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.
Van Schaick says he never considered complying with the request, fearful he would violate Bolivian espionage laws and that he would jeopardize the integrity of the Fulbright program, which yearly sends hundreds of American college graduates to countries around the world.
"I am supposed to be a cultural ambassador increasing mutual understanding between us and the Bolivian people," van Schaick explains. "This flies in face of everything Fulbright stands for."
The Fulbright program receives its funding from the U.S. State Department and the Peace Corps is a federal agency, but the State Department insists that neither group has the obligation to act in an intelligence capacity. In fact, both have strict regulations against members getting involved in politics in their host country.
The press director at the Peace Corps told ABC News in no uncertain terms that the corps is not involved in any intelligence gathering.
"Since Peace Corps' inception in 1961, it has been the practice of the Peace Corps to keep volunteers separate from any official duties pertaining to U.S. foreign policy, including the reality or the appearance of involvement in intelligence-related activities," said Amanda Beck, press director of the Peace Corps. "Any connection between the Peace Corps and the intelligence community would seriously compromise the ability of the Peace Corps to develop and maintain the trust and confidence of the people in the host countries we serve." Read the Peace Corps' full statement.
Like many of the Peace Corps workers, van Schaick is carrying out his research in the Santa Cruz countryside, where a number of Cuban doctors are deployed providing free medical services as part of Cuba's solidarity with its socialist ally, Bolivia's President Evo Morales.
The accusations are likely to reverberate in Bolivia, especially given the already shaky relationship between the Bush administration and President Morales' two-year-old government.
"These are serious incidents that we will investigate thoroughly," says Bolivia's Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca in an interview.
"Any U.S. government use of their students or volunteers to provide intelligence represents a grave threat to Bolivia's sovereignty."
Bolivian law provides severe penalties in espionage cases. According to Article 111 of the country's penal code, "he who procures secretive documents, objects or information…concerning [Bolivia's] foreign relations in an espionage effort for other countries during times of peace, endangering the security of the State, will incur a penalty of 30 years in prison." In lay man's terms: if any U.S. citizen provides information of use in a spying effort, they would be subject to Bolivia's maximum prison sentence.
But the U.S. citizens who reported being approached in this way by the State Department official said no mention was made of any legal risks arising from complying with the request to keep tabs on foreign nationals in Bolivia.
There is no indication that any of the volunteers made reports to the U.S. Embassy.
Van Schaick says he is keenly aware of the Pandora's box now knocked open. The Hoboken, N.J. native, however, was adamant that the incident be brought to light -- in the hopes for change. "I came forward because the Bolivian people have a right to know," former union activist van Schaick says. "Asking Fulbrighters to spy is just not OK."
Three of the other four Fulbright scholars currently in Bolivia say they were never asked about Cubans or Venezuelans in their briefings. A fourth Fulbright scholar declined repeated requests for an interview on the subject.
Editor's Note: Jean Friedman-Rudovksy is a freelance journalist based in La Paz, Bolivia where she is the correspondent for TIME Magazine and Women's Enews. She has worked as an associate producer for ABC News in Bolivia and is a founding editor of Ukhampacha Bolivia, an online bilingual Web journal on Latin American social and political issues.