The recent break-in at the Washington office of a group critical of United States policy in Central America fits into a larger pattern of similar incidents stretching back more than two years, according to a lawyers group that has been monitoring the burglaries. On Nov. 29, intruders forced entry into the offices of the International Center for Development Policy, headed by Robert White, a former US ambassador to El Salvador. Files and computer disks were strewn about, and documents regarding a secret supply network for Nicaraguan rebels were taken.
The intruders ignored computers, typewriters, and other valuable objects. Washington detectives suggested that the burglary ``definitely looks political,'' according to Mary Patterson, Mr. White's administrative assistant.
The center has played a major role in investigating the extensive private network of Americans who have advised and supplied Nicaragua's contra rebels. It has been a key source of information for congressional committees looking into the issue.
This break-in was the 32nd incident of its kind at the offices or homes of opponents of US policy in Central America since September 1984, said Michael Ratner, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York.
Mr. Ratner said the break-ins have followed a general pattern: Items of value are rarely stolen, while files and computer disks are rifled and strewn about. Some groups have been repeated targets.
The similarities between the burglaries led Ratner to conclude that there is a ``substantial likelihood'' that the break-ins are part of an organized effort to weaken the opposition to US policy in Central America.
But Federal Bureau of Investigation Director William Webster said at a recent breakfast with reporters that, while ``there have been a lot of individual crimes committed,'' the FBI has found ``no indication'' that the break-ins are part of an orchestrated campaign. He added there was ``no evidence'' of any federal agency being involved in the burglaries.
Mr. Webster acknowledged, however, that the situation ``bears watching.''
Evidence suggesting a government link to the burglaries has surfaced in just one instance. In October 1984 an employee of Sojourners magazine encountered four men in suits prowling around the rear entrance to the journal's offices at 5:45 on a Saturday morning, according to Dennis Marker, assistant to the editor. The men drove away. Police were unable to trace the Virginia license plates of the men's car, but a former intelligence official told the Sojourners staff that the plates had been issued to the super-secret National Security Agency, Mr. Marker said.
Marker said Sojourners is an ``independent Christian'' journal. He said it helped launch the Witness for Peace campaign, which has sent hundreds of Americans to Nicaraguan border towns in an attempt to deter contra attacks.
Fifteen of the 32 break-ins documented by the CCR have been at churches that have either declared themselves sanctuaries for illegal refugees from El Salvador or support the sanctuary movement, Ratner said.
On Dec. 5, Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California and Rep. Edward Feighan (D) of Ohio sent a letter to Attorney General Edwin Meese III requesting an FBI investigation into the break-ins against the Central America and sanctuary activists. In April, FBI Director Webster had turned down a similar request by the congressmen.
The CCR believes a government role in the burglaries is possible because of the FBI's great interest in keeping tabs on the opponents of Washington's Central America policies.
Ratner said that a former FBI agent has admitted to infiltrating the Dallas chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) between 1981 and 1984. The group opposes Washington's policies in El Salvador. Infiltrators have also been detected at CISPES meetings in Illinois and Alabama, said committee official Beth Perry.
Ratner also noted that Immigration and Naturalization Service agents have infiltrated and secretly taped meetings at Arizona churches involved in sanctuary activities.
Government infiltration of domestic political groups under certain circumstances was legalized by an 1981 executive order signed by President Reagan.
The President also approved ``physical surveillance'' of such groups, and he gave permission for the Central Intelligence Agency to operate within the US under specified circumstances. The CIA had been restricted to foreign actions.
Since 1985, Ratner's group has received complaints from US travelers returning from visits to Nicaragua that US Customs Service and FBI officials have confiscated personal letters and literature, photocopied these and other items, and opened mail. Such activities appear not to have been authorized by the President's 1981 executive order.
An April lawsuit filed against Customs led to the issuance of policy directives in June and August instructing Customs agents to desist from such practices. The CCR is negotiating to obtain a similar directive from the FBI, said center attorney David Cole.