US diplomat faces spying charges in Bolivia
Published February 15, 2008 - Associated Press

LA PAZ, Bolivia: Criminal charges of espionage have been filed against a U.S. Embassy official accused of asking an American student and Peace Corps volunteers to keep tabs on Venezuela and Cuban workers in the country.

Vice Minister of Government Ruben Gamarra, who filed the charges this week, said Thursday that Bolivia may ask the U.S. to provide a statement from the embassy security official, Vincent Cooper.

Also on Thursday, the Bolivian Senate said it will form a committee to investigate the charges against Cooper.

The charges carry a sentence of 30 years in prison without parole. It was unclear Thursday whether diplomatic immunity would protect him under Bolivian and international law.

In a Wednesday meeting, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca agreed that Cooper would not return to Bolivia.

Fulbright scholar Alex van Schaick told The Associated Press last week that during a one-on-one security briefing in November, Cooper asked him to pass along information on Venezuelan and Cuban workers he encountered in the country.

Four months earlier, according to embassy officials, Cooper mistakenly gave a group of newly arrived Peace Corps volunteers a security briefing meant only for embassy staff, asking them only to report "suspicious activities."

President Evo Morales on Thursday praised van Schaick for coming forward despite the risk to his reputation.

"I salute this American for denouncing the spying (his government) does," the president said.

The embassy case has fed an ongoing spying controversy in Bolivia.

Last month, materials anonymously leaked to various media appeared to show police spying on prominent, anti-Morales politicians.

Morales, in turn, shut down a U.S.-backed police intelligence unit he accused of operating outside Bolivian government control.

The senate commission intends to investigate all aspects of the controversy. But government officials complained Thursday that the opposition-controlled senate had improperly wrapped the Cooper investigation into the politically charged police spying cases.