In an apparent violation of U.S. policy, Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar were asked by a U.S. Embassy official in Bolivia "to basically spy" on Cubans and Venezuelans in the country, according to Peace Corps personnel and the Fulbright scholar involved.
"I was told to provide the names, addresses and activities of any Venezuelan or Cuban doctors or field workers I come across during my time here," Fulbright scholar John Alexander van Schaick told ABCNews.com in an interview in La Paz.
Van Schaick's account matches that of Peace Corps members and staff who claim that last July their entire group of new volunteers was instructed by the same U.S. Embassy official in Bolivia to report on Cuban and Venezuelan nationals.
The State Department says any such request was "in error" and a violation of long-standing U.S. policy which prohibits the use of Peace Corps personnel or Fulbright scholars for intelligence purposes.
"We take this very seriously and want to stress this is not in any way our policy," a senior State Department official told ABCNews.com.
The Fulbright scholar van Schaick, a 2006 Rutgers University graduate, says the request came at a mandatory orientation and security briefing meeting with Assistant Regional Security Officer Vincent Cooper at the embassy on the morning of Nov. 5, 2007.
According to van Schaick, the request for information gathering "surfaced casually" halfway through Cooper's 30-minute, one-on-one briefing, which initially dealt with helpful tips about life and security concerns in Bolivia.
"He said, 'We know the Venezuelans and Cubans are here, and we want to keep tabs on them,'" said van Schaick who recalls feeling "appalled" at the comment.
"I was in shock," van Schaick said. "My immediate thought was 'oh my God! Somebody from the U.S. Embassy just asked me to basically spy for the U.S. Embassy.'"
A similar pattern emerges in the account of the three Peace Corps volunteers and their supervisor. On July 29, 2007, just before the new volunteers were sworn in, they say embassy security officer Vincent Cooper visited the 30-person group to give a talk on safety and made his request about the Cubans and Venezuelans.
"He said it had to do with the fight against terrorism," said one, of the briefing from the embassy official. Others remember being told, "It's for your own safety."
Peace Corps Deputy Director Doreen Salazar remembers the incident vividly because she says it was the first time she had heard an embassy official make such a request to a Peace Corps group.
Salazar says she and her fellow staff found the comment so out of line that they interrupted the briefing to clarify that volunteers did not have to follow the embassy's instructions, and she later complained directly to the embassy about the incident.
"Peace Corps is an a-political institution," Salazar says. "We made it clear to the embassy that this was an inappropriate request, and they agreed."
Indeed, the State Department admits having acknowledged the infraction and assuring Salazar that it would not happen again. Yet, it was just four months later that Fulbright scholar van Schaick says he was asked by the same embassy official, Cooper, to "spy" on the Cubans and Venezuelans.
A U.S. Embassy official in La Paz, Bolivia said Cooper was referring all calls for comment to the State Department in Washington.