Miguel Tinker-Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College, had two unexpected guests during his office hours on Tuesday.
Mixed in with the line of about five students were two detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, one of whom, according to a business card he gave Tinker-Salas, works for the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a Federal Bureau of Investigation collaboration with local detectives. According to Tinker-Salas, the detectives said they wanted to "develop a profile of the Venezuelan community in the United States."
Tinker-Salas, who provided business cards and cell phone numbers for the detectives that the two left during their visit, described the 20-minute encounter as pervaded by "verbal jostling." Tinker-Salas said that one of the men had a folder, in which he had Tinker-Salas's profile from the Pomona Web site, among other papers. Tinker-Salas specializes in contemporary Venezuelan and Mexican politics, as well as issues related to oil in Venezuela. “They praised my academic credentials,” Tinker-Salas said. “Why are you really here?” he said he asked the visitors. “What is your level of education to have an opinion on my credentials?”
The detectives then asked questions for which answers are publicly available, Tinker-Salas said. “They asked if there’s a Venezuelan consulate in L.A. and if I have relations to it. They asked things like, how many Venezuelans are there in L.A. and in the U.S.,” Tinker-Salas said. “There is no Venezuelan consulate in L.A. I interpreted this as a fishing expedition.”
Tinker-Salas has been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in Venezuela, most recently about the "inoculation strategy" that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said is an attempt to form "a united front against some of the kinds of things that Venezuela gets involved in." The professor said he guessed that his prominence, particularly in the news media, drew the detectives to his door.
According to an e-mail Tinker-Salas wrote to colleagues about the visit, the detectives “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.”
Neither the FBI nor the Sheriff’s Department would comment on the matter, and neither of the detectives returned phone calls Friday.
Before they came into Tinker-Salas’s office, the detectives roamed the hallway a bit, according to Tinker-Salas and students present, and talked to a few students. “They asked [the students outside Tinker-Salas’s door] what courses he’s teaching, do they like him,” said John Macias, a graduate student at the Claremont Graduate University who is taking Tinker-Salas’s Latin America Since Independence course. Macias said that the detectives didn’t identify themselves to the students, but that, though they were not in uniform, “they were obviously older.... They stood out.”
Macias was outside his professor's office when the interview took place, and he recounted it much the same way as Tinker-Salas did, including when the detectives asked Tinker-Salas if he's a U.S. citizen. Tinker-Salas was born in Venezuela, and is a U.S. citizen. Macias said he also noticed that one of the detectives took a keen interest in "Boondocks" and "La Cucaracha" comic strips -- both of which take jabs at the government regularly -- posted outside Tinker-Salas’s office door. Macias, who was annoyed that the detectives cut to the front of the office hours line, said that Tinker-Salas mentioned the encounter to his class on Thursday. “I’m pretty sure they would know if there’s a consulate in L.A.,” Macias said. “I think they just did it to arouse suspicion.”
Jonathan Knight, director of the Department of Academic Freedom and Governance at the American Association of University Professors, said that it isn’t that worrisome for the FBI to talk to faculty members about their expertise or to solicit advice, but that this was different. "These kinds of inquiries,” Knight said in an e-mail, “focused on what a faculty member teaches, the sources for his ideas, and what students have to say about the content of classroom presentations, are fraught with risk for the free exchange of ideas.”
Knight noted that the Joint Terrorism Task Force’s mission is to detect and prevent terrorism, and to prosecute terrorists. Tinker-Salas said the detectives told him that he is not the target of an investigation, and Tinker-Salas said that the only other Venezuelan faculty member, in the math department, was not contacted.
David Oxtoby, president of Pomona, sent an e-mail message on Thursday to students and faculty members about the detectives’ visit. “I am extremely concerned about the chilling effect this kind of intrusive government interest could have on free scholarly and political discourse,” Oxtoby wrote. “I am also concerned about the negative message it sends to students who are considering the pursuit of important areas of international study, in which they may now feel exposed to unwarranted official scrutiny.” Oxtoby added that Pomona is consulting with legal advisers about the most effective way to register "a strong official protest about this intrusion into our scholarly and educational activities, and we will take appropriate action as soon as their advice is received.”
Said Tinker-Salas: "They also wanted to know where the Venezuelan community congregates. The largest Venezuelan community is in Miami. They know that. One would expect that if they want to ask about my expertise, they would set up an appointment.”