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It’s time for a U.S. truth commission

The news about recently declassified government documents that shed new light on the brutality of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime in 1970s Chile caused little more than a blip on the culture’s radar screen last week.

The documents, showing that the U.S. government knew far more than it admitted at the time about the murder of two Americans by the Pinochet regime, are 26 years old. According to a Feb. 13 New York Times story, the recently declassified memos showed that the State Department “concluded from almost the beginning that the Pinochet government had killed the men, Charles Horman, 31, and Frank Teruggi, 24.” The two were friends working on behalf of the government of Socialist President Salvador Allende, overthrown by Pinochet. The episode became the basis for the 1982 movie “Missing.”

The documents also suggest that U.S. intelligence-gatherers may have passed on information that led Pinochet’s new regime to target Horman and Teruggi.

“At best [this role] was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the government of Chile,” one of the newly declassified memos said. “At worst, U.S. intelligence was aware the government of Chile saw Horman in a rather serious light, and U.S. officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of government of Chile paranoia.”

A quarter of a century ago, when these memos first circulated among government agencies, the United States categorically denied any involvement in or knowledge of the case.

The government lied.

It was complicit in the deaths of two of its citizens.

That the revelations have caused little more than a ripple is indicative, perhaps, of what we’ve come to expect.

Still, it is wildly contradictory of the United States, which demands accountability from so many others around the globe, to hold itself above scrutiny in its own hemisphere. The story that continues to unravel from that era points to U.S. involvement in a far wider scheme of collaboration with bloody dictators and human rights abuses.

The attitude that has colored our dealings with Latin America was glaringly evident in the remarks of retired Capt. Ray E. Davis, chief of the U.S. military group at the American Embassy at the time of the killings.

According to the Times story, Davis in a recent interview recalled “he had welcomed Gen. Pinochet at his home, but was in no position to demand that Chilean army commanders answer for the killings, and had not been ordered to do so. ‘We weren’t down there to cause trouble,’ he said, ‘We sold them weapons.’ ”

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, interviewed for the same story, brushed off the news with the explanation that he had never seen the documents or the recommendations and had been out of the country much of the time. “It’s very easy, 30 years after the event, to be so heroic and to create the impression that one had nothing else to do except follow one particular case. If it were brought to my attention I would have done something.”

Kissinger would have to have been not only out of the country but in an isolation chamber away from all newspapers, television reports and his own department briefings to have been ignorant of accusations of U.S. involvement with Pinochet.

The attitudes of Kissinger and Davis are emblematic of the arrogant excesses of our Cold War involvement in Latin America. Clinton has done human rights advocates and religious activists a favor by ordering declassification of the documents on Chile. But that should be only the beginning. The archives of U.S. military and intelligence agencies hold so much more that would begin to tell the truth of what happened in the latter half of this century in areas of Latin America.

Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries have undergone various methods and degrees of squaring up with ugly pasts that involved gross human rights violations. Countries have published reports of those dark periods and they have been subjected to the scrutiny of truth commissions, investigations by internal agencies and by international bodies.

In many of the instances, the United States has been heavily implicated as complicit in the abuses, in backing brutal military dictators and in aiding and abetting the gruesome death squads and other machinery of such regimes.

Flip comments and dismissals from former officials may stay the day of reckoning for a time. It would be far better for the soul of the culture, however, if we had a U.S. truth commission and subjected ourselves to the same kind of scrutiny we applaud elsewhere.

Open the documents. Tell the truth. And ask forgiveness.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000