FOR YEARS the United States government has been accused of - and has repeatedly denied - supporting death squads in Central America, which killed thousands of political opponents, clergy and others. Now, nearly a decade later, the truth may just lie inside a black briefcase found in a gym locker in San Francisco.
The case belongs to a former police officer who claims, and is widely believed, to have worked for the CIA as an undercover agent. He is now at the heart of a spying scandal that has both mesmerised and divided civil rights organisations for weeks.
The affair surfaced more than two months ago in San Francisco when the authorities revealed that they had evidence that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) - a group that works against anti-Semitism and has strong ties with Israel - was operating a nationwide intelligence-gathering network, in which files had been amassed on thousands of individuals and hundreds of political organisations.
While these included predictable targets - neo-Nazi and skinhead groups, for instance - the files also covered a host of wholly legitimate organisations and people: the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Greenpeace, a San Francisco television station, Arab- Americans and anti-apartheid groups.
The authorities claim that the league was supplied with information by two operatives. One was an art dealer. The second was named as Thomas Gerard, a former San Francisco police inspector and, it appears, ex-CIA agent, who fled to the Philippines shortly after being interviewed about the spy network by the FBI. Mr Gerard is the owner of the briefcase.
Mr Gerard has admitted being involved in the spy network, to a limited extent, although he denies wrongdoing. More importantly, he has threatened that if he is ever indicted he will reveal the case's contents, which he claims prove that the CIA was directly involved in death squads in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala during the mid-1980s.
The issue appears to be coming to a head. Last Thursday Mr Gerard was arrested at San Francisco international airport as he stepped off a flight from the Philippines, where he said he lived in fear of being assassinated by the CIA. He has since been charged with 11 offences. Perhaps significantly, these include alleged 'theft of government documents'.
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