Next Friday, US President Donald Trump’s administration will release the last tranche of declassified United States government files, referring to human rights violations committed by Argentina’s 1976- 1983 military dictatorship. The long-awaited documents from the FBI, CIA, US State Department and other government agencies could shed new light on the atrocities that occurred during that period.
President Mauricio Macri, announcing the release last month on the anniversary of the 1976 coup d’état in a post on Twitter, said it would be “the largest volume of information the United States has ever given to another country.”
Among the experts consulted by US government archivists when selecting which files would be declassified was Carlos Osorio, the director of the Washington DC-based National Security Archive, an NGO that specialises in the research and investigation of declassified US government records involving Latin American dictatorships.
In an interview with the Times this week in Washington, Osorio anticipated what is likely to be included in the upcoming release, while stressing that some of the most interesting material could come from the records kept by the late FBI agent Robert Scherrer.
How did you assist the US government archivists with the declassification process?
We provided them with whatever they ask for, and submitted requests that we had been preparing for years with Argentine human rightsorganisations.
The bulk of submitted requests were in 2002, but we updated it a little bit, with about 100 pages of names and detention centres. It’s information that we’ve learned from years of research from organisations like the Argentine human rights NGO CELS [Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales]. We produced lists of units of perpetrators, of crucial events, records of the detained, disappeared victims. The [US] Embassy personnel and intelligence agencies could not cover everything, but many people were in the CIA, FBI documents that we had provided early on.
What is some of the new material that may appear?
More [US] State Department files. We think some of the juiciest records with human rights violations from the period have already been declassified with the 5,000 or so documents declassified in 2002. But there may be new things that we haven’t seen, although we have a lot of reports of [ex-US secretary of state] Henry Kissinger talking to the generals, and the contradictions in US human rights policy with [ex-US] Ambassador [to Argentina] Robert Hill. There may be CIA records that have some more information about human rights violations. We base this on Chile’s CIA declassification where there are dozen of cases discussed by the CIA. The richest collection we are expecting is in the FBI records, involving FBI agent Robert Scherrer, who was the representative in Argentina. We know that these records are rich in information for several reasons.
One is that the former US Embassy’s human rights officer in Argentina, Tex Harris, and several others point to Scherrer as being the source of human rights information during that period. Scherrer had a close relationship with the Buenos Aires Provincial Police (DIPBA), the Argentine Secretariat of Intelligence (SIDE) as well as the Argentine Army’s intelligence department. He had been in Argentina since the 1960s, as the FBI had nurtured a very close relationship with the Argentine security forces. So, it was the best source for [information on] human rights violations in Argentina. He was the first one to tell the world about Operation Condor. So, one of the declassification requests was to release the FBI’s records, many that include Robert Scherrer will be declassified, which consists of the CIA, defence intelligence agencies and dozens of other small agencies. We gave them sample documents that had already been provided to prosecutors in 2002, which were redacted. It seems they intend to be very open about these records.
So you expect them to clarify or release some material that had previously been redacted?
Yes, we expect them to. We submitted a 100-page request in 2016. One of the things they asked us was to give them sample records of the FBI. We didn’t have many, but we were able to find later 7,000 documents from the FBI that were highly redacted but were helpful for the researchers to review them. We also talked about other things, such as the CIA declassification of Chile documents, of what type of documents there could be on Argentina, that have to do with human rights.
The documents about FBI agent Robert Scherrer could contain a lot of interesting information then?
Yes, information that will be helpful to the human rights files, records that would help put things in perspective. It’s our experience in Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, and previously Argentina. The FBI will not know all the 10,000 violations that existed, but there is a pattern. They are going to be interested in human rights violations that involved American citizens. Immediately, the agents were put to work to try to save these people, victims who, for example, had relatives working in American institutions such as the Fulbright Commission, the Ford Foundation or the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations]. They were very crucial in finding workers in detention, who had been kidnapped and held in the Campo de Mayo detention centre. The legal attaché at the Embassy tried to find out what happened to these people. Another pattern in the agency is that they are interested in the middle-top range of what they called the insurgency, such as the ERP or Montoneros [urban guerrilla or political groups].
Why does the FBI seem to have more information about that period than the CIA?
Because the FBI’s mission was in counter-terrorism, they monitored terrorism, criminal activity, money-laundering – that was its role. So they had a more intimate relation with security forces. The FBI also had a strong historical presence in the region during the 1940s1950s because of the Nazi connection [many Nazis fled to Argentina and the wider region at the end of World War II]. FBI director Herbert Hoover maintained a considerable office in Argentina and South America in general.
When did the requests for the declassification of US documents about the military dictatorship begin?
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and CELS asked for the declassified documents in 2002 after the State Department released records. The Argentine government continued requesting intelligence records from then on with [late] foreign minister Héctor Timerman. But a pivotal moment was when [exUS president] Barack Obama scheduled a visit to the United States on the anniversary of the military coup in 2016. It was very smart to ask for the records then, with the Grandmothers and President Macri. It’s a formality, but also a reality, that requests for declassified documents are made between presidents. Historically, it is right to say that Macri asked for the records, as [former president] Carlos Menem had secretly asked for the declassification records from [US president] Bill Clinton. Usually, we suggest that any request can come from the truth commission, but in terms of protocol, in terms of national security and diplomacy, it is crucial that the Executive asks.
Why did it take so long for the third tranche to be released? Weren’t they supposed to be released last year?
Although I didn’t work on it, I have a sense of why. To declassify records takes a lot of effort and coordination. For example, the declassification of documents from Chile was supposed to be released in 1998 but was [eventually] published in 2000. I was told it took 10,000 working hours to be completed. While these documents were promised in 2016, it usually takes two years. There were hopes that the documents would be released around the period of the G20, but it didn’t happen for political and diplomatic reasons. But the records have been ready since then.