Saturday, March 11, 2006

US academic says targeted by FBI over Venezuela

US academic says targeted by FBI over Venezuela
By Saul Hudson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. academic accused the FBI on Friday of trying to silence his criticism of Bush administration policy toward Venezuela, further straining ties between Washington and the major oil supplier.

Venezuela seized on agents' questioning of the professor, condemning it in a statement as "a violation of the freedoms of expression, thought and academic inquiry, and ... a desperate attempt to link Venezuela to terrorism."

The FBI did not address the accusations directly but said in a statement it had conducted an "informational interview" ofMiguel Tinker Salas, a history professor at Pomona College, a liberal arts university in California.

The State Department said the United States did not have a policy of targeting academics critical of U.S. policy.

Tinker Salas said two agents of an FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force questioned him this week at his offices about his contacts with the Venezuelan Embassy.

"The intent was to intimidate," the Venezuelan-born American citizen told Reuters.

He said the agents asked if his opinions about U.S. policy had been influenced by the embassy and told him Venezuelans living in the United States were "of interest" to the task force, whose job is to prevent terrorist attacks.

Jonathan Knight, who directs a national program to protect academic freedom, said that if the allegations were true, it appeared the FBI wanted to silence a professor using tactics that he had not seen since the persecution of academics perceived as pro-Communist in the 1950s.

"A faculty member being confronted by two law enforcement agents could have a cautionary effect because what he can expect is that the U.S. government is watching his views," said Knight of the American Association of University Professors. "This is treading very much on his freedom."

Tinker Salas, whose recent work includes a book analyzing Venezuelan politics since President Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, said he would not be cowed.

Chavez has said the Bush administration wants to designate Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. That would lead to sanctions against the South American country, which for years has been one of the top oil suppliers to the United States.

Ties reached their worst point earlier this year when the two countries expelled diplomats in a dispute over spying charges.

Chavez, an ally of U.S. foe Cuban President Fidel Castro, has insulted senior U.S. officials and, flush with windfall oil revenue, galvanized popular anti-American sentiment in the region by opposing American policies, particularly on trade.

Like many U.S. political analysts critical of the Bush administration's policy toward Latin America, Tinker Salas believes the United States is stoking tensions with Venezuela by seeking to create the impression it is a threat.

"They want to put Venezuela in a kind of 'axis-of-evil' with Iran and North Korea," he said.