The Reagan Administration knew more than it publicly disclosed about some of the worst human rights abuses in El Salvador’s civil war and withheld the information from Congress, declassified cables and interviews with former Government officials indicate.
Charges that Reagan officials, and to a lesser extent the Carter and Bush Administrations, may have covered up evidence of abuses to win Congressional approval of aid to El Salvador were revived with the release this week of a United Nations-sponsored report documenting widespread human rights violations by the Salvadoran military.
In Congress, plans are under way to investigate the testimony of dozens of American officials in the last decade to determine whether, in their zeal to save Central America from Soviet influence, they misled lawmakers about what they knew.
A number of formerly classified diplomatic and intelligence documents obtained by The New York Times show that American officials knew far more about the workings of the military and the death squads in El Salvador than they told Congress or the American people.
For example, even as senior officials were denying that Salvadoran troops trained by the United States had massacred peasants at El Mozote in December 1981, an American Embassy officer interviewed a refugee couple who said they had seen dozens of bodies at the mountain hamlet.
In the case of the murders of four American churchwomen in 1980, a cable from the American Ambassador, Robert E. White, to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. expressed incredulity that the Administration had complimented the ruling military junta in El Salvador for its investigation of the deaths.
The papers show that while Reagan officials were debunking evidence gathered by the Carter Administration apparently linking Roberto d’Aubuisson, a right-wing politician, to the slaying of the Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of San Salvador in 1980, President Reagan’s own Ambassador, Deane R. Hinton, sent a cable describing Mr. d’Aubuisson’s presence at a meeting where the murder plot was hatched. Military ‘Protects Its Own’
The Salvadoran military “protects its own, ignoring, suppressing, covering up” abuses, said a Pentagon report in November 1981 that established United States military policy in El Salvador. The report, signed by Brig. Gen. Fred F. Woerner, was declassified last month. It concluded, “Unabated terror from the right and continued tolerance of institutional violence could dangerously erode popular support to the point wherein the armed forces would be viewed not as the protector of society, but as an army of occupation.”
Reagan and Bush Administration officials justify their policy in El Salvador as a lesser evil compared with the alternative of allowing a victory by Marxist guerrillas. And they point out that the policy ultimately brought peace and restored democracy to the country.
“Let them go have hearings,” Elliott Abrams, a senior State Department official in the Reagan Administration dealing with Latin America and human rights, said of Congress on Friday. “This is an allegation that the entire top rank of the Foreign Service is filled with liars. It is a reprehensible McCarthyite charge.”
But Mr. White, the Carter Administration’s Ambassador in 1980 and 1981, said this week. “The Salvadoran military knew that we knew, and they knew when we covered up the truth, it was a clear signal that, at a minimum, we tolerated this.” ‘The Terrible Truth’
Representative Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, Democratic chairman of the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, pledged this week to “review every word of the Reagan Administration,” adding that he would press contempt of Congress charges against any official who lied under oath.
“It is now clear that while the Reagan Administration was certifying human rights progess in El Salvador they knew the terrible truth that the Salvadoran military was engaged in a widespread campaign of terror and torture,” Mr. Torricelli said.
He and Representative Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, the Democratic chairman of the Rules Committee, plan to meet with other Congressional leaders next week to discuss asking the Clinton Administration to declassify all United States cable traffic and intelligence reports on the massacre at El Mozote and the other main human rights cases.
Mr. Moakley has now raised questions about the Bush Administration’s handling of evidence in the slaying of six Jesuit priests in 1989, a case that he has personally investigated. The United Nations report says the murders were ordered by a group of senior military officers who included Defense Minister Rene Emilio Ponce, whose resignation a few days before the report came out has not yet been accepted by President Alfredo Cristiani. Efforts at Reform
In the early 1980’s, when the violence in El Salvador was most intense, Reagan officials said they helped to improve the country’s human rights situation markedly and forced several purges of right-wing military officers. On two occasions, they said they blocked Mr. d’Aubuisson’s rise to the presidency. In 1983, Mr. Bush, then the Vice President, traveled to San Salvador to deliver a list of 31 military officers Washington wanted dismissed for human rights abuses, and several were retired.
“We had to build up the military, reform it and stop it from seizing more power from the civilian Government,” Mr. Abrams said this week.
Through the early 1980’s, as a condition of continuing aid, the Reagan Administration was required by law to certify to Congress every six months that El Salvador was improving its human rights record, and did so. Officials repeatedly blamed shadowy forces uncontrolled by the army high command for death squad activity.
The documents were made available to The New York Times by the National Security Archives, a private group that helps researchers and scholars in declassifying Government materials. The Churchwomen A Pattern Evolves: War Comes First
The pattern of overlooking human rights abuses in the interests of winning the war began in the final days of the Carter Administration, after the murders of four American churchwomen — three nuns and a lay worker — on Dec. 2, 1980 by members of the Salvadoran National Guard. Mr. Carter cut off aid, but reinstated it after the guerrillas began a nationwide offensive.
As noted in the United Nations report, incoming Reagan Administration officials tried to transfer at least some responsibility for the murders from the Salvadoran military to the women themselves. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the newly appointed delegate to the United Nations, called the women leftists. Mr. Haig suggested that the women, who were raped and shot point-blank in the head, might have run a roadblock.
Mr. White sent a confidential cable to Mr. Haig on Jan. 25, 1981, saying: “It is amazing to me that the department can state publicly that the investigation of the nuns’ deaths is proceeding satisfactorily. This is not backed up by any reporting from this embassy. I reiterate for the record that in my judgment there is no sign of any sincere attempt to locate and punish those responsible for this atrocity.”
Mr. White said his embassy, citing military sources, reported to Washington that the killings were probably ordered by Col. Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar, the local National Guard commander. Mr. White said the embassy had strong evidence early on of a cover-up to protect Colonel Casanova Vejar led by Col. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, his cousin and National Guard commander.
Mr. White’s charges were substantiated in large part this week by the United Nations report, which said that Colonel Casanova Vejar and Colonel Vides Casanova “knew that members of the National Guard had committed the murders under orders.”
But the Reagan Administration repeatedly reported to Congress that San Salvador was making progress in the case, declaring a victory when five enlisted men were convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1984. Early in 1983, during a bitter dispute within the Salvadoran high command that led to a near revolt by the air force, the American Embassy helped promote Colonel Vides Casanova as a compromise candidate for Defense Minister.
Under Congressional pressure, the Reagan Administration commissioned an investigation into the case of the churchwomen only weeks after Colonel Casanova, promoted to general, became Defense Minister. Describing him as “evasive” in interviews, the report by Harold Tyler, a retired Federal judge in New York, concluded that “it is quite possible” that Colonel Vides Casanova “was aware of, and for a time acquiesced in, the cover-up.” Administration support for General Casanova Vides did not waver. The Massacre Pride of the U.S. Branded as Killers
As the first Salvadoran Army unit trained by American advisers, the Atlacatl Battalion was the pride of the United States military team in San Salvador. Led by the charismatic Lieut. Col. Domingo Monterrosa and trained in antiguerrilla operations, the battalion was intended to turn a losing war around.
But on one of its first operations, a sweep through northeastern Morazan province in December 1981, the battalion encircled and razed a number of villages where suspected guerrilla sympathizers lived. The massacre was the largest of the war. The United Nations report speaks of hundreds of skeletons, including those of scores of children, and the excavations in the area have only just begun.
Reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post traveled to the zone a month after the massacre and wrote articles describing piles of bodies and reports of of more than 700 victims. Coming a day before the Administration’s human rights certification to Congress, the articles threatened the entire United States effort in El Salvador.
President Reagan went ahead and certified El Salvador’s improved human rights performance. A week later, Thomas O. Enders, the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, defended the certification and rebutted the newspaper reports in testimony before Congress. “There is no evidence to confirm that Government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operations zone,” he said.
Evidence has since emerged that members of the Reagan Administration knew far more than Mr. Enders said at the time.
After articles appeared in The Times and The Post, the embassy sent two young officers, pistols tucked in their boots, to the Mozote area by helicopter. Because the guerrillas had retaken El Mozote, the officers were never able to reach the hamlet. Still, they spoke with refugees and reported back to Ambassador Hinton that something terrible had happened.
“For a variety of reasons, I had the strong impression that there had been a massacre,” Todd Greentree, one of the embassy officers who investigated the case, said in a telephone interview this week from the United States Embassy in Katmandu, Nepal, where he is now stationed. He described the refugees he had spoken with as “traumatized.”
A classified cable of Jan. 31, 1982, signed by Ambassador Hinton, said that there was no firm evidence that a massacre had occurred and that far fewer than 700 people, the reported number of victims, lived in the area.
But the same cable described an interview with an elderly couple who had fled the Mozote area. “They claimed they saw dozens of bodies,” the cable reported, adding of the man interviewed, “He was unwilling to discuss the comportment of Government forces, saying, ‘This is something one should talk about in another time, in another country.’ ”
In an interview Friday, Mr. Enders said he did not have proof then that there was a massacre, but “I now know that the materials that we and the embassy passed on to the Congress were wrong.” The Assassination A Dangerous Man, Handled With Care
Among all the challenges Washington faced in El Salvador, few were as nettlesome as its dealings with Roberto d’Aubuisson, a cashiered National Guard major and right-wing politician whom the United Nations report identifies as the mastermind of the death squads.
Mr. White, the Carter Administration’s Ambassador, called him a “pathological killer,” and the Reagan Administration covertly provided money to Jose Napoleon Duarte in a successful effort to defeat Mr. d’Aubuisson in the 1984 presidential election.
But at the same time, Reagan officials tried to co-opt Mr. d’Aubuisson and bring the far right into the democratic process by praising his participation in the National Assembly. While doing so, the Reagan Administration withheld its own evidence of Mr. d’Aubuisson’s death squad activities from members of Congress who argued that Washington should have no dealings with terrorists.
Mr. White told members of Congress in 1984 that while Ambassador he had transmitted to Washington overwhelming evidence — including planning papers captured from Mr. d’Aubuisson’s own death squad — linking him to the killing of Archbishop Romero. Many lawmakers asked what the Reagan Administration knew.
Typical of the Administration response was a letter from W. Tapley Bennett Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, to Representative Thomas J. Tauke, Republican of Iowa, on April 11, 1984. Mr. Bennett wrote that Mr. White’s accusatory cables were “limited and incomplete,” adding, “We have received other intelligence reports on the Romero assassination which contradict the charges.”
Mr. Bennett and other Reagan Administration officials neglected to mention that a secret cable from Ambassador Hinton in December 1981 disclosed evidence that Mr. d’Aubuisson had “chaired” the meeting where the Archbishop’s murder was planned. “During the meeting, some of the participants drew lots for the privilege of killing the Archbishop,” the cable said.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who asked officials repeatedly about the Romero murder as a member of the Intelligence Committee from 1979 and 1986, said on Friday: “They said they didn’t know anything about it. It was obvious that d’Aubuisson was intimately involved in the Archbishop’s murder and it was obvious that the U.S. Government did not want to acknowledge that because it would destroy their policy. Lies were built on lies.”
Before Mr. d’Aubuisson died of cancer last year he was invited to the July 4 celebration at the United States Embassy with other Salvadoran politicians. The Jesuits Did the U.S. Help Protect Plotters?
When six Jesuit priests were slain in November 1989, the Bush Administration pronounced its commitment to solve the case no matter where the evidence led. But Congressional investigators are now raising serious doubts about the handling of witnesses by United States officials.
Representative Moakley contends that their actions, in effect, protected the Defense Minister, General Ponce, and other senior officers who are named in the United Nations report as the primary conspirators.
Mishandling of the case by Americans in the embassy gave General Ponce, the Army Chief of Staff at the time of the killings, advance warning that he was a suspect, enabling him to press a key potential witness to change his story.
Mr. Moakley, whose own House investigation came to virtually the same findings as those of the United Nations commission, said on Thursday that the Bush Administration “was either involved in a cover-up or they had very incompetent and insensitive people.”
The Administration relied on General Ponce’s support to keep on track the peace talks that brought the civil war to an end last year.
Mr. Moakley says Unites States officials repeatedly withheld evidence from him, and undercut one of his investigative trips by timing the release of military aid to his arrival in San Salvador. He said that when he sought to develop evidence linking the murders to more senior officers, after two middle-ranking officers were convicted in September 1991, “the Administration wanted us to keep quiet and go away.”
Mr. Moakley’s concerns center on the Administration’s handling of testimony given by Maj. Eric W. Buckland, a United States adviser in El Salvador at the time of the murders. In the days following the slayings, Major Buckland informed his superiors that Col. Carlos Aviles had told him that Salvadoran soldiers had committed the crime and that he believed General Ponce knew.
Rather than take the information to investigators, Col. Milton Menjivar, the senior American officer in San Salvador, alerted General Ponce and informed him of the Salvadoran military source. General Ponce then went to Colonel Aviles, who retracted his accusation. William Walker, who was Ambassador at the time, said on Friday that Colonel Menjivar, who has since retired, was unauthorized to go to General Ponce and had made a mistake.
Major Buckland told the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Jan. 12, 1990, that he knew of army plotting to kill the Jesuits 10 days before the murders, but did not disclose the information because he believed General Ponce was working to stop the plan. But American officials withheld the major’s testimony from the Salvadoran investigation for nearly a year. Mr. Moakley said the officials told him that they had no reason to believe Major Buckland had prior knowledge of the plotting.
The testimony became public only when a State Department official privately notified Mr. Moakley of its existence.
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