible for preventing.
A previous series of high-profile congressional investigations and reports led by Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church had unearthed evidence of astonishingly widespread surveillance abuses in the United States for decades by both the FBI and CIA.
The revelations set off a firestorm of public outrage when it was discovered that the agencies had also secretly spied on celebrities and high-profile public figures, as well as members of Congress and the Supreme Court. The bureau, Church’s committee found, would then hand over politically useful intelligence and information to presidential administrations and others in exchange for influence.
Many of these abuses had occurred during the presidency of Richard Nixon and the long-serving and notorious former director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, who was virulently anti-Communist. In response to the discoveries, Congress enacted several reforms, including creation of the House and Senate intelligence committees and the FISA court, as well as passage of the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act, both of which were intended to enhance transparency by expanding public access to government records.
“It is perhaps the nature of investigations that they run the risk of becoming too intrusive and too extensive,” Boren’s report described. “Certain bounds have therefore been established to protect individual rights in a free society.”
FBI headquarters had first become alarmed in January of 1981 when a report from the U.S. Park Police stated “that CISPES was planning a demonstration in Washington, D.C., to protest Salvadoran government violence, the slaying of four religious missionaries in El Salvador, and U.S. Government aid to El Salvador.”
An El Salvadoran expat and FBI informant in Dallas named Frank Varelli had months before begun claiming to the FBI that CISPES and its chapters were “the greatest threat posed to the United States in regards to Central America.”
The son of a former El Salvadoran interior minister and national police chief, Varelli had come to the United States as a college student and served in the U.S. Army before becoming an evangelical Christian. As an informant, Varelli emerged over time as less-than-trustworthy, but agents appear to have done very little to verify his claims or confirm them with other sources.
“There was no effort to check with local police in other parts of the country where Mr. Varelli had studied or worked, to ask other U.S. government agencies whether they had relevant information on him, or to follow up on the failure of efforts to find U.S. government files with his fingerprints or military record,” Boren’s committee found.
Nonetheless, the FBI had concluded that groups in El Salvador opposed to the junta government were themselves potential terrorists sympathetic to Communist ideology, so it began investigating CISPES as a potential terrorist group or agent of a foreign power.
FBI headquarters sent a message to all of its field offices and their special agents in 1983 “directing that every CISPES chapter throughout the country be investigated.” The surveillance campaign was kept well-hidden. The public and Congress knew little or nothing about it until details began to emerge publically in 1988 through the efforts of private citizens using, ironically, the Freedom of Information Act.
Only after a sprawling, two-year investigation did the FBI itself conclude internally that it had “no real substantiated information” linking CISPES financially or otherwise to guerilla organizations in El Salvador or any foreign agents.
by the time of Boren’s report, Sessions and the Bureau had acknowledged that the surveillance campaign was inappropriate. Six agents were disciplined as a result, and another agent left the bureau. Still, the damage was done.
Sessions promised Boren that the FBI would consider case-by-case requests to have records from the surveillance campaign expunged. However, he said, the bureau was required under federal law to maintain records concerning “international terrorism,” even though the inquiry had resulted in no evidence of such activity.
Not to mention, Sessions said, the records would always have to be available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act and for use in litigation.
As for CISPES, the group sought to head off unnecessary scrutiny from the FBI before the surveillance campaign with a letter to the Department Department in 1981, according to Boren’s report. The group said simply that it opposed “U.S. involvement in El Salvador, because our government continues to provide military and economic aid to a regime, which survives by murdering innocent peasants, workers, intellectuals, and clergy.”