The real and imagined plots that color discussions of the relationship between President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin recall an earlier age when the expectation of a rapid change in policy direction sent shudders through a U.S. government where diplomats and intelligence officers are sworn to protect sources and methods.
At issue: Whether Trump political appointments might put U.S. and allied intelligence assets at risk by revealing their identities to once hostile foreign powers.
That was a worry, too, when the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter gave way to Republican Ronald Reagan’s, with a promise to turn a friendlier eye to dictatorships that had been the target of Carter administration enmity.
That put the focus on Patricia Derian, Carter’s human rights crusader, who as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs from 1977 to 1981, earned a reputation, in the words of The Times of London on her death earlier this year, as “a courageous champion of civil rights who took on some of the world’s most brutal dictators in her role as a senior American diplomat.”
At a recent ceremony where the U.S. turned over to Argentina a second batch of declassified documents dealing with the military dictatorship, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Noah B. Mamet called Derian “an iconic figure in the fight against implacable dictatorships.”
Derian wanted to make sure that the new Reagan administration, whose electoral victory brought shouts of joy from many dictatorial governments, would not be able to offer information about those dictators’ opponents in return for better relations. So she took it upon herself to destroy hundreds, if not thousands, of possibly classifiable files in her possession that identified international human rights victims, informers and activists. Then the worry was not Russia, Ukraine and Syria’s Bashar Assad, but Central and South American dictators and the perpetrators of civilian massacres in El Salvador, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere.
F. Allen “Tex” Harris, an aide to Derian and twice head of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), wrote that his boss eliminated the files for fear that incoming Reagan appointees “might share those names and their information with the oppressive foreign governments which would put her informants in greater peril.”
The growing concerns about Russian meddling in November’s election as well as the business ties and financial links between Trump administration appointees and Russian officials raise the topic anew. Would Trump lieutenants purvey covert treasures of high value to Moscow and its allies?
Already some intelligence officials say that they “see themselves as the last line of defense against a president they believe could upend the world.” As one Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) employee told the Huffington Post, “Am I going to be an unwitting enabler of war crimes under this administration?”
Derian found herself faced with a similar dilemma when Carter lost his reelection bid. Even before his election, Reagan had lampooned Derian, saying that she should “walk a mile in the moccasins” of the military despots before she criticized them. Derian’s replacement under Reagan, Ernest W. Lefever, was unenthusiastic about his new job. The office of human rights, which he was to lead, “was established by the wisdom of Congress, and I accept that fact,” he said.
Tex Harris discovered how Derian had responded to her concerns when he was reviewing Derian’s classified papers from her State Department tenure. In an email, he recounted how he found no appointment calendars and few memos about her conversations with human rights victims in what he described as dozens of boxes of files.
“When I reported to Patt that her appointment calendars were not in the boxes from her office and that there were very few MemCons of her hundreds of conversations with HRts victims in her papers, Patt acknowledged that she had directed the shredding of all information in her personal files that could be used to identify HRts victims from around the world,” Harris recalled.
That action no doubt would have run afoul of what is U.S. law today, which sets a possible three-year penalty for “whoever willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys, or attempts to do so, or, with intent to do so takes and carries away any record, proceeding, map, book, paper, document, or other thing, filed or deposited with any clerk or officer of any court of the United States, or in any public office, or with any judicial or public officer of the United States.”
As Trump takes office, will current members of the intelligence community adopt a policy of civil disobedience that mirrors the essence of Derian’s efforts 36 years ago, no simple question in a world where alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election has been characterized by Michael Morrell, the former acting director of the CIA, as the political equivalent of Sept. 11, 2001?
For those on the front lines of protecting American values and security, former nurse Patt Derian’s protective “do-no-harm” actions may yet prove an enduring legacy.
Martin Edwin Andersen is a Latin America historian and human rights whistleblower.