Lifting the veil of secrecy

October 16, 1997|By Kate Martin

IT IS A long-held tenet of the intelligence community that secrecy is necessary to U.S. national security. But in the post-Cold War world when U.S. foreign policy is focused on building democracy and respect for human rights, the opposite is now true: Openness and declassification best serve U.S. foreign policy interests.

The Clinton administration, unlike any of its predecessors, has recognized this fact. During his first year in office, President Clinton ordered the declassification of thousands of State Department and CIA documents for the truth commission in El Salvador.

In 1996, the president authorized an unprecedented public critique by his Intelligence Oversight Board of recent U.S. intelligence activities in Guatemala and the declassification of sensitive intelligence information about human rights abuses against Americans and their families.

As Mr. Clinton said: "Backing for regional efforts to protect human rights and democracy is at the core of U.S. policy towards Central America.'' Accordingly, he explained, ''Conducting expedited declassification reviews of U.S. documents bearing on past human rights violations'' supports ''regional efforts to balance justice and national reconciliation.''


However, still suffering from the Cold War pathology of secrecy, afraid of their own past, and in disregard of the president's foreign policy objectives, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon remain loath to implement this new use of intelligence documentation.

There is growing evidence that the intelligence agencies are resisting disclosure in order to hide their own failures and abuses.

Take the case of Honduras. The human rights commissioner, Dr. Leo Valladares, has been seeking U.S. documents since 1993. Despite numerous White House promises of cooperation as well as congressional demands, the CIA and Pentagon have repeatedly postponed declassifying the requested information.

When the CIA finally made a partial release Aug. 29, the documents were heavily censored; the CIA used Cold War declassification standards, giving no weight to the foreign policy benefits of disclosure. The documents are virtually useless to the Hondurans.

The little that was declassified confirms what has long been suspected: The CIA was closely involved with Honduran military officers engaged in illegal kidnapping and torture.

A 1988 report outlines the chilling tale of the CIA's sending an agent from Washington to assist Honduran military intelligence in the ''interrogation'' of a woman being secretly held without charges and nearly drowned in a barrel of water.

While this crime and others prompted a recently completed Inspector General's report on the activities of a Honduran military death squad with CIA ties known as Battalion 316, the report remains completely classified.

In response to this stone-walling, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Reps. John E. Porter (R-Ill.) and Tom Lantos (D-Cal.), and others recently introduced the ''Human Rights Information Act.''

The bill would require the U.S. government to declassify documents regarding human rights abuses more rapidly when authorities charged with investigating abuses in Latin American countries request them. It calls for a substantive and timely U.S. response to the current requests by the human rights commissioner in Honduras and the United Nations-sponsored Clarification Commission in Guatemala.

''This will send a very powerful signal of support for efforts to strengthen democracy and the rule of law throughout the hemisphere,'' said Senator Dodd, introducing the bill last month. ''It will also greatly assist Latin Americans who are currently bravely working to shed light upon a dark period of their recent pasts."

If the president is serious about supporting these efforts, he must ensure that legitimate concern for protecting intelligence sources and methods does not translate into de facto immunity for torturers and murderers.

The identities and activities of torturers abroad can be disclosed without acknowledging any formal relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies. The CIA did just that when it released intelligence reports about abuses by Guatemalan Col. Julio Alpirez, without ever confirming that he had in fact worked for the CIA.

Rule of law

While release of U.S. records will provide valuable information about individual cases and systemic problems, perhaps its most important message will be respect for the rule of law. It would be unthinkable in most countries of the world that secret intelligence agencies could be ordered to and would, in fact, declassify intelligence reports implicating their agents and colleagues in past crimes.

Declassification would show that even secret intelligence agencies must and do operate within the law. It would do more than simply preach accountability to Latin Americans; the United States itself would provide a real example of what it means to hold government accountable without flinching from painful truths.

In its 1996 report recounting abuses by the CIA, the president's Intelligence Oversight Board said the CIA's operations in Guatemala were intended to support U.S. policy furthering the transition to ''civilian democratic government'' and ''encouraging respect for human rights and the rule of law.''

Now, declassifying intelligence information on human rights abuses can finally do just that -- in Guatemala and elsewhere.

Kate Martin is the director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington.

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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