The Case for Full Disclosure of CIA Activities in Chile
Covert US operations in Chile to instigate the coup in 1970 and aimed at undermining Allende were all explicitly approved by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
A quarter century ago, the Church committee on intelligence activities reported that it found no evidence that the CIA was directly involved in a 1973 coup in Chile that toppled socialist President Salvadore Allende and brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power. But the committee posed a question "inherent in US covert activities" in Chile: Did the CIA's explicit support for an earlier coup in 1970, coupled with persistent operations aimed at undermining Allende, encourage Chile's military to overthrow his government?
The CIA made its first public response earlier this month in a report to Congress on "CIA Activities in Chile," conceding that the agency's "ongoing intelligence collection relationships with some plotters... probably appeared to condone" the coup. The 21-page document, produced by the National Intelligence Council in close concert with the CIA's Directorate of Operations, is a remarkable piece of self-examination, for the way in which it both exonerates the CIA from involvement in the military's excesses and includes a wealth of new information that suggests a far more complex reality. Take the report's disclosure that the CIA made a one-time cash payment to notorious Chilean intelligence chief Manuel Contreras, by far its most sensational revelation. The CIA's relationship with Contreras from 1974 to 1977 existed for intelligence liaison purposes but was not "cordial and smooth," according to the report, with CIA officials warning him "from the start" that it would not support any activities on his part that "might be construed as 'internal political repression.'" By December 1974, "the CIA concluded that Contreras was not going to improve his human rights performance." But by May and June 1975, "elements within the CIA recommended establishing a paid relationship with Contreras to obtain intelligence based on his unique position and access to Pinochet." This recommendation was overruled by headquarters. Yet a one-time cash payment went to Contreras – to end the relationship, senior intelligence officials explained. It is, from all that, hard to know precisely what to make of the relationship.
To all three questions posed last year in language Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) inserted into the Intelligence Authorization Act, the CIA clearly makes an effort to come clean. With respect to its involvement in "the accession of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to the Presidency of the Republic of Chile," the CIA responded it "actively supported the military Junta after the overthrow of Allende but did not assist Pinochet to assume the Presidency. In fact, many CIA officers shared broader US reservations about Pinochet's single-minded pursuit of power." As for involvement in human rights abuses committed by the Chilean military, the CIA said none of its own officers were involved in any way but admitted some of its Chilean sources, or agents, were "involved in systematic and widespread human rights abuses following Allende's ouster." Under today's much stricter reporting standards, the report concluded, many of those agents "would have been dropped." Finally, to Congress's question about CIA activities with respect to Allende's assassination in the 1973 coup, the agency demurred. "Allende's death occurred after the President refused an offer from the military to take him and his family out of the country," the report states. "Available evidence indicates that President Allende committed suicide as putchist troops entered his offices."
Indeed, the CIA makes a convincing case – as the Church committee did 25 years ago – that it was hardly a rogue elephant in Chile. The coup it sought to instigate in 1970, and the covert operations aimed at undermining Allende, the report states, were all explicitly approved by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security advisor, both of whom feared "the emergence of 'another Cuba' in the Western Hemisphere." "These Cold War attitudes persisted into the Pinochet era," the report states in a section entitled, "Historical Context". It continues: "After Pinochet came to power, senior policymakers appeared reluctant to criticize human rights violations, taking to task US diplomats urging greater attention to the problem. US military assistance and sales grew significantly during the years of greatest human rights abuses. According to a previously released Memorandum of Conversation, Kissinger in June 1976 indicated to Pinochet that the US Government was sympathetic to his regime, although Kissinger advised some progress on human rights in order to improve Chile's image in the US Congress."
The CIA clears its own officers from involvement in human rights abuses: "A review of CIA's files has uncovered no evidence that CIA officers and employees were engaged in human rights abuses or in covering up any human rights abuses in Chile". Those same files, however, contained ample evidence that the CIA knew that many of its military sources were "actively engaged in committing and covering up serious human rights abuses". Many of these contacts would have been dropped, the report acknowledged, if standards established in the mid-1990s had been in place, forcing CIA officials to balance "the nature and severity of the human rights abuses against the potential intelligence value of continuing the relationship."
Such ambiguity seems to make full disclosure more important than ever, now that CIA Director George J. Tenet and White House officials are debating how much internal reporting the CIA should be required to make public next month in the final round of President Clinton's declassification initiative on Chile. Tenet seems genuinely conflicted – and distracted – by the issue. The Directorate of Operations wants him to hold back hundreds of documents on the 1973 coup and succeeding events that had been gathered for release by CIA declassification specialists. DO leaders believe that those documents, taken together, would reveal intelligence methods still in use by CIA operatives around the world. The White House, on the other hand, wants Tenet to release as much as possible, fearing CIA recalcitrance will undermine the credibility of the entire declassification exercise –a t a time when US prosecutors are asking Chile for help in their quest to charge Pinochet for involvement in the 1976 car-bomb assassination of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American colleague, Ronni Moffit, on Washington's embassy row.
I find it hard to understand how full disclosure of 25-year-old CIA documents on Chile – amply redacted, of course, to conceal names of sources and specific methods used – would undermine ongoing agency operations. They would almost surely cause further controversy, fleshing out the gray landscape hinted at in the agency's latest report on Chile to Congress. But the CIA has been plagued, rightly or wrongly, by its own past in Chile long enough. Keeping documents under wraps will only fan the flames for another 30 years.
Copyright 2000 Washington Post