Earlier this month, I wrote about a landmark lawsuit filed by the University of Washington's Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) against the Central Intelligence Agency seeking information about possible war crimes committed in El Salvador during that country's civil war. Over the weekend, someone broke into the office of Angelina Godoy, the center's director.
"Her desktop computer was stolen, as well as a hard drive containing about 90 percent of the information relating to our research in El Salvador," the center said in a statement today.
While we have backups of this information, what worries us most is not what we have lost but what someone else may have gained: the files include sensitive details of personal testimonies and pending investigations. This could, of course, be an act of common crime. But we are concerned because it is also possible this was an act of retaliation for our work. There are a few elements that make this an unusual incident. First, there was no sign of forcible entry; the office was searched but its contents were treated carefully and the door was locked upon exit, characteristics which do not fit the pattern of opportunistic campus theft. Prof. Godoy’s office was the only one targeted, although it is located midway down a hallway of offices, all containing computers. The hard drive has no real resale value, so there seems no reason to take it unless the intention was to extract information. Lastly, the timing of this incident—in the wake of the recent publicity around our freedom of information lawsuit against the CIA regarding information on a suspected perpetrator of grave human rights violations in El Salvador—invites doubt as to potential motives.
We have contacted colleagues in El Salvador, many of whom have emphasized parallels between this incident and attacks Salvadoran human rights organizations have experienced in recent years. While we cannot rule out the possibility of this having been an incident of common crime, we are deeply concerned that this breach of information security may increase the vulnerability of Salvadoran human rights defenders with whom we work.
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.
The center declined to elaborate and the UW police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. I asked the CIA whether it or any branch of the government had anything to do with the theft. This is an agency that assassinates people with drones, tortured prisoners, has helped to carry out bloody coup d'etats, and whose analysts were accused of hacking and stealing the data of senators who were investigating the agency just last year.
CIA spokesperson Dean Boyd responded: "Your suggestion that CIA had anything to do with this alleged activity is offensive, insulting, and patently false." Who else might have wanted to get their hands on the center's files? Perhaps rabid, right-wing diaspora El Salvadorans allied with the country's military or moneyed elites? I'm not sure who to contact as a representative of that group.