White House

Newly public U.S. documents detail struggle over Argentina’s ‘dirty war’

United States Secretary of State John Kerry, shown here watching the start of the men's cycling road race final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, delivered unclassified U.S. documents to Argentine officials Aug. 4.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry, shown here watching the start of the men's cycling road race final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, delivered unclassified U.S. documents to Argentine officials Aug. 4. AP

Hundreds of pages of declassified documents released Monday show efforts by President Jimmy Carter and his top aides to pressure Argentina’s military dictators to ease repression as part of Carter’s broader initiative to push human rights around the globe.

The State Department released 1,080 pages of previously classified documents five months after President Barack Obama, during a visit to Argentina, pledged to embark on a comprehensive initiative to find and release U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic records tied to state-sponsored murders and human rights abuses committed during the nearly decade-long “dirty war” under a military junta installed after a March 1976 coup.

“I believe we have a responsibility to confront the past with honesty and transparency,” Obama said then in a Buenos Aires ceremony attended by relatives of some of the thousands of Argentines who died at the hands of government forces.

Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst with the National Security Archive at George Washington University, hailed the release of what the Obama administration called “the first tranche” of 1970s-era documents related to the repression in Argentina. The documents were delivered by Secretary of State John Kerry to Argentine President Mauricio Macri last week.

“This is a tremendous gesture of declassified diplomacy,” Kornbluh told McClatchy. “The administration has taken the first step to carry out President Obama’s commitment to Argentine human rights groups.”

One striking feature of the documents, Kornbluh said, is the tension they reveal between then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser.

“You see an effort from Vance to fulfill Carter’s public mandates to really make human rights a top U.S. foreign policy,” he said. “And then you see push-back from Brzezinski’s office saying that if we sanction a country completely, we don’t have any leverage over them.”

Several memos show senior administration officials protesting what they viewed as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s attempts to undermine Carter’s efforts.

Robert Pastor, a top aide to Brzezinski, wrote one July 11, 1978, memo to him describing a recent Kissinger visit to Argentina for the World Cup.

“His praise for the Argentine government in its campaign against terrorism was the music the Argentine government was longing to hear,” Pastor wrote.

In a dig at Kissinger, who led the State Department under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Pastor added: “His other comments on the security problem in Latin America and the Soviet/Cuban threat surprise me in that they are about 15-20 years out of date.”

As he pushed human rights in countries ranging from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia to Uganda, Argentina and Chile, Carter established the State Department’s first human rights office. It was led by Patricia Murphy Derian, a former civil rights activist who became the first U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs.

Derian became a target of scorn among Argentina’s ruling generals. In a memo describing a meeting between Vice President Walter Mondale and Lt. Gen. Jorge Rafal Videla, who seized control after President Isabel Peron was deposed, Videla complained repeatedly about Derian’s focus on abuses by his government.

The official number of people killed under the military dictatorship, which ended in 1983, is 7,158, although the actual figure is believed by many Argentines to be as high as 13,000.

The government claimed it was pursuing terrorists, but the victims included church leaders, professors, students, journalists and members of left-wing groups. The victims were called “disappeareds” because many simply vanished without a trace, their bodies never found and their killers never identified.

During the same period, guerrillas with two radical groups, the Montoneros and the Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army, killed some 6,000 military, police and civilian security officers.

One long memo recalls Carter grilling Videla about a range of alleged abuses during a White House meeting on Sept. 9, 1977.

“President Carter ventured a question about the Argentine judicial system, noting that one of the great concerns expressed in the United States is the fact that there are no announcements of the arrest of Argentines or the charges on which they are being held,” the memo said.

Carter cited a list of 3,000 people detained without charges, as compiled by a human rights group in Washington, and asked whether the State Department could provide it to the Argentine government.

“President Carter felt that the friendly bilateral relations of over a hundred years were of great value, and he was concerned that this issue could come between the two countries,” the memo said.

Recounting the circumstances “which led the armed forces as an institution reluctantly to take over (in order) to fill the power vacuum,” Videla agreed to accept the list.

“All wars have their undesirable consequences, and President Carter as a military man would know of this,” the memo quoted the general as having told the former Navy lieutenant and nuclear submarine executive officer.

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose