WASHINGTON - For all his renown as one of the world's leading voices on international affairs, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's twilight years are not passing so easily. At age 79, his legacy is the subject of scrutiny, protests, international legal disputes and even a federal lawsuit.
Now, there are even more questions, thanks to the release by the State Department earlier this month of 4,667 official U.S. documents relating to the ''dirty war'' in Argentina from 1976 until 1983 in which military death squads killed thousands of suspected leftists.
The new batch of declassified cables has revived debate that surged last year with publication of The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a polemical book by British writer Christopher Hitchens, who suggested that the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize laureate should be tried for war crimes.
The newly released documents reveal that Argentine military officers believed they had the green light from Washington -- and perhaps Kissinger -- to carry out the brutal campaign.
The hounding of Henry Kissinger is the result not only of declassified U.S. documents but also global trends empowering judges to reach across frontiers, a desire by aggrieved relatives to seek justice, and perhaps a dose of publicity-seeking by his many ideological opponents. And it has forced Kissinger to watch his step abroad out of concern that a judge might order his arrest:
• In mid-March, Kissinger canceled a trip to Brazil amid reports a judge might detain him.
• In April, protesters taunted him outside London's Royal Albert Hall.
• A month later, police arrived at his Paris hotel to serve him with questions from a French judge. Chile's Supreme Court, meanwhile, also wants answers from Kissinger about a 1973 coup.
''His movements are somewhat restricted because of the legal actions being taken against him,'' said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Kissinger's office in New York City referred calls to William Rogers, his lawyer, who rejected any suggestion that Kissinger gave a green light to human rights abuses in the Southern Cone countries. Rogers said ''a cabal of Hitchens-minded people'' is attacking Kissinger to ``create some notoriety for themselves.''
''It's show business. This stuff is utterly tendentious. There has never been a credible objective analysis that he has committed an international crime,'' Rogers said.
Rogers, who served as assistant secretary of state for Latin America under Kissinger, dismissed suggestions from Kissinger critics that he supported efforts to crush armed leftists in the Southern Cone region as part of the great battle against the Soviet Union. In both Chile and Argentina, Soviet- or Cuban-backed guerrillas carried out rebel campaigns.
``I don't think this [region] was terribly important in the Cold War context. As Henry once said, `Chile is a dagger pointed straight at the heart of Antarctica, Rogers said.
The newly released documents contain a handful of accounts of how Argentine military officers interpreted Kissinger's views of their campaign to crush leftist subversives.
Argentina's military, which held power from 1976 until 1983, snatched between 9,000 and 30,000 people off the streets, leaving them ''missing'' and inflicting scars that still affect the nation.
One document from Oct. 19, 1976, noted that Argentina's foreign minister returned from Washington ''in a state of jubilation,'' convinced after meeting Kissinger, who was then secretary of state in the Ford administration, that U.S. officials simply wanted the Argentine terror campaign over quickly. The impression left the Argentine official ''euphoric,'' the cable said.
Kissinger left his post in early 1977, when President Carter came to office and declared that U.S. relations with foreign partners would depend on their human rights record.
Even out of office, Kissinger had an impact in Argentina, the diplomatic cables show. As the Carter administration sharpened its attack on Argentina's military junta for its atrocities, Kissinger traveled to Buenos Aires as ''the guest'' of the dictator, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, to view the 1978 World Cup soccer tournament, the U.S. ambassador wrote in a June 1978 cable.
According to the cable by Raul Castro, a former governor of Arizona who was then the U.S. ambassador, Kissinger held an ''off the cuff talk'' at one point with prominent foreign affairs experts.
''He explained his opinion [that] GOA [government of Argentina] had done an outstanding job in wiping out terrorist forces. But also cautioned that methods used in fighting terrorism must not be perpetuated,'' the cable said.
''My only concern,'' Ambassador Castro concluded, 'is that Kissinger's repeated high praise for Argentina's action in wiping out terrorism and his stress on the importance of Argentina may have gone to some considerable extent to his hosts' heads.
``Despite his disclaimers that the methods used in fighting terrorism must not be perpetuated, there is some danger that Argentines may use Kissinger's laudatory statements as justification for hardening their human rights stance.''
The latest round of declassification has renewed bitter feelings among some retired senior State Department officials with long-held beliefs that Kissinger signaled to the Argentine military that he did not disapprove of their repression, as long as it was done speedily.
''I think he was complicit,'' said Patricia Derian, who was an assistant secretary of state for human rights under President Carter. ``He was in a position to influence them greatly -- both in and out of office. Mistreatment of citizens by a government was given the nod.''
Rogers, the Kissinger attorney, called the suggestion of complicity ''appalling'' and inaccurate. ``What was done down there was done by the Argentines. We weren't controlling it.''
In his speech in London on April 24, Kissinger referred obliquely to the notion that he might be obligated to respond some day in a court of law for his foreign policy record.
''No one can say that he served in an administration that did not make mistakes,'' Kissinger said. ``The issue is whether 30 years after the event, courts are the appropriate means by which determination is made.''
Kissinger is also facing a passel of legal troubles related to the 1970-1973 rule in Chile of Salvador Allende, the first socialist president elected there in a popular vote, and U.S. support for an army coup against him that installed a military dictatorship that ruled until 1990.
Last Sept. 10, two surviving sons of a Chilean military commander slain in 1970 filed a federal lawsuit in Washington seeking $3 million from Kissinger and then CIA Director Richard Helms for allegedly supporting the military squad that carried out the assassination.
The commander, Gen. Rene Schneider, was no friend of Allende but adamantly opposed a U.S.-supported military revolt to block his ascension to power. Schneider was shot on his way to work on Oct. 22, 1970, two days before Congress was to confirm Allende in the presidency.
An attorney for Schneider's sons, René and Raúl, said the suit is based on declassified U.S. documents released over the past two years that identify Kissinger as coordinator of a ''Track II'' plan in 1970 that gave $35,000 to the squad after it carried off the Schneider slaying.
''Our case shows, document by document, that he was involved in great detail in supporting the people who killed Gen. Schneider, and then paid them off,'' attorney Michael Tigar said.
In a separate case, the Chilean Supreme Court has sent a series of questions to the U.S. State Department, in what is called letters rogatory, seeking responses from Kissinger about the death of Charles Horman, an American killed in the days following the 1973 coup that toppled Allende. The U.S.-supported coup brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power.
The State Department said it responded to the Chileans last week but declined to disclose the content of the response.
In still a third matter, a criminal judge in Chile said he might investigate Kissinger in relation to Operation Condor, in which military dictatorships in the Southern Cone exchanged information to help each other kidnap and kill hundreds of political opponents.
If declassified documents have caused problems for Kissinger, it may not be over. When Kissinger left office in early 1977, he took with him tens of thousands of pages of transcripts of telephone conversations.
In February, Kissinger was pressured to turn those over to the National Archives and Records Administration, and they are under review.
They may be released to the public sometime in 2003.