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How the US handled the junta

Recently declassified State Department telegram informs embassy officials about Operation Condor.
Recently declassified State Department telegram informs embassy officials about Operation Condor.
Recently declassified State Department telegram informs embassy officials about Operation Condor.
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By Santiago Del Carril
Herald Staff

Probing the new release of declassified US files pertaining to last military dictatorship reveals fresh details on Operation Condor, regional assassinations and how the Carter administration adjusted Washington’s approach to Argentina

Worries that President Donald Trump would interrupt the United States government’s declassification programme were brushed aside last week after he handed President Mauricio Macri the third tranche of formerly secret files pertaining to Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983) period.

Though the process was already in the works when he took office, in fact the documents represented the largest release since the declassification process was initiated in 2016 by the administration of former US president Barack Obama, with a total 932 documents (3,274 pages) published in full. Some of the pages, however, had been viewed before.

Details about the regional Operation Condor assassination plan (an international coordinated campaign of extermination that targeted leftist political opponents of the military governments in the Southern Cone), top-level US government deliberations over human rights policy, formerly secret reports about clandestine detention centres from military informants and the thousands of inquiries into the disappeared victims were revealed in this latest declassification.

“There are a lot of things that were discovered in this release that reveal different viewpoints and sides of events that we didn’t know before. It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle,” US National Security Archive’s Carlos Osorio told the Herald, “It’s great to see that they have a team in motion that is reviewing all this material.”

Operation Condor

One of the first documents in the US State Department’s declassified files database is a telegram titled “Operation Condor” sent by then-US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s office in August 1976 to various US embassies in South America.

In the telegram a list of instructions are sent to US Embassy personnel setting out how to respond to “government-planned and directed assassinations.”

Operation Condor was a secret plan between the dictatorships of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay and Brazil, through which they shared information about political activists, to coordinate kidnappings and assassinations of individuals.

The cable is particularly notable as just two months earlier, Kissinger had told Argentina’s then-foreign minister, Navy admiral César Augusto Guzzetti in a confidential meeting in Santiago, Chile, that: “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them

quickly,”

Through the aforementioned telegram, however, the Secretary of State’s Office was making US Embassy personnel aware of the plan, telling them to “face square and rapidly” Operation Condor’s implications.

The list of orders are country-specific, with US government personnel in Argentina recommended to immediately contact top-level government officials to voice their concern when certain incidents occurred — though they were told bluntly not to get involved.

“You should of course be certain that no agency of the US government is involved in any way in exchanging information or data on individual subversives with host government. It is essential that we in no way finger individuals who might be candidates for assassination attempts,” concludes the telegram signed by Kissinger.

Another US State Department cable sent a year later, in March 1977, explains how Argentina, Uruguay and Chile’s security services had discussed assassination operations abroad and were known to have followed through on planned kidnappings and assassinations in Western Europe, though Brazilian, Bolivian and Paraguayan security forces had not participated in this part of the operation. This information is based on a declassified report from the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). The document also states how Operation Condor had initially planned to set up satellite offices in countries outside their own,but the US believed they had backtracked on that decision. It mentions too that a training course had taken place in Buenos Aires, yet suggests that the members of Operation Condor had started to look at non-violent activities.

“At a meeting of Condor in December 1976 the principal subject of discussion was the planning of coordinated psychological warfare operations against leftist and radical groups,” states the cable.

The CIA reports that the members would hold another meeting — the location or time is blotted out — which would define the future of the operation.

Agencies in the United States were also informed about some of the plan’s high-profile victims who had been seized and where they had been taken.

For example, in the new release there is a 1978 US Embassy cable about the alleged leader of the Montoneros urban guerrilla group, Oscar Rubén De Gregorio, who was arrested by Uruguayan authorities and then transferred to the ESMA Navy Mechanics School clandestine detention centre where thousands of people were tortured, executed and subsequently killed.

The document, which explains how Gregorio was arrested when trying to sneak into Uruguay under a false name, and states that he allegedly had several grenades and a .38 revolver in his posession. “After interrogation by GOU (Uruguayan) authorities at the Fusileros Navales facility in Montevideo, De Gregorio was quietly turned over to the Argentine authorities in keeping with the close cooperation between GOU and GOA (Argentine) security forces,” states the file.

De Gregorio remains missing to this day.

Conflicts

Although the CIA’s close connections with sources involved with the military dictatorship and in state terrorism provided valuable information to the US government, it started to create a dilemma for the pro-human rights administration of US president Jimmy Carter. The controversy is highlighted in a 1977 Memorandum with the subject: “CIA liaison relationships with foreign security or intelligence services reviewing the possible conflicts between the democratic administration’s human rights and terrorism objectives.”

The memo called for an evaluation of the agency’s role in possible human rights violations, and suggested the US government consider whether it could be connected to the security/intelligence services in Argentina which were then considered the worst human rights violaters in the Western hemisphere.

“Against these concerns we must attempt to balance the possibly critical importance of liaison as a source of information on terrorist actions directed against US citizens,” states the report.

It proposes initiating a series of evaluations, semi-annual reports and reviews on CIA’s liaisons to prevent the US from being linked to human rights violations.

US strategy

The declassified files also offers an inside view of the deliberations that were continually ongoing between the top-level US government policy-makers over how far to push the military junta on human rights.

In a 1977 memorandum, the National Security Council’s Latin America expert Robert Pastor advises then-national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinki to implement a diverse treatment method in dealing with the different Latin America governments.

Pastor suggests three different approaches. If it is a civilian regime then warm relations should be maintained, if it is a non-repressive military regime they should maintain normal relations and if dealing with a repressive military regime, they should have “cool and collect relations.” It is this last policy that the Carter administration finally decided on using when dealing with Argentina, in an attempt to pressure the military junta.

Such an approach can be seen in the September 5, 1978 transcript of a meeting between Argentine dictator Jorge Videla and then-US vice-president Walter Mondale.

In this meeting, the two heads of state reach an agreement for the visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to Argentina, in exchange for the multimillion-dollar loan to build the Yacretá hydroelectric dam.

Mondale repeatedly presses Videla over the IACHR visit. The leader of the junta repeatedly gives excuses but finally, he grudgingly accepts Mondale’s terms.

“Mr. vice-president, US-Argentine relations proceed in multiple channels — economic, political, cultural. Now our relations are focused soley on human rights. We can understand this problem if it is addressed in the broader specrum of our overall relations and is not a single focus,” Videla complains to the US vice-president after making the concession.

The 1979 IACHR visit to Argentina is considered by many historians to have been one of the main factors that pressured the dictatorship to stop committing human rights violations, a potential turning-point that undoubtedly saved lives.

Human rights report

dispute

As the human rights situation started to improve in Argentina, it started to create friction between two different bureaus in the US State Department over what to put in the Carter’s administration’s first report on Argentina.

In a memorandum dated January 22, 1980, addressing the upcoming “Human Rights Report for Argentina,” there is a debate between the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (HA), led by Patricia Derian, and the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs (ARA), who had jointly put together the draft of the report.

The Humanitarian Affairs Bureau wanted to add more details of the human rights abuses and to strongly condemn them in the report’s introduction. On the other hand the Inter-American Affairs Bureau believed such an approach was provocative and sought to cut out the reference to torture methods used, arguing that it is detrimental to point this out when the human rights situation is improving in Argentina.

“HA believes that ARA’s revision tends to give the unintended impression that the Argentina Junta’s repressive activities, at least to some extent, are justified ànd we should not make an exception with Argentina, or appear willing to negotiate human rights principles with other objectives,” states the HA in the memorandum.

Presented with both sides of the argument, then-US secretary of state Cyrus Vance finally decides to go with the Humanitarian Affairs version.

More to come

Although the third tranche of declassified documents from the US government has many new pieces of information, more is expected from the next batch of files that is due to be released toward the end of 2017.

The focus of this current release was on documents concerning high-level policymaking and strategy toward the Junta, but it is hoped that more details about the inner-workings of the military dictatorship and its relationship with the United States’ security and intelligences forces will be declassified in the next one. It will be the final and largest release of declassified files to date.

“We are anticipating much more information that will include records of the 14 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the FBI and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA),” Osorio, the National Security Archive analyst, told the Herald.

 

@delcarril
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