Name that War Criminal (9/99)

In London recently to promote the latest installment of his memoirs, Henry Kissinger stormed out of a widely heard radio interview when the questioning turned to his complicity in war crimes. Radio 4 host Jeremy Paxman had asked the former secretary of state whether he felt like a fraud for getting a Nobel Peace Prize after plotting a coup in Chile and orchestrating slaughter in Cambodia. Kissinger denied everything, of course, and said his host was woefully misinformed, yet declined to show up for a BBC roundtable discussion scheduled for later that day.

Kissinger isn’t the only member of the political old guard who’s nervous at the moment. As former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet fights extradition to Spain, where he may eventually stand trial for his crimes, other potential defendants fret about the precedent being set. And the Clinton administration hasn’t been helping. In fact, its release of documents on Chile not only confirms what many have suspected – that the US actively promoted the coup against Salvador Allende and sanctioned the subsequent repression – it could also spark a hailstorm of damaging revelations.

The administration’s motives aren’t exactly pure. Bowing to pressure from the Spanish judge, human rights groups, and the families of victims, Clinton opted to ‘declassify what we can, so that we can say we did our share,’ explained one White House aide. But the potential to embarrass political opponents surely didn’t escape notice. Given the status of Texas Gov. George W. Bush as Republican presidential front-runner, his father’s connection to Pinochet’s crimes could become a factor – or at least a useful distraction – in the 2000 election. It’s never been clear precisely what Bush knew and did while CIA chief in the mid-1970s, when Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier and US co-worker Ronni Moffitt were assassinated in Washington and Chile’s intelligence arm, DINA, was sponsoring international terror.

What we do know is this: According to declassified documents that anyone can read on the National Security Archive website, Kissinger, Nixon, and CIA Director Richard Helms ordered a coup even before Allende assumed office. Kissinger and Alexander Haig worked out the details, described in an October 15, 1970, memo. ‘It is the firm and consistent policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup,’ wrote CIA Deputy Director of Plans Thomas Karamessines, who coordinated the operation. ‘We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG and American hand be well hidden.’

It took two years, but the goal was achieved. In a victory report, Naval attachŽ Patrick Ryan called September 11, 1972, ‘our D-day,’ noting that the coup ‘was close to perfect.’ Over the next few years, the State Department received detailed reports on the escalating death toll under Pinochet. Yet, a memo has Kissinger telling the general that the US is ‘sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.’

So, if Pinochet can be prosecuted for murder, torture, disappearances, rape, and genocide, why not the ‘sympathetic’ Kissinger or those responsible for mass mayhem elsewhere? As more documents are declassified, the list of possible defendants could grow. Pinochet’s case is slowly peeling away the veil of deniability, exposing high US officials who provided weapons, training, financial support, and even direct guidance for some of the worst modern violations of political and civil rights. It’s no wonder the US opposes the International Criminal Court, which could prosecute powerful individuals when domestic courts fail to act.

And if the Kissinger bunch can be exposed, albeit 25 years late, maybe we’ll get the truth about the Clinton gang someday. Right now, the focus is on Chile. But recent meddling in Mexico and the Sudan, not to mention atrocities committed in Iraq and Kosovo, will be equally damning when more of the story is revealed. Too bad it so often takes a generation – and political convenience – to get past the disinformation.

In any case, it’s encouraging to see Kissinger squirm and realize Bush could be next. Predictably, the ex-president calls the case against Pinochet ‘a travesty of justice.’ Even Britain’s Maggie Thatcher is edgy. The former prime minister has reportedly been making discreet inquiries to the Interior Ministry on the likelihood of being arrested while traveling abroad. An old friend of Pinochet, the Iron Lady is worried about being charged as a war criminal for her actions in Northern Ireland and the Falklands.

At least they’re on the defensive. Now the trick is to keep them there.

– Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom