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Don't Spook the Peace Corps

As the Peace Corps prepared this week to celebrate 35 years of voluntary service by more than 140,000 Americans, it was astounding to read Richard Haass's suggestion that the Peace Corps should be used as a "cover" for confronting some of this country's most serious national security problems, such as "terrorists, drug cartels, criminal organizations and rogue states" {"Don't Hobble Intelligence Gathering," op-ed, Feb. 15}. Haass further asserts that "nothing the U.S. government can do or say can convince others that no . . . Peace Corps volunteer is a spy." Finally, Haass questions the wisdom of continuing the current prohibition against using the Peace Corps as a cover for intelligence-gathering purposes and dismisses as "dubious" any concerns that a Peace Corps volunteer (or for that matter, a journalist or member of the clergy) might be tainted or put in danger if this policy were changed.

Haass should speak to a returned Peace Corps volunteer or those of us who work to support nearly 7,000 volunteers currently serving in 94 countries. His suggestion about making the Peace Corps a part of the intelligence community is both dangerous and cynical.

The strict separation -- both in fact and appearance -- between the Peace Corps and any intelligence agency has been a bedrock principle for every administration since 1961 to ensure the safety and security of volunteers. Peace Corps volunteers often serve in remote areas of their host countries without access to modern communications or special security arrangements. They are not government employees, are paid only a small subsistence allowance and are not granted any special privileges, such as diplomatic immunity. They are prohibited from involving themselves in the political affairs of their host countries. To suggest casually that the Peace Corps should be used as a "cover" to gather intelligence is reckless; to actually carry this out would place the lives of volunteers in serious danger.

The safety of volunteers is reason enough alone to keep intact the concrete wall between the Peace Corps and our intelligence community. But there is another reason that goes to the heart of what the Peace Corps is all about. The Peace Corps' mission calls for volunteers to live and work with people in developing countries at the grass-roots level and to strengthen mutual understanding between Americans and other people around the world. The work that volunteers do is, in other words, antithetical to intelligence activities, and without complete separation between the Peace Corps and our intelligence agencies, no government would have ever invited Peace Corps volunteers to serve in their countries.

It is true that in the past some Communist regimes and movements alleged for propaganda purposes that the Peace Corps was a front for the Central Intelligence Agency. But contrary to Mr. Haass's assertion, we have done a great deal to reassure our host-country governments that volunteers are exactly what we represent them to be: altruistic Americans who, in the spirit of trust and friendship, want to help make a difference in the lives of people around the world. In the face of hardship and sacrifice, they have led efforts to help address the pressing problems of poverty, disease, environmental degradation, and lack of economic opportunity. Over the decades they have touched the lives of countless people in the developing world. Because of their hard work and dedication, the Peace Corps has become one of this country's most successful and popular institutions. Volunteers have created a legacy that has generated enormous respect and goodwill for our country. The suggestion that this legacy should be used as a cover for intelligence activities reeks of cynicism.

Our intelligence community has its own mission, but the Peace Corps is not, and should not be, a part of it. Out of respect and concern for the personal safety of Americans who are serving their country as Peace Corps volunteers, Haass should withdraw his proposal.


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