The Guatemala Lesson
-- the C.I.A. out of control

The only surprise is the surprise. In late March, it came out that the CIA had a paid agent in Guatemala who was responsible for the 1990 torture and brutal slaying of an American innkeeper (his head was nearly sawed off by a machete) and for the 1992 torture and murder of the husband of Jennifer Harbury, an American citizen.

Representative Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who disclosed these facts, said "the agency is simply out of control and contains what can only be called a criminal element." But this was not the work of one overzealous agent or one rogue operation. This was, and is, standard operating procedure. In El Salvador and Guatemala and elsewhere around the globe, the "criminal element" is the CIA itself. The CIA organized the death squads in these countries, financed them, equipped them, trained them, and consulted with them on individual cases of torture and assassination. These are the facts. That's what the CIA does. The CIA knows it. The Pentagon knows it. The State Department knows it. The President knows it. Congress knows it. And no one does anything about it.

Once a decade, when the American public finally hears about the atrocities that are committed with our tax dollars and in our name, everyone in Washington claims to be shocked, shocked, shocked. There was shock during the Church Hearings in the 1970s about the CIA's role in Vietnam and Chile; there was shock in the 1980s when it was revealed that the CIA had Salvadoran death-squad members on its payroll; now there's shock that the CIA's been involved in these Guatemalan murders.

As in previous disclosures, the expression of shock serves a number of purposes. It shields officials from responsibility, it diverts attention away from the CIA's systematic pattern of human-rights abuses, and it thereby deflects criticism against the entire agency.

But the Guatemalan case demonstrates in almost crystalline terms why the CIA should be abolished once and for all.

Here we have an agency that overthrew the democratically elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 because a U.S. banana company, United Fruit, was worried about its plantations.

Here we have an agency that since the 1960s has been hand-in-glove with the hemisphere's most notorious human-rights abusers, as Allan Nairn ably documents in the April 17 issue of The Nation. In the last fifteen years alone, the Guatemalan military has massacred more than 100,000 peasants and Indians, and has tortured thousands more.

Here we have an agency that has repeatedly violated U.S. prohibitions on aid to Guatemala. The CIA did this in the 1980s, as Nairn reported way back in 1986 in The Progressive. And the CIA did it again in the early 1990s, after the Bush Administration had cut off military aid because of the murder of the American innkeeper, Michael DeVine. (At that time, no one owned up that Guatemalan colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez, implicated in the death, was on the CIA pay roll.) The CIA, according to The New York Times, funneled $5- to $7 million annually in military aid to Guatemala at a time when no such money was supposed to be going there. These payments continued during the Clinton Administration.

Here we have an agency that paid Alpirez-another illustrious graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas-$44,000 in 1992, even after it had learned about his involvement in the murder of Michael DeVine. "Everybody is covering up for everybody else," says Carole DeVine, Michael's widow.

Here we have an agency that admittedly misled Congress about the DeVine case and now pleads that it doesn't have all the information it needs to explain what happened.

And here we have an agency that is still paying Guatemalan military officers to this day-despite all the revelations that have come out, and despite Secretary of State Warren Christopher's statement that the payments had ended, a statement he was forced to retract. The CIA is a scandal. If we don't get rid of it now, in another ten years or so we'll hear of another case of CIA torture and assassination, accompanied by another round of shock, shock, shock.

But getting rid of the CIA is not enough. Even in this Guatemala case, the CIA did not act alone. The National Security Agency and the U.S. Army may also have been involved, and they were busy with their shredders as soon as Torricelli went public with the al legations about U.S. ties to Alpirez.

It is the presumption that the United States has a right to intervene in other countries that lies at the root of the problem. It is the presumption that any left wing movement abroad is somehow a threat to the United States and must be eradicated at all costs that allows the United States to involve itself with torturers in the first place.

The United States is not prepared to abandon either presumption. And there are many in Washington who don't even want the issues discussed in public. That's why Torricelli has come under fire from Newt Gingrich, who wants to boot him off the House Intelligence Committee for disclosing CIA complicity in the Guatemalan murders.

Gingrich is hardly the lone defender of the status quo. Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat from Nebraska, was quick to comfort the American public, saying on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that we need the CIA if we are to project power and defend our interests around the world.

William Safire, the apologist's apologist, defended the CIA for winning the Cold War. And he did so with a particularly specious claim: "the alternative outcome-Soviet-Cuban hegemony up to our Mexican border-would have been far worse for democracy and human rights."

Tell that to Jennifer Harbury, Carole DeVine, and the hundreds of thousands of people who died brutally at the hands of the Guatemalan and Salvadoran military in the name of U.S. "national security."

from The Progressive magazine, May 1995


CIA and Third World