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A right to know what was done in our name

In a remarkably candid report, the CIA last week admitted that during the 1970s it had maintained a relationship with a top Chilean intelligence official eventually convicted of masterminding the car bombing assassination of political opponent Orlando Letelier.

The report, required in an amendment by Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, D-NY, to this year’s Intelligence Authorization Act, also admits that the CIA made a single cash payment in the mid-1970s to Manuel Contreras, who was head of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s feared Directorate of National Intelligence. The report is a significant step in the right direction toward answering nagging questions about some of the uglier chapters in recent U.S. history, particularly as they relate to Latin America.

Letelier and American Ronni Moffitt were killed in the 1976 bombing that occurred on Washington’s Embassy Row.

Contreras today remains in custody on a military base in Chile.

He was part of the state machinery put in place after a 1973 coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power.

In the 17 years of military rule that followed, terror and torture were the order of the regime. Thousands were “disappeared” under Pinochet’s brutal rule.

The significance of the recent report was explained by Peter Kornbluh, an expert of at the National Security Archive, in comments to The Washington Post. The document shows that the CIA during the Nixon administration played a significant role in propping up the Pinochet regime. “This report is the genie out of the bottle and it can’t be put back in,” Kornbluh said.

That is likely to be the feeling of many in the human rights and religious communities whose concerns were demeaned by the political establishment and conservative church groups at the time.

Revelations of CIA complicity in the Pinochet era present one more reason to renew the call we have made previously on this page for the establishment of a U.S. Truth Commission on Latin America.

CIA archives and other archives are undoubtedly stuffed with information on covert activities carried out in the name of the American people and fighting the Cold War -- from Argentina and Brazil to Guatemala and El Salvador. We have the right to know what was done in our name, not just to fill out the historical record, but to honor those who died at the hands of brutal regimes kept in power with U.S. help.

Such disclosure might also elevate to a new degree of respectability that healthy skepticism that demands accountability, not only as the questions apply to history but also to today’s circumstances.

If the United States was willing to cozy up to some of the bloodiest figures in this hemisphere to fight off an Evil Empire threat that was largely a construct of overheated Cold War imaginations, consider what we might do to preserve the flow of cheap oil or our place atop the globalization heap.

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000