30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Declassification Diplomacy: Trump Administration Turns Over Massive Collection of Intelligence Records on Human Rights and Argentina

Published: Apr 12, 2019
Briefing Book #669

Edited by Carlos Osorio and Peter Kornbluh

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

47,000 Pages of CIA, FBI, NSC, DOD and State Dept. Records Touted as “Largest” Government-to-Government Transfer of Declassified Documentation

Documents Spotlight Buenos Aires Base for International Death Squad Operations sponsored by Condor States; Record Ruthless Repression by Argentine Security Forces during Military Dictatorship, 1976-1983

National Security Archive Commends Completion of U.S. Government’s Special Argentina Project as ‘Model of Declassification Diplomacy’ and Major Contribution to the Cause of Human Rights and History

Declassification Diplomacy: Trump Administration Turns Over Massive Collection of Intelligence Records on Human Rights and Argentina

Washington D.C., April 12, 2019 – In late May 1976, the secret police chieftains of six Southern Cone military regimes gathered at a clandestine summit in Santiago, Chile, to create a “new unit, which was given the code name ‘Teseo’”—a reference to Theseus, the mythical Greek King of the Athenians and heroic slayer of the Minotaur, among other enemies. The mission of “Teseo” was to “conduct physical attacks against subversive targets” abroad, particularly militant Latin American leftists in Europe, according to formerly secret CIA intelligence reports turned over today to Argentina by the U.S. government, and posted for the first time by the nongovernmental National Security Archive.

The "Teseo" program represented a new initiative under "Operation Condor"—the clandestine collaboration of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil to strike at their opposition in the Southern Cone and beyond.  At the time, the CIA also managed to obtain the “text of the agreement by Condor countries regulating their operations against subversive targets”—a comprehensive planning paper on financing, staffing, logistics, training, and selection of targets that reveals both the banal and dramatic details of organizing and implementing Condor’s “Teseo” death squad operations. The “Teseo” operations base would be located “at Condor 1 (Argentina).”  Each member country was expected to donate $10,000 to offset operational costs; and dues of $200 would be paid “prior to the 30th of each month” for maintenance expenses of the operations center. Expenses for agents on assassination missions abroad were estimated at $3,500 per person for ten days, “with an additional $1000 first time out for clothing allowance.”

Individuals to be eliminated, the Condor agreement stated, would be proposed by member services with “final selection…by vote and on the basis of a simple majority.” As a chilling section titled “Execution of the Target” explained: “This is the responsibility of the operational team which will (A) intercept the target, (B) Carry out the Operation, and (C) Escape. With the exception of the team leaders,” the planning paper stated, “the members of the intelligence and operational teams should not know each other for security and functional reasons.”

 

THE UNITED STATES DECLASSIFICATION PROJECT FOR ARGENTINA

The revealing CIA “intelligence information cables” on Operation Condor are part of a major collection of records released on April 12 at a government event in Washington D.C., "Declassification Diplomacy: The United States Declassification Project for Argentina." During the diplomatic ceremony, hosted by U.S. Archivist David Ferriero at the National Archives, U.S. officials completed the turnover of some 7500 CIA, FBI, DOD, NSC and State Department records—47,000 pages in total—to Argentina’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights, German Garavano. Garavano graciously thanked the Trump administration for fulfilling a formal request for the records by the Argentine government, made on the fortieth anniversary of the military coup during a state visit to Argentina by then-President Barack Obama.

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Official Invitation to Ceremony on Transfer of Declassified Documents to Argentina

 

“I believe we have a responsibility to confront the past with honesty and transparency,” Obama stated at Remembrance Park in Buenos Aires on March 24, 2016, paying tribute to the tens of thousands of human rights victims of Argentina’s ‘dirty war” while pledging to release U.S. intelligence files on atrocities committed during the military dictatorship.

Before Obama left office, his administration released the first two tranches of Argentina records, drawn from documents on file at the Presidential libraries. During a summit meeting with Argentine President Mauricio Macri in April 2017, President Trump personally handed him a diskette containing another tranche of records. But, three years after Obama’s initial authorization, the most sensitive and revealing intelligence documents are only now being released, marking the completion of the Declassification Project for Argentina.

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President Trump personally handed President Mauricio Macri a diskette containing a third tranche of records

 

In his closing remarks at today’s ceremony, National Security Archive analyst Carlos Osorio, who served as an advisor to the Argentina Declassification Project, commended the U.S. government for pursuing what he called “one of the most comprehensive discretionary declassifications of sensitive intelligence records in recent history.”  “The Argentina Project represents a new model of declassification diplomacy, and more,” Osorio said. “The release of these documents stands as a uniquely valuable contribution to the cause of human rights, the cause of justice and the cause of our fundamental right-to-know.”

President Macri, has also lauded the special declassification. “This is the largest amount of information that the United States has ever transferred to another country,” Macri announced on Twitter. “These documents will play a fundamental role in advancing justice for still unresolved issues of the past, one of the darkest periods of Argentine history.”

 

HIGHLIGHTS AND VALUE OF THE COLLECTION

Precisely because these records were predominantly generated by the intelligence community—and appear less redacted than previous declassifications—the Argentina documents may well play an evidentiary role in future human rights judicial cases. The documents name names of perpetrators—as identified by the sources of information in the records—as well as provide specific and harrowing details on their countless human rights atrocities and their victims. The records, Osorio points out, “clarify the fate of dozens of disappeared Argentines who vanished without a trace, until now.”

Moreover, the declassification project has produced a historical roadmap that charts what and when U.S. national security agencies and policy makers knew about the human rights abuses in Argentina—and the actions they took, or failed to take, in response to detailed intelligence on internal and international repression by the military regime.

Among the categories of critical information and key revelations contained in the new Argentina collection are the following:

* The Argentina documents include hundreds of detailed FBI reports and cables drafted by the Bureau’s legal attaché in Buenos Aires, Robert S. Scherrer. Scherrer became renowned as the intrepid lead investigator in the September 1976 Washington, D.C., car-bomb assassination of former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Scherrer’s sources pointed the finger of responsibility at General Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean secret police, DINA; Scherrer’s famous “Chilbom” cable, written only eight days after the bombing, suggested the assassination was part of a “phase three” mission of Operation Condor. That cable has now been declassified fully unredacted, identifying Scherrer’s source as an agent at Argentina’s presidential intelligence service, the Secretaria de Inteligencia del Estado, SIDE.

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FBI agent Robert Scherrer

 

But Scherrer also reported on his sources’ objections to the Carter administration’s new emphasis on human rights, and the obstacles created by “the human rights problem” to gathering information and maintaining intelligence liaisons. “Several Argentine military contacts have privately informed Legat that they suspect the Central Intelligence Agency provided information [to the State Department] concerning Argentine intelligence service methods used in repressing terrorists, which admittedly were harsh,” Scherrer noted in a June 15, 1977, report. “For this reason, it has become apparent that Argentine Government officials in Buenos Aires are being extremely cautious, in order not to divulge information which might be harmful to Argentina in the human rights area.” Scherrer reported that he had “successfully been able to avoid [a] lack of cooperation by his contacts because of the human rights problem by pointing out that he represents the FBI and his duties do not include gathering intelligence on human rights in Argentina.”

Now declassified, however, his reporting provides the most specific details on case after case of human rights violations while he served as the FBI representative in Buenos Aires.

* At the highest levels of the CIA, the Agency was well aware of Operation Condor’s plans to send assassination teams to European nations to kill leaders of the Junta de Coordinacion Revolucionaria (JCR), an umbrella organization of the militant leftist movements based in Paris, Lisbon, and other European cities. A series of declassified memos written by the CIA’s Latin America Division chief, Raymond A. Warren in July and August 1976—only several weeks before the Letelier-Moffitt carbombing in Washington D.C.—reveals that the CIA was concerned that such operations would have “adverse political ramifications for the Agency should 'Condor' engage in assassinations and other flagrant violations of human rights,” as well as repurcussions for their own liaisons with the Condor intelligence services and the Western European intelligence services. "Every precaution must be taken," Warren wrote to the deputy director of the CIA, "to ensure that the Agency is not wrongfully accused of being a party to this type of activity."

* Those Western intelligence agencies, CIA documents reveal, had their own interest in Operation Condor. In a cable titled “Visit of Representatives of West German, French and British Intelligence Services to Argentina to Discuss Methods for Establishment of an Anti-Subversive Organization Similar to ‘Çondor’,” the CIA reported that their European counter-parts “believed it best if they pooled their intelligence resources in a cooperative organization such as Condor” to better fight the threat of terrorism on the European continent and had visited Buenos Aires in September 1977 to learn more about “the management, administrative and technical aspects related to Condor.”

* Numerous documents provide information on the fates of disappeared Argentines, among them members and leaders of the urban guerilla group, the Montoneros. In a secret August 1975 FBI cable, Robert Scherrer reported on the detention and execution of Montonero leader Marcos Osatinsky. Osatinsky was arrested by the security forces of provincial governor Raul Lacabanne and so severely tortured that a decision was made to execute him, according to a secret FBI report. The authorities then staged his death to make it appear he had been killed during an effort to rescue policemen the Montoneros had supposedly taken hostage. To hide evidence of their abuses, Lacabanne’s security personnel went so far as to hijack the hearse that was transporting Osatinsky’s body from Cordoba to Tucuman.  “The purpose of stealing his body was to prevent the body from being subjected to an autopsy, which would have clearly shown he had been tortured,” Scherrer reported. “It is doubtful that Osatinsky’s body will ever turn up.”

* FBI and CIA reports also shed considerable light on the August 1976 operation by SIDE agents to kidnap, torture, and execute two members of the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires, Jesus Cejas Arias and Cresencio Galanena Hernandez. The two were kidnapped by SIDE agents outside the Embassy on August 9, 1976, and transported to the infamous torture center, Automotores Orletti. According to one CIA report, they were “tortured at the detention center for forty-eight hours. They were then killed and their bodies dumped in the Parana River.” The CIA identified one of the SIDE agents by his alias, “Anibal Gordon.”

* A CIA Intelligence Information Cable revealed that SIDE agents also disappeared and murdered Argentina’s own ambassador to Venezuela, Hector Hidalgo Sola, in July 1977. CIA sources described it as a rogue operation “to demand money from his family.” The SIDE team was lead by “Anibal Gordon” but also included the son-in-law of former SIDE Director, Otto Paladino, according to CIA sources.

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Gwenda Loken passport application

 

* Declassified FBI and State Department records also shed light on the cases of at least three U.S. citizens who were detained and tortured by Argentine security forces—Patricia Erb, Mercedes Bender and Gwen Loken. The FBI file on Loken indicates she was under surveillance by the FBI for her activities as part of Socialist Youth Alliance and that information on her entry into Argentina may have been shared with the security forces prior to her arrest.

* U.S. documents re-confirmed the sadistic nature of the Argentine military’s human rights violations. One State Department summary of such activities cited the torture of a psychologist, confined to a wheelchair because of polio, who was “interrogated with electric picana” for the sole purpose of obtaining information on one of her patients. The same report revealed that the Argentine military used injections of a powerful anesthetic, Ketalar, on captured victims who were then “disposed of in rivers or the ocean.”

* Since the CIA, FBI, and Defense Intelligence Agency were tasked to focus on countering leftist movements in Latin America, the Argentina collection includes massive amounts of reporting on leftist parties, organizations, and militant movements, among them the Montoneros, ERP, and the Junta de Coordinacion Revolucionaria [JCR]—described in one CIA report as “an umbrella organization for coordinating regional operations” of liberation groups, which shifted from support for guerrilla action to propaganda operations in Europe. After human rights abuses became a significant U.S. foreign policy issue in the mid and late 1970s, cable traffic to Washington included more evidence of torture and disappearances. But there is ample evidence in the records released today of tensions between U.S. agencies about how, and how far, to press the policy of human rights.

Finally exhumed from the sensitive compartmented information facilities (SCIFS) where they have remained classified for almost four decades, the Argentina documents provide a historical record that is highly likely to impact future efforts toward accountability in Argentina, provide long-awaited information for victims and their families, and advance the next generation of analysis and scholarship on the military era.  

To assist that process, the National Security Archive is planning a series of postings on Operation Condor, specific human rights cases, and other revelations contained in the Declassification Project for Argentina.

 

Read the documents

(chronological order) *

* These documents were identified and described with the help of undergraduate students from the College of William & Mary as part of a research internship led by Professor Silvia Tandeciarz and assisted by Johanna Weech. We would like to acknowledge the following students: Arianna Asfari, Emily Jackson, Pedro Ramos, Isabella Dickens-Bowman, and Johanna Weech (Spring 2018); Lauren Bauer, Grayson Cox, Emily Kate Earls, Brianna Ferebee, Molly Keck, Megan Leu, and Johanna Weech (Spring 2019).