Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles
Saturday December 6, 2003
Henry Kissinger gave his approval to the "dirty war" in Argentina in the 1970s in which up to 30,000 people were killed, according to newly declassified US state department documents.
Mr Kissinger, who was America's secretary of state, is shown to have urged the Argentinian military regime to act before the US Congress resumed session, and told it that Washington would not cause it "unnecessary difficulties".
The revelations are likely to further damage Mr Kissinger's reputation. He has already been implicated in war crimes committed during his term in office, notably in connection with the 1973 Chilean coup.
The material, obtained by the Washington-based National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act, consists of two memorandums of conversations that took place in October 1976 with the visiting Argentinian foreign minister, Admiral CÚsar Augusto Guzzetti. At the time the US Congress, concerned about allegations of widespread human rights abuses, was poised to approve sanctions against the military regime.
According to a verbatim transcript of a meeting on October 7 1976, Mr Kissinger reassured the foreign minister that he had US backing in whatever he did.
"Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed," Mr Kissinger is reported as saying. "I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems, but not the context.
"The quicker you succeed the better ... The human rights problem is a growing one ... We want a stable situation. We won't cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help."
One day earlier, October 6 1976, Adml Guzzetti was told by a senior state department official, Charles Robinson, that "it is possible to understand the requirement to be tough". Mr Robinson is also reported as saying that "the problem is that the United States is an idealistic and moral country and its citizens have great difficulty in comprehending the kinds of problems faced by Argentina today".
"There is a tendency to apply our moral standards abroad and Argentina must understand the reaction of Congress with regard to loans and military assistance. The American people, right or wrong, have the perception that today there exists in Argentina a pattern of gross violations of human rights."
The US ambassador to Argentina, Robert Hill, had been putting pressure on the regime to stop human rights abuses. But after Adml Guzzetti returned from Washington, Mr Hill wrote from Buenos Aires to complain that the Argentinian foreign minister had not heard the same message from Mr Kissinger.
Adml Guzzetti had told the ambassador that Mr Kissinger had merely urged Argentina to "be careful", and had said that if the terrorist problem could be resolved by December or January, "serious problems could be avoided in the US". Mr Hill wrote at the time: "Guzzetti went to US fully expecting to hear strong, firm, direct warnings on his government's human rights practices. He has returned in a state of jubilation, convinced that there is no real problem with the USG [government] over that issue."
The then US assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Harry Shlaudeman, who attended both the Kissinger and the Robinson meetings with Adml Guzzetti, replied to Mr Hill: "As in other circumstances you have undoubtedly encountered in your diplomatic career, Guzzetti heard only what he wanted to hear. He was told in detail how strongly opinion in this country has reacted against reports of abuses by the security forces in Argentina and the nature of the threat this poses to Argentine interests."
However, as the newly released documents make clear, Adml Guzzetti was correct to believe that the regime had, in effect, been given carte blanche by the US government to continue its activities.
In a previously released cable, Mr Hill reported how his human rights concerns were dismissed by the Argentinian president, Jorge Videla: "[The] president said he had been gratified when Guzzetti reported to him that secretary of state Kissinger understood their problem and had said he hoped they could get terrorism under control as quickly as possible.
"Videla said he had the impression senior officers of the USG [government] understood situation his government faces, but junior bureaucrats do not. I assured him this was not the case. We all hope Argentina can get terrorism under control quickly - but to do so in such a way as to do minimum damage to its image and to its relations with other governments. If security forces continue to kill people to tune of brass band, I concluded, this will not be possible."
The revelations, which were also announced at a conference in Argentina yesterday, confirm suspicions at the time that the regime would not have continued to carry out atrocities unless it had the tacit approval of the US, on which it was dependent for financial and military aid.
The junta, which ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, fell after the military's defeat in the Falklands war. During its period in power an estimated 30,000 people may have been arrested, tortured and killed. Many bodies have never been found.
An investigation into those crimes has begun in Argentina.
Mr Kissinger has been asked by the Chilean authorities to give evidence in connection with human rights abuses during the 1973 Chilean coup and the support he gave to the former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. He is likely to be asked to do the same in Argentina.
He reportedly does not travel abroad without consulting his lawyers about the possibility of his arrest.