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Experts to FBI: Be Wary of Tradeoffs With New Office

[Editor's note: this is the second in a two-part series examining the FBI's new office in Phnom Penh]. For Part I, click here.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation's expanded presence in Cambodia has renewed a broader debate over human rights in the war on terror, and observers warn that the US agency could be judged hashly by history.

The FBI is one of the US's leading counterterrorism agencies. Its new office in Phnom Penh drew fire from rights groups who said their job was made harder by the FBI's approval of Cambodia's security apparatus. Security experts say there are good reasons for the office, but the FBI must be careful to vet who it works with.

"It's a very slippery slope, especially in a country like Cambodia where there is so much corruption," said Zachary Abuza, a professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston and an expert on Southeast Asia.

The FBI should be careful dealing with Cambodia, he said, although the Bureau's presence could be positive.

"You like to think that they will have influence and be able to improve the quality of the services you are working with," he said. "And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."

Cambodia is a major transshipment point for people, money and drugs in Southeast Asia, Abuza said, areas of interest for both the US State and Justice departments and a good reason to have an office in Cambodia, as the FBI seeks to expand the number of legal attaches around the world.

Meanwhile, the FBI's presence is not likely to make things worse, said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The danger for the US, he said, is guilt by association with Cambodian rights abusers.

"I do think there's a risk that we will be seen as complicit in any future abuses they commit," he said. "And so that's the tradeoff."

Washington has likely determined that smart Cambodian policy means tending a working relationship, O'Hanlon said, even if it means giving abusive officials greater legitimacy. However, the FBI should not overreach.

"I think you also have to keep your own expectations in check, and the FBI should be careful here with its own rhetoric," O'Hanlon said. "They don't want to oversell the benefits of this collaboration for Cambodia's own quality of governance."

Thomas Fuentes, Special Agent in Charge of Overseas Operations for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, manages 75 offices around the world. The newest of these opened in Cambodia in March.

Fuentes said in a recent interview that so far the cooperation with Cambodian police has been productive. Fifty police trained with the FBI in the US Embassy last year, even before the new office opened in the capital. Although Fuentes won't give details, he said agencies from the two countries have ongoing investigations into a self-described anti-Hun Sen movement, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, and the agencies have thwarted active terror plots.

So far, however, there is little evidence the FBI is entering a critical relationship with the Cambodian police.

"As a matter of course, we expect that we're going to have a relationship with a professional, honest, law-abiding police agency, and to date our relationship with the Cambodian National Police has been at the highest level of professionalism," Fuentes said.

It's that kind of rosy view that rights workers like Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, are warning against.

"There is absolutely nothing professional about the Cambodian police," Adams said. "I mean, they are headed by a man who has been involved in extrajudicial executions, drug trafficking, human trafficking. His chief deputies are people who have well-documented records of the very same thing. That's an appalling statement, to suggest that they've been operating at the highest level of professionalism with the Cambodian police. That's nonsense. And any Cambodian who heard that would be shocked, because the police have a terrible reputation in the country, of being completely corrupt, and abusing people, not protecting them."

Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian researcher at Hong Kong's Asian Human Rights Commission, indicated that in recent years, the FBI's own reputation has been damaged by the US's insistence to detain terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Lately, the FBI, with regard to counterterrorism, has not been known as respecting human rights very well," he said.

Whether the FBI can overcome these concerns, in a country where human rights receive scant attention already, remains to be seen. For now, the office is an open question, a small attaché in the US Embassy, searching for terrorists and criminals, and not, it is hoped, befriending them.