When Secretary of State John F. Kerry traveled to Chile in October to attend an international conference on ocean preservation, he carried something that had nothing to do with environmental collaboration. The computer disk he brought contained 282 newly-declassified records on Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s role in a brazen act of international terrorism in Washington, D.C. The car bombing in Sheridan Circle that occurred 40 years ago this week took the lives of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his 25-year-old colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Kerry personally handed the disk of documents to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.
Last month, when Kerry flew to Buenos Aires for trade talks, he carried another disk, this one loaded with 1,078 pages of records on the Argentine “dirty war” of repression during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Kerry gave those documents to President Mauricio Macri and promised “more to come in the future.”
Alongside the traditional instruments of statecraft, the Obama administration has developed an entirely new tool: declassifying decades-old secrets of state to share with other governments and their societies. President Obama has used this declassification diplomacy to mend fences with other countries, advance the cause of human rights and even redress the dark history of Washington’s support for repression abroad. Allies are grateful and historians are delighted. And given the depth and range of still-secret U.S. Cold War records, declassified diplomacy has the potential to go much, much further.
Obama’s very first decree as president was intended to strengthen access to information. Executive Order 13489 rescinded restrictions on the Presidential Records Act imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. “For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” the new president declared on Jan. 21, 2009. “This administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known” — an admirable goal but one his administration has not always advanced, especially with regard to Freedom of Information Act requests from reporters.
Among those who have sought to know what information remains withheld in the secret vaults of the U.S. national security agencies are people in Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile and Argentina, where human rights advocates, lawyers and judges continue the quest for accountability for crimes against humanity committed by past military regimes. Just as thousands of victims were “disappeared” by those regimes, the military dictatorships managed to “disappear” the documentation of their atrocities. Vast troves of evidence remained beyond their destructive reach, however — in the United States. Indeed, the only positive outcome of the dark role the United States often played in the repressive histories of these and other nations is the detailed paper trail now residing in the vaults of the CIA, the FBI, and the Defense and State departments.
The Clinton administration was the first to recognize the political currency of these secret records and to use the president’s executive authority to declassify them. After The Washington Post published a major exposé on the Reagan administration’s approval of military massacres and death-squad operations in El Salvador, President Bill Clinton ordered more than 15,000 confidential documents released, creating a new, publicly accessible archive of information on the U.S. role in El Salvador’s infamous counterinsurgency war. After the New York Times broke the story of CIA support for a Guatemalan colonel who ordered the killing of an American hotel owner living in Guatemala, as well as the torture and disappearance of a guerrilla leader who was the husband of another U.S. citizen, the Clinton administration released several thousand more secret records relating to that scandal and the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency efforts in that country.
After the October 1998 detention of Chile’s Pinochet in London, Clinton responded to demands from the families of Pinochet’s victims, human rights advocates and the U.S. Congress by authorizing the Chile Declassification Project, an 18-month multi-agency review of secret U.S. documents dated between 1968 and 1991. It yielded about 23,000 never-seen-before records on repression during the Pinochet regime — as well as on the covert CIA intervention that helped bring him to power. “We declassified more documents than any other administration,” Clinton proudly told me years later.
The Bush administration was not nearly as zealous about access to information. The State Department released more than 4,000 records on Argentina’s “dirty war,” but the project had been initiated in the final months of Clinton’s presidency. The State Department’s Latin America bureau also expedited a small release of documents on Ecuador, as a positive gesture to the often hostile government of Rafael Correa.
While Clinton employed his executive declassification authority in response to major scandals and events, the Obama administration has used declassified records as a tool of statecraft. Take the example of Brazil: In 2012, Brazil’s National Truth Commission, newly created to investigate human rights violations during the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, asked the White House for relevant papers. Officials planned to have Obama provide them to then-President Dilma Rousseff during a White House state dinner scheduled for October 2013. But after Edward Snowden’s files showed that the United States had tapped her cellphone, Rousseff canceled her visit to Washington.
Relations between the two countries were tense until the next June, when Vice President Biden traveled to Brazil to try to mend the breach. As a peace offering, he gave Rousseff a disk of declassified documents on repression in Brazil. “I hope that in taking steps to come to grips with our past, we can find a way to focus on the immense promise of the future,” Biden told Rousseff, who, as a young leftist, was tortured and imprisoned in the 1970s by her country’s military dictatorship.
The Obama administration also took dramatic steps for Chile, a nation that Washington has tried to cultivate as an economic, environmental and political ally in the region. In early 2015, the White House agreed to a formal request from the government of Bachelet — who was also a victim of human rights abuses during the military era — for still-secret records relating to Pinochet’s role in the September 1976 car bombing that killed Letelier and Moffitt in downtown Washington. Under the direction of David McKean (now ambassador to Luxembourg), the State Department’s policy planning office expedited the declassification of hundreds of detailed records on this act of international terrorism — in time for Kerry to personally carry them to Santiago last October.
Among the documents was a secret 1987 memorandum titled “Pinochet and the Letelier-Moffitt Murders: Implications for US Policy,” from Secretary of State George Shultz to President Ronald Reagan. In an intelligence review, the CIA had compiled “convincing evidence that President Pinochet personally ordered his intelligence chief to carry out the murders,” Shultz advised the president. “This is a blatant example of a chief of state’s direct involvement in an act of state terrorism, one that is particularly disturbing both because it occurred in our capital and since his government is generally considered to be friendly.” The CIA’s stark conclusion about Pinochet’s role in a savage act of international terrorism created an uproar in Chile and generated headlines around the world.
The impact of this new diplomatic tool depends partly on the keepers of secrets in the U.S. intelligence community. Because the CIA cares more about protecting the covert nature of its operations than about diplomacy and the accuracy of the historical record, the agency has not been eager to cooperate in these declassification projects. During Clinton’s declassification on Chile, for example, the CIA twice reneged on its commitment to release its records on covert operations against the elected government of Salvador Allende. Only after Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, personally interceded with CIA Director George Tenet did the agency finally comply. To date, the CIA has rejected Freedom of Information Act efforts by my organization, the National Security Archive, to release even one sentence of the secret intelligence review on Pinochet that Shultz cited in his dramatic memorandum to Reagan on the Letelier assassination. Without that document, the historical record on an act of terrorism in downtown Washington will remain incomplete. The CIA seems not to have gotten Obama’s directive that “no information may remain classified indefinitely.”
That position will be tested by Obama’s special declassification project on Argentina. During his trip to that country in March, Obama put his presidential imprimatur on the practice of declassification diplomacy. Just before he left for South America, he authorized a major declassification review of hundreds of intelligence-community and Defense Department records relating to the massive human rights violations committed by the Argentine military between 1976 and 1983. “I believe we have a responsibility to confront the past with honesty and transparency,” Obama stated during a visit with human rights activists and victims in Buenos Aires on March 24, the 40th anniversary of the military coup that, with U.S. support, ushered in seven years of the most brutal repression ever seen in the southern half of the continent.
If the intelligence community cooperates with this project, the release promises to supply evidence for ongoing human rights cases in Argentina. The documents are also likely to shed light on U.S. policy toward the coup and the repression that followed. Their declassification will provide not only the “honesty and transparency” Obama advocates but a modicum of historical atonement for the support his predecessors gave to the Argentine military in the days and months after the coup.
There are plenty of other countries for which a special declassification of U.S. records would help heal the wounds of history and advance an alliance — among them Laos and Japan, where Obama recently visited; U.S. efforts to rebuild relations with Iran might similarly benefit. Indeed, in his final few months in office, Obama faces plenty of opportunities to expand the practice of declassification diplomacy. A special declassification on Colombia’s counterinsurgency war would help local officials implement the recently signed peace accord between the government in Bogota and the FARC rebels. The ongoing rapprochement with Cuba could benefit from a gesture of declassification regarding key Cold War conflicts between Washington and Havana.
Even the Chileans are hoping for another round of documents when Bachelet visits the monument to Letelier and Moffitt in Sheridan Circle this coming week to commemorate their assassination 40 years ago. Pinochet is no longer alive to be judged in a court of law. But declassified records would help provide the lasting judgement of history.