A State Department request for $54 million to initiate a counterterrorism assistance program in five Central American nations has run into trouble in Congress, with legislators voicing concern over renewed U.S. involvement in training local police forces that have a record of human rights abuses.
"This has stirred up all the ghosts of the past," remarked one House Democratic aide.
At hearings yesterday before House and Senate committees, witnesses warned of a possible repeat of the U.S. experience during the 1960s. That led Congress in 1974 to halt training and assistance for Central American police forces because of their abuses and involvement in right-wing "death squads."
"The fact is the death squad apparatus has not been dismantled in El Salvador," remarked Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "The administration is deluding itself or deluding Congress because civilians continue to be killed by right-wing death squads although obviously at a reduced rate."
An official of Americas Watch, a U.S. human rights monitoring group, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that death squad killings in El Salvador the first six months of this year reached 81, more than double that of the previous six months.
The administration is seeking $27 million to establish a specialized military counterterrorism program in El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala amd Costa Rica; $26 million for separate police antiterrorist training programs there, and $1 million for a fund to protect individuals helping to prevent terrorist activities.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James H. Michel acknowledged that there were some "risks" involved in the program but said, "We believe we have learned the lessons of history." He said the administration believed new democratic institutions and a greater commitment to respect human rights in the Central American countries would help curb police excesses.
Some Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including Sens. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (Md.), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.) and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the committee chairman, are also concerned about the administration request.
An aide to Lugar said the issue is not and that the committee is not "anywhere near an agreement" on the request. "The questions are how much, to whom and under what conditions," he said.
Lugar, who often acts on the administration's behalf to work out a compromise, favored some show of U.S. support for the antiterrorism efforts, but not necessarily the full $54 million, the aide said.
The Republican-controlled Senate panel is scheduled to mark up the administration bill today. But it appears to be stuck in the Democratic-dominated House Foreign Affairs Committee, where resistance appears to be stronger.
"There is no agreement on the House side," said another one House aide.
In a statement yesterday, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) charged that the administration's proposal had a "skewed focus" on the threat posed by Marxist-led guerrilla groups.
Several legislators said the administration had confused the issue by notify Congress at the same that it intends to provide $4.5 million to El Salvador to start a training program there in any case.