The NSA Archive – Obama Declassification Holds Promise of Uncovering New Evidence on Argentina’s Dirty War

Reinforcing the Obama administration’s planned “comprehensive effort to declassify” historical records on Argentina’s dirty war, the National Security Archive today posted examples of the kinds of materials in U.S. government files that would most likely enhance public understanding of that troubled period in Latin American history.  The posted documents, relating not just to regional developments but to official U.S. policy and operations, were declassified either through similar government decrees — thus setting a useful precedent for current administration officials — or the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

In August 2002, the State Department released 4,700 documents on Argentina dating from 1975 to 1984. Declassified under a directive from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during the Clinton administration, the documents were processed and delivered to the public during the administration of George W. Bush. The State Department acted in response to numerous requests in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s from human rights groups as well as from Argentine judges investigating abuses under military rule.

That release produced valuable information but was limited mostly to reporting from the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires on Argentina events. The U.S. Justice Department tried to elicit similar responses from other agencies to the Argentine judges’ requests under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), but only State chose to comply by undertaking a major declassification. The FBI, CIA and Defense Department declined to participate in the process,

Yet, in the case of other countries like Chile, Guatemala and El Salvador, declassified U.S. intelligence, defense and FBI records have been key to supplying critical information about local command structures, clandestine operations, and human rights violations. In 1999, for example, intense international pressure following the arrest of Augusto Pinochet led the Clinton White House to release over 20,000 pages of documentation on “human rights abuses, terrorism, and other acts of political violence in Chile.”  Unlike the later Argentina case, that project involved several agencies: the Department of State, the CIA, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the U.S. National Archives.

These materials have had a powerful impact not only on the public’s awareness of events but on the personal lives of numerous victims and relatives of victims.  For example, one of the records from the 1999 Chile Declassification posted today is a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) information report providing details about an operation carried out by Argentine intelligence and Uruguayan military intelligence in September 1976 against the Uruguayan insurgent organization, OPR-33 in Buenos Aires.

Jorge, Maria Emilia, and their daughter Mariana Zaffaroni, were kidnapped by Argentine and Uruguayan intelligence agencies in 1976.
(Source: Sin Olvido)

As a result of this raid, dozens of Uruguayans living in Buenos Aires were disappeared. Among them were Jorge Zaffaroni and Maria Emilia Islas de Zaffaroni, and their 18 month old daughter Mariana Zaffaroni Islas. Mariana was illegally appropriated and raised by one of the Argentine SIDE officers. She was DNA tested and her identity “recovered” by the Argentine Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in 1992, when she was 17 years old.

The documents posted here today attest to the fact that these kinds of materials have the same potential to help Argentines in their pursuit of truth, human rights and justice. Still-classified documents in U.S. files undoubtedly describe similar operations against Argentine insurgents, dissidents and opposition, and would therefore significantly advance public comprehension of another historically significant episode of military repression in the region.

Furthermore, as important as the State Department’s 2002 Argentina declassification was, those records excluded an essential category of materials: documentation on U.S. policy toward Argentina. Only through dedicated research efforts over many years by individuals, news media and civil society organizations has the public managed to gain critical insights into previously classified aspects of the Washington decision-making process.

The most prominent case is that of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.  Shortly after the 1976 coup, according to declassified State Department minutes of Kissinger’s staff meetings located at the National Archives and included here, his own Latin America specialists warned him “to expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood, in Argentina.” Kissinger, however, made clear that he wanted to show unstinting support for the new military junta (see document below).  This approach, which effectively granted protective cover for major regime human rights violations, lasted until the end of Kissinger’s tenure in January 1977.

In addition to the policy process, another area of significant public interest would be what U.S. intelligence and military personnel were aware of, and what kinds of operations they conducted, during the coup and subsequent counterinsurgency campaign that started in 1976.  According to Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Pat Derian in early 1977: “The U.S. military and our intelligence agencies… [are] sending a dangerous and double message. If this continues, it will subvert our [President Carter’s] entire human rights policy.” (See document below)

It was on the basis of documented historical examples like those posted here today that The New York Times, in an editorial published on March 17, 2016, concluded that during his visit to Argentina, President Obama “should make a pledge that Washington will more fully reveal its role in a dark chapter of Argentine history.”




Document 1
FBI Cable, [Capture of Chilean MIR Member Jorge Isaac Fuentes Alarcon, AKA Ariel Nodarse Ledesma], Secret
Source: Martin Andersen FOIA request
The Legal Attache in Buenos Aires Argentina, Robert Scherrer, sent this cable to the Director of the FBI reporting on the capture in Asuncion of Chilean Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) member Jorge Isaac Fuentes Alarcon, who was using a false Costa Rican passport under the name of Ariel Nodarse Ledesma. Fuentes Alarcon was carrying a phone book with contacts in Dallas, New York and San Juan, Puerto Rico. This explains why Scherrer at the end of the cable registers a request to instruct those offices to conduct “appropriate investigations.”
The National Security Archive Southern Cone Documentation Project has been able to cross-check this document with Paraguay Archivo del Terror records and learn the names of those individuals and the interactions of the Chilean, Paraguayan, Argentine and American intelligence agencies involved. Alarcon was traveling and got captured along with Argentine Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo member Amilcar Santucho. The cable is key to corroborating the information in Paraguayan documents and determining responsibility for the disappearance of Fuentes Alarcon in 1975.
This document was not part of the Department of State 2002 declassification on Argentina. It was obtained through a FOIA request by Journalist and author Martin Andersen who donated it to the National Security Archive.
Document 2
Transcript of Proceedings, “The Secretary’s Staff Meeting – Friday, 3/26/76,” Secret, [pages 19-23 relate to Argentina]
Source: National Archives and Records Administration
Two days after the military coup in Argentina, Secretary of State Kissinger convenes his weekly staff meeting. In this declassified, formerly secret transcript of the first conversation on Argentina, Assistant Secretary for Latin America William Rogers informs Kissinger that for the military government to succeed the generals will make “a considerable effort to involve the United States — particularly in the financial field.” Kissinger responds “Yes, but that is in our interest.”
Rogers advises that “we ought not at this moment rush out and embrace this new regime” because he expects significant repression to follow the coup. “I think also we’ve got to expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood, in Argentina before too long. I think they’re going to have to come down very hard not only on the terrorists but on the dissidents of trade unions and their parties.” But Kissinger makes his preferences clear: “Whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement … because I do want to encourage them. I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States.”
On March 27, 1976, the IMF released $127 million in credit for the military junta, and soon after the Videla government came to power the Ford administration quietly approved $49 million in security assistance. This marked the beginning of a series of policy decisions that extended essentially unrestricted support to the Argentine generals. This document was not part of the Department of State 2002 declassification on Argentina. It was obtained by Archive Senior Analyst Peter Kornbluh at the U.S. National Archives.
Document 3
Secret Staff Notes, “Latin American Trends,” SNLA 76-050
Source: John Dinges FOIA request
This CIA “Staff Notes” on Latin America reports that “Argentine security forces last month captured Patricio Biedma and Mario Espinosa, Chileans …” Biedma was the delegate to the Junta Coodinadora Revolucionaria (JCR) for the Chilean Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR). Espinosa was both a member of MIR and of the Argentine Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) Both disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976 and were believed to be held at the Argentine State Secretariat for Information (SIDE) clandestine detention center, Automotores Orletti. The “Staff Notes” was introduced as evidence by Carlos Osorio, Director of the National Security Archive’s Southern Cone Documentation Project, in the Orletti trial in Buenos Aires in November 2011. The document was not part of the Department of State 2002 declassification on Argentina. It was obtained through a FOIA request by National Security Archive Advisory Committee member, journalist, professor and author John Dinges.
Document 4
Special Operations Forces [Secret/NoForn Intelligence Information Report]
Source: DOD Chile Declassification Project Tranche I (1973-1978)
This Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Intelligence Information Report (IIR) provides information on a joint counterinsurgency operation by Southern Cone countries in what was known as Operation Condor. It reads, Operation Condor is the code name given for intelligence collection on leftists, communists and Marxists in the Southern Cone Area.” The member-states of Condor up to that date were Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
“During the period 24-27 September 1976,” according to the document, “members of the Argentine State Secretariat for Information (SIDE), operating with officers of the Uruguayan Military Intelligence Service, carried out operations against the Uruguayan terrorist organization, the OPR-33 in Buenos Aires. As a result of this joint operation, SIDE officials claimed that the entire OPR-33 infrastructure in Argentina has been eliminated …
” The introduction to the IIR states: “Information was provided by US Embassy Legal Attaché who has excellent contacts within the State Secretariat for Information and Federal Police Force.” The document has been presented at trials in Argentina and constitutes evidence of the responsibility of government agencies in the disappearance of Uruguayans Jorge Zaffaroni, Maria Emilia Islas de Zaffaroni, and their daughter Mariana on September 27, 1976. The IIR was part of the Department of Defense declassification of records on Chile in 1999.
Document 5
[Notes from U.S. State Department Human Rights Coordinator Patricia Derian]
Source: Martin Andersen Donation
Returning from a four-day visit to Argentina where her mission was to impress on Argentine officials the seriousness of the Carter administration’s human rights policy, recently appointed Coordinator for Human Rights Patricia Derian realizes there is work to be done at home, too. Her notes first describe what she has discovered about the junta’s repressive measures.
The [Argentine] government method is to pick people up and take them to military installations. There the detainees are tortured with water, electricity and psychological disintegration methods. Those thought to be salvageable are sent to regular jails and prisons where the psychological process is continued on a more subtle level. Those found to be incorrigible are murdered and dumped on garbage heaps or street corners, but more often are given arms with live ammunition, grenades, bombs and put into automobiles and sent out of the compound to be killed on the road in what is then reported publicly to be a shootout or response to an attack on some military installation …
Derian goes on to explain how U.S military and intelligence agencies may be having a harmful effect on the situation.
Through these agencies the United States government is sending a dangerous and double message. If this continues, it will subvert our entire human rights policy.
It is widely believed by our military and intelligence services that the human rights policy emanates only from the Department of State, is a political device and one with a short life due to its wide impracticality, the naiveté and ignorance of individuals in the Administration and to the irresponsible headline grabbing of members of Congress.
This document was obtained by journalist and author Martin Andersen from Assistant Secretary Derian. He donated a copy to the National Security Archive.