Change from the Inside

Last Tuesday, a group of students and alumni conducted a protest inside a recruitment event for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We did so to intervene in the day-to-day operations of government agencies that are responsible for brutalizing millions of people at home and abroad, and that are rarely held accountable to the public. This piece will recount parts of this legacy, describe the protest’s unconventional response to these horrors, and explain our reasons for disrupting an important aspect of the agencies’ operations—the recruitment process.

The CIA is infamous throughout the world as a perpetrator and facilitator of crimes against humanity. One protester handed out an information sheet to potential recruits which detailed the agency’s complicity in the overthrow of democratically-elected presidents in Iran (Mohammed Mossadegh), the Congo (Patrice Lumumba), Chile (Salvador Allende), Haiti (Jean-Bertrand Aristide), and numerous other countries. When a member of our group mimed a puppet dictator, he made satirical reference to the numerous despots that have been installed and supported by the CIA.

This policy of attacking popular governments and supporting tyrannical ones has had disastrous consequences. In Indonesia, Suharto’s CIA-backed government massacred hundreds of thousands of landless peasants. In Chile, Pinochet’s regime tortured, raped, and executed thousands on the political left. During the 1980s, death squads armed and trained by the CIA devastated Latin America. The agency funded the Contra rebels in Nicaragua with money gained from trafficking cocaine to Los Angeles. Similar groups were trained in effective torture techniques with such CIA publications as “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual—1983,” declassified in 1996. Untold numbers of Latin Americans have suffered the consequences of these programs.

The CIA’s gruesome operations have continued with the War on Terror. When two protesters donned black hoods, they were providing a silent, pointed reminder of the CIA’s development of the torture tactics used at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. The CIA was also responsible for the murders of several prisoners at Abu Ghraib. National media sources recently exposed the CIA’s “Extraordinary Rendition” program, by which the agency deports detainees to countries which sanction torture so that such techniques can be used without breaking the law. During the question and answer period, one audience member asked the CIA recruiter about this program. He refused to answer.

During the event, we staged the deportation of a South Asian graduate student to bring attention to the DHS’s devastating policies of racial profiling, deportation, and detainment. In the two years following the Sept. 11 attacks, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is now an arm of the DHS, implemented a special registration program which required 82,000 Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Korean men to register with the government each year. Thousands were deported or detained on minor technicalities and without access to lawyers, tearing apart immigrant communities across the country. Yet not one special registrant was linked to the attacks.

To extend special registration, the DHS recently established US-VISIT. This requires all foreign nationals—except those from 27 select countries—to undergo the humiliation of being digitally photographed and fingerprinted at the border. Currently, the DHS is testing the use of “tracking bracelets” attached to the ankles of 1,700 foreign nationals, none of whom have been charged with a crime.

The current head of the DHS is Michael Chertoff ’75, a former Department of Justice official who was a chief architect of the extremely controversial post-Sept. 11 policy of imprisoning thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants as “material witnesses.” These detainees were held in abusive conditions for weeks and months without charges or access to lawyers. Exceedingly few were found to have any link to terrorism. Chertoff also advised the CIA on its use of torture tactics, and approved such techniques as “waterboarding,” in which suspects are strapped down and made to feel as if they are drowning.

Last week’s panel was an integral part of the recruitment processes of the CIA and the DHS. The Office of Career Services was not providing a forum for academic debate or attempting to foster political dialogue. Panelists were present with the purpose of encouraging Harvard students to apply for jobs at their respective agencies. We disrupted the program in order to interfere with the recruitment mechanisms of the CIA and the DHS. By drawing attention to the widespread suffering engendered by the agendas and policies of the agencies, our tactics unhinged a marketing strategy that was intended to sell sanitized images of careers at the CIA and the DHS.

Our tactics were also designed to create an escalating sense of discomfort in the room. Ringing cell phones registered our alarm at the policies of the agencies represented. Protesters disguised as enthusiastic recruits initiated the first several rounds of applause, but as their cheering became only vaguely appropriate, the “legitimate” audience grew uncomfortable with the outbursts. One disgusted protester vomited—cleanly, into a bag—in an act of protest that seems to have elicited the most distressed response from audience members.

Our protest was disruptive, but the history of social change is a history of disruption, from sit-ins to picket-lines. If 15,000 protesters had rallied outside, they too would have been disruptive, and rightfully so. To defend recruitment operations by CIA and DHS as a form of protected, legitimate discourse is to distract from the suffering of millions who have borne the consequences of the agencies’ actions—and who were not present to express themselves.

Kevin Connor ’05 is a history and literature concentrator affiliated with Dudley House. Suvrat Raju is a graduate student in Physics.