CIA breaks into University of Washington to steal war crime evidence: a potential play-by-play

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The following is based on a real crime, as reported by the Seattle Times on October 21. The details presented below regarding the break-in at the University of Washington's Center for Human Rights, and the evidence it targeted, are factual. But because all parties involved will not comment beyond what is noted in the Seattle Times article (and in a statement quoted in this story), the author opted to present what many people seem to imply happened, relying on his longtime consumption of fiction and nonfiction related to the CIA. 


You're a CIA official, charged with keeping some specific human rights violations under wraps from 1980s-era El Salvador. Life has quieted down at The Agency since that decade, when the U.S. supported the Salvadoran government in its civil war against leftist rebels. Child soldiers, death squads, over 75,000 dead at the hands of the government, many of them civilians – the crimes and atrocities of that era fade into the fogs of time. More and more every day, they seem like a relic of a bygone era, something not quite real, not worth thinking about too much. The Agency moves on.

That is, until some pesky academic – let's call her Dr. Angelina Godoy, University of Washington professor and director of the school’s Center for Human Rights – starts poking her nose where it doesn’t belong. Over three decades after the fact, she and her colleagues are demanding information on a former Salvadoran military officer named Ochoa Perez, who led a battalion of over 1000 troops that allegedly massacred civilians in the Santa Cruz region of the country, potentially hundreds. He later moved into political power, from which he only recently retired.

Further, this academic and her UW colleagues believe the CIA is withholding that information in violation of the law, and to some extent protecting a mass murderer. They sue The Agency under the Freedom of Information Act, demanding the information's release. They whip up some media coverage. And more than just making baseless accusations, Godoy and her fellow rabble-rousers start gathering evidence, and interviewing people in El Salvador.

Your chief is not happy, and more emotional than you've seen him before. This case could be "an embarrassment to The Agency" if allowed to continue on its course. You, on the other hand, have no feelings about the Reagan Era's conflicts – you just want the whole thing to go away. So the chief tells you to get your hands on Godoy's evidence. At the very least, it shouldn't be for her eyes only. The Agency should get a look at what she's up to, the people being interviewed, the information they're compiling to make a legal case.

Being under 50, you suggest a computer attack on the academics. Quick, easy, no fingerprints. How good could their encryption be? It's only been two weeks since Godoy sued, so anything detectable would be too suspicious. The proposal is quickly dismissed. This case involves some old crimes, you're told. It's time for old school CIA techniques. A physical break-in is called for, and you're just the person for the job.

Silently, you wish you were on The Agency's drone detail, not protection of the CIA's legacy with Central American war criminals. "Well, I'll just plan to make it 'look right,'" you tell him. "I'll break into a bunch of offices in the building, make off with some pricey computer equipment. And one piece of equipment will just so happen to contain the evidence they're gathering."

Chief leans back in his chair and fixes you with a withering stare, as if you've just asked permission to wear a T-shirt to work. "That is not how we do things," he says. "This isn’t the KGB. You’re a CIA agent, goddamn it. And that means a certain degree of class." In detail, he lays out exactly how this operation will go down.

The night of the break-in arrives, and you play it straight. You don’t bother busting locks like some amateur burglar. You use the talents and lockpicking technology that Uncle Sam has provided, and make it so police will see no signs of forced entry later. You don’t mess with other people’s offices. You head straight for your target collateral, steal it, and even lock the door behind you like a good public servant. You don’t want riffraff to be able to just stroll in, after all.

Walking across the darkened campus to your awaiting escape vehicle, you can understand your chief's strategy. Really, what are your targets going to do? Drop hints that the incident looks “unusual?" You won’t lose any sleep over that. If anything, you just hope they appreciate your breaking-and-entering etiquette.

The response from the university doesn't disappoint. “There are a few elements that make this an unusual incident,” says the UW Center for Human Rights in a statement released after the crime. “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.”

The statement mentions that Godoy has reached out to her contacts in El Salvador, who “emphasized parallels between this incident and attacks Salvadoran human rights organizations have experienced in recent years.”

You wouldn't know anything about that, though it sounds like the country's intelligence agents haven't gotten rusty. Reviewing a dossier on Godoy’s files, you’re gaining a new understanding of the advocates, activists, and witnesses the Human Rights Center has been speaking with in El Salvador. Armed with this new information, perhaps your assets in the country can track these individuals down, learn more about what they’ve been saying, and what they think they’ve seen.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at