Juan Cole, a noted Middle East expert and outspoken critic of the Israeli government who was denied a faculty appointment at Yale in 2006, sued the CIA and FBI on Wednesday.
The University of Michigan history professor and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed a case asking for the “immediate expedited processing” of Freedom of Information Act requests for documents pertaining to Cole that they submitted to the CIA, FBI, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Department of Justice on June 23. The lawsuit marks an attempt by Cole to determine whether the George W. Bush administration sought to discredit him and if the CIA spied on him illegally.
“The CIA is specifically forbidden, in its charter and by statute, from spying on American citizens,” Cole told the News in an email earlier this month, prior to going to court. “It is shocking because it shows how criminal and insecure the Bush White House was.”
Neither the CIA nor the FBI had responded to the initial FOIA requests, Cole wrote on his blog, prompting him and the ACLU to launch the lawsuit.
“At the heart of this action is whether the CIA, FBI and other agencies undertook an investigation of a U.S. citizen for the simple fact that he was a critic of U.S. government policy,” ACLU lawyers Michael Steinberg and Zachary Katznelson wrote in their complaint. “Such a chilling of First Amendment freedoms, if it did in fact take place, would send shock waves through the public arena, threatening to limit the open debate that makes our democracy strong.”
The lawsuit was filed just one week after Yale rejected a request from the Middle East Studies Association for an investigation into whether the Bush administration influenced Yale’s decision to reject Cole’s appointment in 2006.
MESA had already contacted then-Provost Andrew Hamilton in June 2006 to voice concerns that political pressure had prevented Cole’s appointment, but Hamilton replied ten days later that “an individual’s political views are never taken into account in making appointment decisions.” The organization renewed its efforts on Cole’s behalf after the New York Times reported June 15 that a former senior C.I.A. official claimed members of the Bush administration had attempted to discredit Cole.
Provost Peter Salovey said in a July 7 letter to MESA President Suad Joseph that there was “no evidence of inappropriate external interference or other impropriety” in Cole’s appointment decision, and that no one from the government or the Bush administration had contacted Salovey, Levin or the deans overseeing the appointment process.
Despite his assurances, the deliberations surrounding Cole’s appointment decision have long been questioned by Yale faculty members.
Cole was initially selected for a tenured professorship in modern Middle East studies by a University search committee and approved by both the Sociology and History Departments. But the Senior Appointments Committee, an interdepartmental body that reviews appointments to tenured positions, ultimately voted against offering Cole the job.
“The decision to not appoint Juan Cole was a political decision, whether you’re for Juan Cole or against Juan Cole,” said a professor in the History Department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he previously received a threat for speaking in Cole’s favor. “[Professors] tried to portray this guy Juan Cole as an anti-Semite and an anti-American.”
The appointment met intense opposition in the History Department, said Glenda Gilmore, a history professor who supported Cole’s appointment. Gilmore said she was willing to discuss the History Department faculty vote only because the results of the vote had already been leaked by one or more faculty members immediately following the meeting in 2006. Conservative bloggers Scott Johnson and Michael Rubin both published the results of the vote on May 10, 2006.
Thirteen professors voted to approve the appointment, seven opposed it and three abstained from the vote.
Gilmore said the opposition was led in an organized fashion by “one history professor who had associations with Bush and the Bush White House,” and she said she thought the presentations arguing against the appointment given by about six professors seemed coordinated.
“They seemed to be following a script as one by one they brought up different issues,” she said.
While Yale was considering the appointment, a stream of editorials in various publications criticized the potential appointment, often arguing that the content of Cole’s blog made him unfit for the professorship.
The Senior Appointments Committee ultimately rejected Cole’s candidacy on June 2, 2006.