A while back, President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board accused the CIA station in Guatemala of paying a number of Guatemalan military officers to be informers, even though they were suspected of involvement in political assassinations, including the deaths of at least one American and a Guatemalan rebel married to a U.S. citizen.
This should not have been a surprise to the Oversight Board. If it had known the full story of the CIA's original bloody intervention in Guatemala in 1954, it might have yanked in that CIA station decades ago. Disclosure of the files on 1954 is long overdue. I've been pushing for it for 19 years.
My original reason for requesting the covert records under the Freedom of Information Act was for background research for a book I was writing, along with Stephen Kinzer, titled "Bitter Fruit," on the CIA coup in Guatemala that ousted a democratically elected government and instituted years of brutal CIA-backed military rule. The CIA operational files, we knew, probably would contain the overall blueprint for the secret strike as well as the CIA stratagems that kept the U.S. press and Congress in the dark about the putsch.
Why was this knowledge of U.S. complicity so significant? Because in establishing beyond any official doubt that the U.S. government had unleashed the CIA to depose a freely chosen regime, we wanted to demonstrate that a crime had been committed surreptitiously against the poorest nation in Latin America simply to protect the corporate interests of an American banana firm that dominated the country, the United Fruit Co. The mistake of President Jacobo Arbenz, a social reformer elected on a New Deal-like platform, was to have had the audacity to seize some untilled holdings of United Fruit, under an agrarian reform bill, for redistribution to impoverished Latinos and Indians who made up almost 85 percent of the Guatemalan population.
Even after my book was published, I spent years of effort in a campaign to unlock the secret CIA repositories. My endeavors were hampered and stymied at every turn by the CIA, which appeared determined to keep this information from ever surfacing. From the beginning, the agency stalled at every juncture, mainly on the grounds that it could locate no files. Eventually, I went into federal court, where, after interminable legal wrangling, the agency abruptly admitted that "by accident" one of its officers had discovered 180,000 pages of records on the operation. But, the agency added, it could not release a single page because of "national security" considerations. On March 5, 1984, a federal judge accepted the CIA argument and threw my lawsuit out of court.
Years passed. My hopes were reig\nited briefly in 1993. CIA officials suddenly informed leading U.S. journalists that, in recognition of the post-Cold War spirit of "openness," the agency would release its Guatemalan cache by 1994. Nothing happened, though. Meanwhile, the CIA's notoriety in Guatemala was suddenly making headlines again with the linkage of a Guatemalan military officer who was a CIA operative to the murders of an American innkeeper in 1990 and of a Guatemalan guerrilla married to an American lawyer in 1992. These events renewed pressure for revelations of the CIA's involvement in 1954 to begin to trace back how the CIA's trail in Guatemala began.
I promptly wrote the new director of the CIA, John Deutch, last fall to urge swift action. His director of the Center for the Study of Intelligence, Brian Latell, replied with a vow to produce "significant documentation on the Guatemalan coup" by 1996. Last April, however, CIA officials told major U.S. newspapers that they would release only 20,000 of the 180,000 pages later this year. That raised new questions: Why was the agency now holding back on the other 160,000 pages of files?
The situation today remains muddled. The CIA appears to be up to its old tricks of limiting disclosure and perhaps pushing its release of what are undoubtedly innocuous files even further into the indefinite future. Of course, by then, a new CIA director could be appointed and could cancel the arrangement. Or if President Clinton should lose the 1996 election, his successor could end declassification. Ironically, Guatemala itself is reportedly disclosing many of its own internal documents on the 1954 coup. But four decades later, our own citizenry, not just Guatemalans, deserve to know the truth about what we did. The writer is a visiting scholar at New York University.