By a relatively slight margin, the U.S. Congress has rejected an amendment by Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey to declassify files on Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

The refusal to declassify the files is likely to stymie efforts to determine the fate of hundreds of babies stolen or “disappeared” during those years. Many of those babies were born in clandestine torture centers, while others were adopted, or given away for adoption, by the same members of the military or police personnel responsible for their parents’ disappearance.

It is not altogether clear whose interests the refusal is intended to protect. One can hardly imagine that national security, or the work of U.S. spies fighting al-Qaida as suggested by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican, would be put in jeopardy by not keeping these files secret.

It is not clear whether President Cristina Kirchner’s administration is interested in having these files opened. However, if an official request from the Argentine government were submitted, the U.S. government would be hard-pressed, as a matter of international comity, not to reveal at least redacted text of the files.

Aside from governmental interests and politicians’ desires to keep secrets, what is at stake are human lives, victims and the administration of justice.

In 1999, during the Clinton administration, Rep. Hinchey presented a similar amendment to declassify documents related to General Augusto Pinochet’s administration in Chile. Declassification resulted in the publication of 24,000 documents, some of which proved to be crucial in prosecuting crimes committed during the Chilean dictatorship. It provided clear evidence of Pinochet’s connections to the 1976 assassination, in Washington, D.C., of Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his secretary Ronni Karpen Moffitt.

Also disclosed were the plans of Pinochet’s secret police to assassinate former Chilean President Patricio Aylwin, the presidential candidate of the coalition, who ultimately defeated General Pinochet in 1988.

In December 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order titled “Classified National Security Information”, stating: “I expect that the order will produce measurable progress toward greater openness and transparency in the government’s classification and declassification programs while protecting the government’s legitimate interests, and I will closely monitor the results.”

Failure to disclose information on Argentina’s brutal reign of terror cannot be in the interest of the U.S. Government and, to the extent that it may in the interest of some members of the Argentine government, it is unlikely that those interests may qualify as “legitimate.”

Both the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have been searching for decades for their disappeared children and grandchildren.

This decision by the U.S. Congress not to open the files only adds to their difficulties in finding their loved ones.

As Rep. Hinchey stated, “The United States can play a vital role in lifting the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the terrible human rights abuses of the despotic military regime that ruled Argentina.”

It is about time.

Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for “Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims,” which was a cover story for The New York Times Magazine. Alejandro M. Garro teaches comparative law at Columbia Law School and sits on the advisory boards for Human Rights Watch/Americas, the Center for Justice and International Law, and the Due Process of Law Foundation.

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