Back Channels: The US Intelligence Community and Chile

17 August 2000
Article

CIA Director George J. Tenet has fired back at critics inside and outside government who are angry that he has decided to withhold hundreds of documents relating to CIA covert operations in Chile.

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Washington Post

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

CIA Director George J. Tenet has fired back at critics inside and outside government who are angry that he has decided to withhold hundreds of documents relating to CIA covert operations in Chile. In a letter to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress, Tenet said he was withholding the information to protect intelligence-gathering methods. He noted that more than 700 other documents the CIA will release "fully" meet President Clinton's directive for a broad release of information relating to human rights abuses and political violence in Chile from 1968 to 1991. "We have devoted several thousand hours over a nine-month period to this endeavor," Tenet wrote. "The review was thorough, intensive and dedicated to the release of as much relevant information as possible consistent with my statutory obligation to protect sources and methods."

Peter Kornbluh, director of the nonprofit National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project, criticized Tenet last week for withholding papers on CIA covert operations in Chile that had been reviewed, redacted and compiled for release Sept. 14. Kornbluh's criticism was echoed by Pelosi, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Tenet said he has approved for release thousands of pages of records related to the activities of right-wing and paramilitary groups, "including information pertaining to the groups' kidnapping efforts, plans to mount economic sabotage and reports that suggest the groups' involvement in a number of assassination attempts." Those documents, Tenet said, include reports on the assassination of Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his American associate Ronni Moffitt by Chilean intelligence operatives on Washington's Embassy Row in 1976. Tenet said he has also approved for release several hundred documents pertaining to the CIA's "major covert action undertaken in Chile in 1970" aimed at keeping socialist Salvador Allende from winning the presidential election and assuming power.

But Tenet said he was withholding, based on an assessment from the CIA's secretive Directorate of Operations, hundreds of other documents related to later covert activities. They include operations aimed at supporting a Chilean military establishment intent on overthrowing Allende, who died in a 1973 coup staged by officers loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet, recently stripped of his immunity by the Chilean courts, could be tried for murder and other human rights violations during his 18-year reign. Tenet said he decided to withhold the later covert action documents "solely because... these materials present a pattern of activity that had the effect of revealing intelligence methods that have been employed worldwide... I want to reemphasize that we are in no way trying to withhold information embarrassing to the United States government." Tenet also wrote that he has agreed to allow the documents being withheld to be reviewed "one more time" by an interagency committee with CIA, State Department and National Security Council representation. This would "ensure that there is not some subset of these documents that may be released without doing harm to intelligence sources and methods," he wrote.

Kornbluh remained unpersuaded. "These documents [being withheld] are essentially the Pentagon Papers of a covert war," he said. "They have extraordinary historic significance. It is a dangerous day when the Directorate of Operations is able to appoint itself chief archivist of the United States."

Thomas Blanton, the archives' executive director, said he was amazed that Tenet acknowledged in his letter that he had pulled back hundreds of documents that had been readied for release by the CIA's own declassification experts. "What's happening here is a high-level intervention by the Directorate of Operations upheld by Tenet to reverse the agency's mid-level reviewers," Blanton said, adding: "the Directorate of Operations has spent the last five years reversing all the openness gains that have taken place since the end of the Cold War."

Another Angry Archivist: Kornbluh and Blanton aren't the only ones upset about Tenet's decision. John W. Carlin, archivist of the United States, complained in a July 31 letter to national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger that Tenet's last-minute decision to withhold documents could "fundamentally undermine the overall integrity of the [declassification] project and will result in a significantly incomplete public record of these important historical events, particularly from the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations." Carlin reminded Berger that the CIA, early on in the Chile declassification initiative, had pledged to review and broadly declassify "all covert action operational files." This followed complaints by both the National Archives and the National Security Archives that the agency was acting as though its covert action files were exempt from the process.

Copyright 2000 Washington Post