It might have been murder, CIA says American priest possibly killed by Honduran military

Secret papers declassified

Agency acknowledges Jesuit might have been thrown out of copter

March 13, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged for the first time publicly yesterday that an American Catholic priest may have been murdered in 1983 by the Honduran military, which was strongly backed at the time by the United States.

One possibility acknowledged by the CIA yesterday was that the Rev. James Carney may have been thrown from a flying helicopter.

The agency declassified 36 documents yesterday involving the disappearance of Carney, a Jesuit who after years of ministering to Honduras' poor joined the leftist insurgents.

In past communications with Carney's family, the CIA offered only one scenario for his disappearance: the official Honduran government explanation that he had died from severe malnutrition while accompanying a guerrilla incursion into Honduras from neighboring Nicaragua.

Yesterday, however, the CIA said other explanations had turned up in a review of agency documents:

Carney may have been captured and killed by the Honduran military.

This "cannot be ruled out given recent reporting which indicates Honduran military units captured and executed a number of insurgents," according to the agency's summary of its documents.

According to one account, provided by a former sergeant in the Honduran military, Carney may have died after being thrown from a helicopter by members of the Honduran military.

He may have been tortured by the Honduran military and his body dismembered, with pieces buried in various places.

According to a 1995 memo by John Gannon, the agency's deputy director for intelligence, the latter version "is the least credible because it is uncorroborated and is based on second-hand information from a left-wing activist with a particular political agenda."

The Gannon memo went on to state: "Though few in number, there have been some accusations that the Honduran military has dismembered the bodies of insurgents," including a member of the Honduran Communist Party.

"Because of the contradictory, hearsay nature of the reporting over the years, it is impossible to reach a firm judgment about Father Carney's fate," the CIA summary states.

Potentially embarrassing

The possibility that an American citizen may have been killed by the Honduran military is potentially embarrassing to the U. S. government because of the close relationship that prevailed at the time between Honduras and the United States in their joint effort to prevent the spread of Communism in the hemisphere.

The administration of President Ronald Reagan relied heavily on Honduras as a base from which to support the contra rebels seeking to topple the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

The CIA had close ties to the Honduran military and trained a unit called Battalion 316, which kidnapped, tortured and murdered suspected leftists.

The new documents, many of them heavily censored to remove any indication of intelligence- gathering sources or methods, turned up in an internal review of the agency's role in Honduras.

Honduran human rights investigator Leo Valladares asked for CIA documents pertaining to scores of Hondurans believed to have been murdered or tortured by the Honduran military in the 1980s.

But the bulk of the material has not been turned over.

CIA officials say the materials are still being reviewed to determine what risk their release would pose to the agency's sources and methods.

Meanwhile, the internal Honduras review has been turned over to the agency's inspector general, who is not expected to complete work before this summer.

Although there have been allegations that the U.S. military or CIA was involved in Carney's death, a senior agency official said yesterday that the review found "no information to indicate that the CIA was in any way involved in Father Carney's disappearance."

The official spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

The review, begun in 1995, was prompted by a series of articles in The Sun in June of that year that detailed cases of torture and murder by the CIA-trained Battalion 316.

The documents include agency cables, local press accounts, internal memos and a translation of a diary written by Jose Maria Reyes Mata, the leader of the insurgent group that Carney accompanied into Honduras.

The diary described how the group went for days without food.

This presumably supported the original Honduran military version that Carney died in the jungle near the Nicaraguan border after being overcome by starvation.

'Weakened by starvation'

This account, the agency says, "is largely attributed to three guerrillas who defected to the Honduran government and subsequently gave a news conference."

A cable in September 1983 said Carney had "been weakened by starvation to the point where he had been unable to walk for the previous two days."

An early news story on his death, quoting a Honduran military spokesman, noted that Reyes Mata had been killed at about the same time in a military drive against the insurgent group.

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