NEW YORK — U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright indicated recently in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that the United States would release files with information about the Chilean and Argentine military dictatorships as a contribution to the investigations on illegal repression in both countries. Despite Albright’s promise, however, the CIA is still withholding important information because, according to Director George Tenet, its release would violate his responsibility to protect secret intelligence methods. However, nothing less than a total declassification of documents related to that period will permit closure on the dramatic episodes that took place during the military dictatorships in both countries.

Tenet’s decision goes against U.S. President Bill Clinton’s orders to federal agencies to release information, particularly that related to Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s rule of terror, following the former dictator’s detention in London in 1998. Since Pinochet’s return to Chile, a struggle has been taking place within the U.S. government that could seriously undermine the intention of Clinton’s directive. The CIA’s reluctance to release all documents has harmed the credibility of the declassification process. Although far fewer documents probably exist on Argentina than on Chile, it is believed that the CIA had a sizable operation in the former country.

Declassification of documents related to Chile may strengthen the possibility of indicting Pinochet in the U.S. for conspiracy to commit murder. Such an indictment is related to the 1976 car bombing in Washington, D.C. that killed Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean diplomat and opposition leader, as well as Ronnie Moffit, an American who was Letelier’s assistant.

Declassification of documents may also help the U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to pursue the investigation of Letelier’s assassination, which it considers a state-sponsored act of terrorism on U.S. soil. The department reopened its investigation on this issue, code-named CHILBOM, after Pinochet was arrested in Britain almost two years ago. The department should also respond to a request from the Chilean government to extradite Armando Fernandez Larios, now living in Miami, who was a former major in the Chilean military. Larios is accused of serious human-rights abuses and has been implicated in the assassination of Letelier in Washington and of Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife in Argentina.

The release of files on Argentina is also important to help in the investigations of human-rights abuses during the last military dictatorship in that country. During her stay in Argentina, Albright met with the leaders of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group of courageous women who are searching for their “disappeared” grandchildren. They asked her to help them in their efforts.

In several instances, the Grandmothers documented how the military stole the babies of political opponents and turned them over to childless military couples for illegal adoption. The Grandmothers estimate that several hundred babies were taken away from political prisoners. Out of 200 well-documented cases of disappeared children and women who were pregnant at the time they were were arrested, the Grandmothers have already found 68 children. Talking to them in Buenos Aires, Albright said, “For humanitarian reasons — remember that I am both a mother and a grandmother — I understand your position and I want to help you with this problem.”

The Grandmothers believe that the U.S. has information about Operation Condor, a code name for the collection and exchange of information concerning leftists in South American countries under military rule. Operation Condor also provided for joint operations — including assassination — against political opponents in member countries such as Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil. It is possible that Operation Condor facilitated the sending of abducted children to neighboring countries, which may explain why children who had disappeared in Argentina were later found in Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay.

New information could also help reveal the fate of some of the estimated 30,000 people who disappeared in Argentina during that country’s so-called Dirty War. When I spoke to the Grandmothers in Buenos Aires, they told me, “In spite of our successes with the children we’ve already found, we don’t fool ourselves. We realize that the cases we have solved so far are the easy ones. The hardest ones are the ones yet to be solved. But we won’t rest until we find all our grandchildren.”

For the thousands of people in their situation, a total declassification of information related to the violent past of both Chile and Argentina could help provide a just closure to their ordeal.

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