US Will Release Files on Crimes Under Pinochet

02 December 1998

Treading into a political and diplomatic confrontation it tried to avoid, the US has decided to declassify some secret government documents on the killing and torture conducted by the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.

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TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Treading into a political and diplomatic confrontation it tried to avoid, the United States decided on Tuesday to declassify some secret government documents on the killing and torture conducted by the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, whose predecessor was the target of American coup plots. Pinochet took power in a 1973 coup against President Salvador Allende, who had been the target of American plots. The decision to release such documents is the first sign that the United States will cooperate in the case against Pinochet. Clinton administration officials said they believed the benefits of openness in human rights cases outweighed the risks to national security in this case. But the decision could open 'a can of worms', in the words of a former CIA official stationed in Chile, exposing the depth of the knowledge that the United States had about the crimes of the Pinochet government. The CIA worked closely with Chile's secret police in the 1970s, at the time of the Pinochet regime's worst human-rights abuses, which included more than 3,000 killings.

Pinochet, 83 years old and a senator for life in Chile, ruled from 1973 to 1990. He stepped down as commander in chief of the Chilean armed forces earlier this year. He was arrested in London on a Spanish court's warrant in October. The court wants to try him for human rights abuses in the deaths of Spanish and other citizens. Last week, Britain's highest court denied him the immunity he had claimed as a former head of state. The case has stirred uneasiness in American diplomatic and intelligence circles. While some European government officials have supported bringing the former dictator to court, US officials have largely stayed silent, reflecting skepticism about the Spanish court's power, doubts about international tribunals aimed at former foreign rulers, and worries over the implications for American leaders who might someday also be accused in foreign countries. President Richard Nixon and Henry

Kissinger, who served as his national security adviser and secretary of state, supported a right-wing coup in Chile in the early 1970s, previously declassified documents show. But many of the actions of the United States during the 1973 coup, and much of what American leaders and intelligence services did in liaison with the Pinochet government after it seized power, remain under the seal of national security.

The secret files on the Pinochet regime are held by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the National Archives, the presidential libraries of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and other government agencies. According to Justice Department records, these files contain a history of human rights abuses and international terrorism:

  • In 1975, State Department diplomats in Chile protested the Pinochet regime's record of killing and torture, filing dissents to American foreign policy with their superiors in Washington.
  • The CIA has files on assassinations by the regime and the Chilean secret police. The intelligence agency also has records on Chile's attempts to establish an international right-wing covert-action squad.
  • The Ford library contains many of Kissinger's secret files on Chile, which never have been made public. Through a secretary, Kissinger declined a request for an interview on Tuesday.

The Spanish court asked the Justice Department to review and release the documents under a legal assistance treaty between the United States and Spain. The treaty gives the United States broad discretion to produce or withhold classified documents from the court, but Clinton administration officials said they believed the benefits of openness in human rights cases outweighed the risks to national security in this case.

'It's a start', said Reed Brody, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in New York. 'The proof will be what documents we finally get, how useful they are, and how long it takes to get them'. He added: 'This should not be a pretext for not having a policy on the need to bring to Pinochet to justice for the thousands of murders and disappearances committed during his rule. The United States' silence on that question is being interpreted all over the world as passive support for impunity'. US citizens were killed by Pinochet's forces - among them Ronni Moffitt, a 25-year-old researcher blown up by a car bomb a mile from the White House in 1976, along with a former Chilean foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, and Charles Horman, a 31-year-old film maker, writer and human-rights activist murdered during the 1973 coup. But Washington has been officially silent on the question of bringing the former dictator to justice for those crimes, publicly deferring to the Spanish, British and Chilean courts.

Senior US officials, speaking on the condition that they would not be quoted directly or by name, said that they had deep concerns about the idea that a Spanish judge could reach across international borders and try a former foreign leader. They said the United States had opposed the idea of a permanent international tribunal for crimes against humanity for the same reasons that officials are queasy about the Pinochet case. They said they feared that US officials might be accused by foreign judges looking into the deaths of citizens in nations where American policy has had violent consequences.

France, Switzerland and Belgium have joined Spain in seeking Pinochet's extradition for crimes committed against their citizens. But no senior US official has addressed Pinochet's role as a dictatorial leader who shared some goals and some enemies with Washington when he took power 25 years ago.

'We believe in accountability and we are heartened by calls for accountability in Chile', said the State Department spokesman, James Rubin. 'We also believe in Chile's democracy. We're not prepared to say anything publicly beyond that'. The secret files 'may shed light on human rights abuses during the Pinochet era', Rubin said. 'We will declassify and make public as much information as possible consistent with our laws and national security'.

A CIA spokesman echoed the latter remark. Declassifying the documents could take months, as government officials review them page by page, blacking out sensitive information, like the names of spies, before they release them. Some documents may be withheld entirely, and some published only in part.

The role of the United States in trying to stop the 1970 election of Allende, a Marxist, as Chile's president, and to organize a coup against the newly elected president that same year, is well-known. But its role in the 1973 coup that succeeded in deposing the Allende government, and its subsequent support for the Pinochet junta, remains murky. Secret American efforts to overthrow Allende 'never really ended', a chief of CIA covert operations at the time, Thomas Karamessines, later told Senate investigators. But there is little or no documentation of those efforts after 1970, and some former officials say the United States did not play a direct role in the 1973 coup. 'The CIA had nothing to do with that coup', said the former CIA official who served in Chile. 'But it wasn't a complete surprise'.

CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency records on the regime's secret police may help answer a question Horman's and Ms. Moffitt's survivors have been asking for more than 20 years - what the United States knew about the killings of Americans and other victims of the Pinochet regime.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times