U.N. official says Pentagon, CIA curb access to data on Salvador atrocities

November 07, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon and the CIA are restricting access to people and documents that shed light on past atrocities in El Salvador, the U.S. member of a United Nations investigative team has charged.

Thomas Buergenthal, a U.S. law professor and member of the U.N.-appointed Truth Commission on El Salvador, said this week that U.S. stonewalling could undermine efforts to draft an objective account of the 12-year civil war.

Under a peace agreement the Salvadoran government and leftist rebels signed at the United Nations in January, Mr. Buergenthal and two prominent Latin American diplomats were assigned the task of probing "serious acts of violence that have occurred since 1980, and whose impact on society urgently demands that the public should know the truth."

Mr. Buergenthal, a professor at George Washington University in Washington and former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, has a security clearance and vows not to compromise U.S. intelligence sources. A survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, he was accepted by both sides in El Salvador's conflict to help put the war behind them.

"For the American member of the commission not to be able to speak with American military officers off the record is outrageous, to say the least," Mr. Buergenthal said.

The Bush administration, which pressed hard for the peace accord, pledged to cooperate with the commission, and Congress appropriated $1 million to help finance it.

From 1980 to 1992, Washington sent $1 billion in military aid to El Salvador to fight the rebels, trained thousands of officers and soldiers, and at times had at least 100 military and intelligence advisers in the country.

CIA spokesman Peter Earnest attributed delays to the pace of government bureaucracy.

"We have the request under review, and we will respond in as timely a fashion as possible," Mr. Earnest said.

Timing is critical, because the Truth Commission's six-month mandate ends in mid-January, when it must present its report.

Mr. Buergenthal, expressing public criticism for the first time, said access to U.S. documents and personnel is crucial to understanding atrocities in a war that killed nearly 75,000 people.

Among the documents: a 1981 Pentagon study known as the Woerner report that assessed Salvadoran military capability and strategy and a CIA study on death squads and rightist paramilitary groups prepared in the mid-1980s for congressional intelligence committees.

A congressional staffer, who has long tracked U.S. policy toward El Salvador, said the death squad report is probably the "most useful document" the federal government has on the genesis and activities of the dreaded hit teams.

The Pentagon also has refused to provide names and addresses of U.S. military personnel stationed in El Salvador during the war, Mr. Buergenthal said, and refused to let him meet with several U.S. officers. The officers would respond only to written questions, Mr. Buergenthal was told.

The Defense Department would not comment.

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