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The Ugly Cynicism of Obama’s Declassification Diplomacy

The president used his trip to Argentina to declassify documents related to the country's dirty war. Why did he wait so long?

Nicolas Kamm/Getty Images

“I don’t want to go through the list of every activity of the United States in Latin America over the last 100 years,” said President Barack Obama. This was his way of responding to a question from La Nación’s Martín Dinatale, who asked Obama during his trip to Argentina this week how he would characterize the role the United States played in South America’s Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1970s. It’s not a line of inquiry American presidents are accustomed to, and it showed in Obama’s sweeping evasion.

According to Argentina’s newly elected President Mauricio Macri, it was a “total coincidence” that Obama came to Argentina on the 40th anniversary of the country’s most recent and most bloody military coup. Incidental or not, the timing didn’t go over well with Argentina’s human rights community. Internationally renowned for their heroic, pioneering work and their well-honed talent for disruptive protest, groups like the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo let it be known that Obama would not be welcome on March 24. One prominent leader called his mere presence an “insult to the historic memory of the Argentinian people.” On the day Obama arrived, demonstrators took to the streets of Buenos Aires to burn American flags.

Anticipating a groundswell of public resentment, the White House announced ahead of the president’s visit that Obama would be ordering the declassification of previously undisclosed U.S. government files documenting the extermination of political leftists carried out by the Argentine regime. “It takes courage for a society to address uncomfortable truths about the darker parts of its past,” said Obama, following a tour of the Parque de la Memoria, a monument to victims of state terrorism. “The United States when it reflects on what happened here has to reflect on its own past.” Unlike previous releases initiated by the Clinton administration, which were limited to State Department records, the new round of documents compile materials from the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon.

It could take anywhere from six months to several years for the review process to run its course, but once it has, the impact will be immediate and profound. As many as 30,000 people were “disappeared” during the seven years of military rule that followed the 1976 overthrow of the government of Isabel Perón. That the exact number varies widely—that so many families continue to live with the agony of uncertainty—is one compelling reason for the Obama administration to have acceded to the longstanding declassification requests. Add to that the ongoing prosecution of military and police officials and the hundreds of stolen grandchildren yet to be identified, and it’s difficult to overstate the power of something so straightforward and elusive as the truth.

What we know already is damning enough. We know about the rapes and tortures. We know about the instruments used to perform them. We know about the babies born in captivity and given away to their parents’ murderers. We know about the midnight helicopter rides over the Río de la Plata, and the icy plunge to the waters below. We know that, in 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Argentine foreign minister, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.” And we know that, despite all the U.S. government came to know about those “things,” it continued to protect and support the people and institutions carrying them out.

What we don’t quite know is just how close that coordination ultimately was—which brings us back to the original question, the one Obama dodged at the Casa Rosada press conference on Wednesday: What was the United States’s role? It’s been asked each time the White House has moved forward with these kinds of disclosures over the past two decades. And it will be asked again after this disclosure is completed. Because for all that declassification can do to advance justice and societal healing in Argentina, the extent and nature of the United States’s involvement was not limited to one country, nor can it be understood on a case-by-case basis. Any answer that pretends otherwise is just another evasion.

The events that occurred on March 24, 1976 were, by then, a foregone conclusion. Argentina was the only country in the Southern Cone that wasn’t being ruled by military dictatorship, but it had been less than a decade since the last armed takeover, and its feeble democracy was teetering. In 1974, two years before they would officially supplant the government, important elements within the military and intelligence apparatus began taking part in what would later come to be known as Operation Condor.

Condor, explains Long Island University political science professor J. Patrice McSherry in Predatory States, was a “secret intelligence and operations system … through which the South American military states shared intelligence and seized, tortured, and executed political opponents in one another’s territory.” Its formal charter document was signed in Santiago, Chile, in the fall of 1975, by representatives from Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. (Brazil would sign on soon after.) But it had started functioning on the preliminary basis of “gentlemen’s agreements” well before that.

Condor’s most notorious assassination—the 1976 car-bombing of Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean diplomat—was perpetrated in Washington, D.C., of all places. But from the beginning, Argentina was its primary staging ground. Because the edifice of democratic governance held up longer there than in the other member countries, dissidents and exiles had flocked to Argentina from across the region. Condor, in that sense, provided an intuitive solution to the logistical limitations that borders and foreign sovereignty imposed on internal state repression. You scratch my back, I’ll track, hunt, and turn over this “subversive” who’s causing you problems from abroad. There was no longer anywhere to run. The Southern Cone countries had put aside their differences and come together in a project of unprecedented transnational terror. 

The covert mechanisms themselves may have had a certain macabre logic to them, but the outward result was chaos. Condor, writes McSherry, was designed to create a “pervading sense of ambiguity, unreality, and dread.” Under its purview, repression achieved maximum reach with minimum exposure. A Brazilian activist living in Buenos Aires might be picked up by Uruguayan police and handed over to Chilean intelligence for torture. Complicating matters further was the deployment of criminal networks and extralegal extremist factions as operational assets. Anything could happen to anyone anywhere, and no one would have any idea who was behind it.

This built-in deniability made it especially difficult to mount credible claims on the international stage. It was hard enough to prove that one government had committed a given crime, much less that six were involved on some level of collusion.

Yet another step removed were the CIA handlers and military intelligence liaisons sending detailed reports on Condor’s day-to-day goings on back to their superiors in Washington. This article isn’t the place for a careful breakdown of who knew what when. There is abundant evidence that high-level U.S. officials were well-aware of various operational minutiae and shifting structural dynamics, virtually in real time. This, along with diplomatic communications and chatter, suggest, at the very least, that U.S. foreign policy took Condor as a positive development to be fostered, rather than the multilateral war crime it in fact constituted.

U.S. involvement, said Peter Kornbluh, the senior analyst head of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentations Project, is the “gaping historical hole” in our present understanding of Condor. McSherry told the New Republic that a “thorough investigation and complete public report” are the only way to shake the “unavoidable conclusion” she arrives at in her book: “that select U.S. forces had complete knowledge of—and provided unambiguous operational support to—Condor intelligence and hunter-killer operations.”

That last claim is based on Condor’s reported use of a classified U.S. communications network for planning and intelligence-sharing purposes. The network, access to which would have been tightly restricted, was housed in the Panama Canal Zone, not far from the School of the Americas, the elite military training academy infamous for graduating a number of Condor heavies, and various other noteworthy psychopaths, besides.

You don’t have to go digging through the last 100 years, as Barack Obama suggested, to start identifying the U.S.’s less than noble role in the upheavals that convulsed South America in the 1970s and continue to be felt today. Operation Condor will do.

The term “declassification diplomacy” originated in a series of highly successful attempts by the Clinton administration to foster good will in the region through information-sharing and peace-making. By the end of his second term, Clinton had opened the books on Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile—over the strong objections of the CIA and Pentagon, when it came to the latter. He got started on Argentina too late to force cooperation from the intelligence and military agencies, so the prospect of a fuller disclosure has been sitting there until now, waiting for someone to spend it as political capital.

President Obama has borrowed this tool from Clinton before. He sent stacks of declassified documents with Joe Biden and John Kerry, respectively, on visits to Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Michelle Bachelet of Chile, both of whom were tortured by their governments during the Condor years. This time he himself is delivering the message, part of a broader effort to prop up Macri’s pro-business, trade-friendly politics, after more than a decade of antagonistic relations with his predecessors the Kirchners.

Declassification diplomacy, as Obama has practiced it, has been an effective but cynical tactic. We’re left to wonder, for instance, how much longer the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo’s declassification request would have languished if Obama’s trip hadn’t happened to fall on such an unfortunate date. “These are political decisions,” said Carlos Osorio, the senior analyst for the National Security Archive’s Argentina Documentation Project and an expert witness who’s been called to testify in human rights trials in Argentina. “They have to do with diplomatic gestures to a particular country.” Administration officials, he said, “are aware of Operation Condor. They’ve been educated about it.” But “what drives them isn’t a research perspective or a historical perspective, it’s looking for an answer to a political situation.”

This is a shortsighted approach, even if you don’t hold accountability for heinous wrongdoing to be a worthwhile pursuit in and of itself. “Security” and “improved governance” come up a lot in Obama’s Latin America foreign policy. But so many of the security crises and corruption sagas throughout the hemisphere have their roots in historical eras that have been deliberately obscured. In Guatemala, the failure to effectively prosecute the war crimes of the civil war established the conditions in which impunity and rank profiteering could fester at the highest levels of government. In Chile, Augusto Pinochet’s son-in-law this week emerged at the center of a major campaign finance scandal.

After 40 years, said Kornbluh, keeping U.S. records on the region secret “essentially becomes a protracted cover-up.” Releasing them on a country-by-country basis prioritizes good strategic publicity over the stated goals of U.S. statecraft. “We have learned some of the lessons that we may not have fully learned at an earlier time,” Obama said in Buenos Aires Wednesday. But how can you learn lessons from stories that haven’t been told yet?