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."