Declassifying documents ||| Sunlight diplomacy

| BUENOS AIRES

Truth at last

ON THE morning of September 21st 1976, Orlando Letelier, a Chilean dissident, was at the wheel of his Chevrolet Malibu on his way to work at a think-tank in Washington, DC. A former foreign minister in Salvador Allende’s government, he had been jailed by the military regime that took power in 1973. After his release, he went to the United States and became one of the junta’s most prominent critics. He wrote letters and lobbied Congress to withdraw military aid to the generals. His work had not gone unnoticed in Santiago, Chile’s capital. As his car rounded Sheridan Circle a bomb beneath his seat exploded, killing him and Ronni Moffitt, a colleague sitting beside him. The murder is the only state-sponsored terrorist attack to have struck the United States’ capital.

For decades people suspected that Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s military dictator, was behind the murder. Evidence of that came to light only in October 2015, when John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, gave Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s president, a pen drive containing hundreds of newly declassified documents. One of them, a memo in 1987 from George Shultz, an earlier secretary of state, to Ronald Reagan, quoted a CIA finding that “President Pinochet personally ordered his intelligence chief to carry out the murders.” The revelation came too late to be used to try the despot; he died in 2006. Chile welcomed it anyway. “It helps us to clarify a painful historical moment for our country,” said Heraldo Muñoz, Chile’s then-foreign minister.

Mr Kerry’s disclosure was an example of “declassification diplomacy”, the use of once-secret documents to shed light on the United States’ role in past conflicts (or knowledge about them) and thereby improve its standing in the world. Some of the revelations make past administrations look bad. But those who support the policy say they can heal wounds, advance American goals and provide evidence in trials of abusive officials.

Mr Kerry delivered the Letelier documents to Ms Bachelet as part of an effort to persuade her to accept detainees released from Guantánamo Bay. In 2014 Joe Biden, the United States’ vice-president, handed documents to Brazil’s then-president, Dilma Rousseff, with information about torture by the country’s military government in the 1970s. This was an attempt to repair relations after Edward Snowden disclosed that American spies had tapped her phone. In March this year Barack Obama said the United States would give Argentina files on its role in the “dirty war” waged by Argentina’s military government against its own citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. These revealed that Henry Kissinger, the United States’ top diplomat in the 1970s, had continued after he left office to express sympathy for a crackdown on dissent by Argentina’s military rulers. Mr Obama hoped the declassification would deflect criticism during his visit to Buenos Aires on the 40th anniversary of the coup.

Bill Clinton was the first American president to authorise a project to declassify Pentagon and CIA documents related to human-rights abuses in Latin America. During the 1990s his administration released material on military regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala and Chile. But these disclosures were generally reactions to events, such as Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1998, argues Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, a Washington-based NGO that helps researchers find such documents. Mr Obama, by contrast, uses document dumps proactively as a tool of United States foreign policy, Mr Kornbluh says.

It is earlier disclosures that are now showing up as evidence in courts. One haul, released in 1993, may help the prosecution in the trial of 20 military officers accused of murdering six Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador in 1989. Declassified documents will provide 40% of the evidence against the defendants, says Almudena Bernabeu, who has prosecuted human-rights cases in Latin America.

Declassification diplomacy has critics. People who regard Mr Obama as the United States’ “apologist-in-chief” think it strengthens their case. A more convincing objection is that it can upset settlements in countries trying to overcome past conflicts. Ironically, “here the US is intervening again, this time with a moral heavy hand,” says Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University in New York. “That can reopen old wounds.” He is worried about Colombia, which is on the verge of ending a 52-year-long war with the leftist FARC guerrilla group. Fighters who confess to human-rights crimes will not serve time in jail under the proposed peace agreement. The United States will have to be careful about declassifying documents that might disrupt that accord, Mr Sabatini says.

Nor does declassification always work as a diplomatic gambit. Ms Bachelet did not accept Guantánamo detainees. Still, the United States has set an example of openness that should be copied by more secretive regimes, such as Cuba’s. Further releases of American documents could help convict perpetrators of crimes in Chile and El Salvador. But time is running out. Whether ageing war criminals are brought to justice will depend in part on the next occupant of the White House.