U.S. major reportedly unmoved by priests' slayings

July 05, 1991|By Christopher Marquis | Christopher Marquis,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Army major who is the primary witness in the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador told the FBI that he felt little remorse for the slain clerics, a transcript of his interrogation shows.

Maj. Eric Buckland, a military adviser in El Salvador when the priests were killed, said he felt an intense loyalty to the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government and viewed the slain priests as guerrilla collaborators.

The U.S. government has kept the contents of Major Buckland's questioning on Jan. 12, 1990, largely secret, refusing to share it with congressional investigators and journalists because, diplomats in El Salvador said, its contents would humiliate Major Buckland.

But critics, including one who has viewed the actual videotape, say Major Buckland's remarks may be even more troubling for U.S. policy-makers because it calls into question Bush administration insistence that a decade of U.S. involvement in El Salvador has made great strides in eliminating human rights abuses by the military.

The critics say that Major Buckland's testimony reflects a degree of tolerance toward military abuses and an overly close identification with a military that, while an ally, is a foreign force.

At one point, Major Buckland told FBI agents in Washington that he hesitated to tell his superiors when he learned that a high-ranking Salvadoran officer ordered the murders because he feared the reaction of the U.S. government.

"I guess I was really trying to protect El Salvador. . . . I didn't trust the American government. I thought they'd pull the rug out from under the country," Major Buckland said, according to a transcript.

The U.S. Congress reacted decisively to the murders, which came during an intense guerrilla offensive. Congress froze half of an $85 million military aid package, with full delivery depending on the successful prosecution of the priests' killers.

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