LA PAZ, Bolivia – President Evo Morales declared a U.S. Embassy security officer to be an "undesirable person" on Monday after reports that the officer asked an American scholar and 30 Peace Corps volunteers to pass along information about Cubans and Venezuelans working in Bolivia.
It was not immediately clear whether Morales intended seek the expulsion of the official, Vincent Cooper, who according to the U.S. Embassy was recalled to Washington for consultations.
Morales said Cooper is, "for Bolivia, for the government, an undesirable person," and accused him of sending U.S. citizens in Bolivia out as spies. "I feel that this man has not only violated the rights of these citizens, but also violated, offended and attacked Bolivia," the president said.
Embassy spokesman Eric Watnik insisted Monday that no Embassy employee had asked the scholar or Peace Corps volunteers to participate in gathering intelligence. Instead, he said, some were mistakenly given a security briefing meant for embassy staff.
Watnik also said that the Bolivian government had not delivered any formal complaint about Cooper, and that U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg has not been formally summoned to discuss the matter with Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, who had previously said he would seek a meeting with Goldberg to discuss tensions over intelligence operations in Bolivia.
Goldberg, on a flood relief trip Monday in the lowland city of Trinidad, did not address reporters' questions on the issue.
On Friday, Fulbright scholar Alex van Schaick told The Associated Press that Cooper, the embassy's assistant regional security officer, asked him to pass along the names and addresses of any Venezuelan and Cuban workers he might encounter in the country. "We know they're out there, we just want to keep tabs on them," Schaick quoted Cooper as telling him on Nov. 5.
ABC News reported that Cooper made a similar request to 30 newly arrived Peace Corps volunteers on July 29, angering the organization's programming and training officer for Bolivia, Doreen Salazar, who told Cooper that the request violated policy and told the volunteers to ignore it. Salazar would not talk to the AP about the incident.
Watnick told reporters on Monday that Cooper had "offered the Peace Corps group, by mistake, the security information session meant for embassy employees."
"I want to emphasize that at no time did employees of the U.S. Embassy ask a Peace Corps volunteer or a Fulbright scholarship program participant to take part in intelligence activities," he said, reading a statement.
The U.S. State Department said Friday that any such request would run against U.S. policy. In a more strongly worded statement, the Peace Corps said that by law, volunteers cannot be asked to gather intelligence for the U.S. government.
"Any connection between the Peace Corps and the intelligence community would seriously compromise the ability of the Peace Corps to develop and maintain the trust and confidence of the people in the host countries we serve," the agency said.