Newly declassified documents reveal US response to Argentina's 'Dirty War'

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Story highlights

  • The documents highlight efforts to curb the ruling Argentine junta's human rights abuses
  • They also show a top White House aide concerned that punitive action would hurt the administration

Washington (CNN)Even as US diplomats were strongly urging Argentina's military to improve its human rights record during the country's so-called Dirty War, a top White House official argued against strongly punishing the junta for its crackdown on dissidents.

President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, cited concerns that any punitive action would hinder the administration's efforts to secure the support of American conservatives and moderates on other issues, according to newly declassified documents.
    The Office of the Director of National Intelligence published Monday a trove of over 1,000 documents that detail America's relationship with Argentina during the 1970s and '80s, highlighting US efforts to curb the ruling Argentine junta's human rights abuses during that time. It was a period of political strife and violent government crackdowns known as the Dirty War" in which thousands of perceived enemies of the state were "disappeared," the whereabouts of some still unknown to this day.
    "I think to take steps now, which could be interpreted as punitive, would be to invite criticism from moderate and conservative sectors in the U.S. at a time when we need their support on other issues. Moreover, I don't think it would be effective," Brzezinski wrote in a 1979 memo on what action should be taken in response to the junta's abuses to then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.
    While Brzezinski called for continued efforts to pressure Argentina on its human rights efforts he argued against punishing Argentina with actions like cutting back on export-import bank credits.
    Brzezinski, a celebrated expert in foreign policy circles, was an early backer of Barack Obama's bid for the presidency and served as an informal adviser to the then-senator.
    "Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don't live up to the ideals that we stand for. We've been slow to speak out for human rights, and that was the case here," Obama said after viewing a memorial park for victims of the repression that took place following a 1976 right-wing military coup.
    The documents detail US efforts to get its ally in the Cold War fight against communism to end its practice of "disappearing" dissidents, an act that included the detention and execution of regime opponents without any notification of their families.
    One 1979 communique from the US Embassy in Buenos Aires describes how the then-President of Argentina, Army Gen. Roberto Viola, railed about New York Times and Washington Post coverage of Argentina's policies and actions. Viola told the US ambassador that he was concerned such coverage would convince the US government to take "a capricious posture" toward his government.
    In the same cable, Viola was portrayed as bragging to the ambassador that the number of disappeared per month had decreased from 50 in 1978 to 22 that year.
    "You must admit there is a major improvement," Viola was reported to have told the ambassador.
    Eduardo Elena, a professor of Argentine history at the University of Miami, told CNN that the declassification of the documents coincided with a renewed effort to bolster US-Argentina relations.
    Elena said that Obama's March visit, which took place on the 40th anniversary of the coup, "provided a general show of support to recently-elected President Mauricio Macri, who espouses a more pro-US government and pro-Wall Street line than his predecessor President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner."
    "State-to-state relations are relatively smooth for the moment," he assessed. "Barring any dramatic revelations in the latest batch of documents, my sense is that this declassification won't alter radically US-Argentine relations in the present."
    According to the statement accompanying the documents' release, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said "the U.S. government will release additional declassified documents over the next 18 months as part of a comprehensive effort by over 14 government agencies and departments to search their records and declassify them for public access, consistent with the need to protect national security."
    Other documents pertaining to the "dirty war" have been released in previous years, with one Memorandum of Conversation concerning of a 1976 meeting between then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Argentine Adm. Guzzetti in Santiago, Chile, showing Kissinger saying, "If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures," in reference to the Argentine coup.