35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

‘Declassified Diplomacy’: Argentina

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First page from Document 01 White House, "President Carter/President Videla Bilateral," Confidential, Memorandum of Conversation, September 9, 1977
Published: Aug 11, 2016
Briefing Book #556

Edited by Peter Kornbluh and Carlos Osorio, with research support fromAdeline Hite

For further information, contact:
Carlos Osorio: cosorio@gwu.edu
Peter Kornbluh: peter.kornbluh@gmail.com

Declassified U.S. Records Highlight Argentine Military Abuses, Internal Carter White House Debate over Human Rights Policy

Kissinger Sought to Undermine Human Rights Message in Argentina

1,078 Pages of Records, mostly from Carter Presidential Library, Published

Obama Administration Credited with Important “Act of Declassified Diplomacy”

Washington, D.C., August 11, 2016 – In September 1980, the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires transmitted a detailed six-page cable, entitled “The Tactic of Disappearance,” to the State Department. Although the Argentine military regime had already “won the ‘dirty war,’” the cable stated, the military would not cease using “disappearance” as its preferred form of repression. “This unwillingness does not reflect simple bloody-mindedness by unthinking military men,” the Embassy reported in its comprehensive effort to explain the institutional mindset behind this horrific atrocity. (At least 22,000 people were “disappeared” during the first three years of the dictatorship.) “The military’s commitment to this method is profoundly rooted in elements that range from effectiveness through expediency to cultural bias.” The Embassy recommended enlisting the Vatican to advocate for ending these abuses in Argentina. “Getting the authorities to abandon this tactic will be an uphill battle. We must try.”

The “Tactic of Disappearance” cable was among 1,078 pages of formerly secret records released by the Obama administration this week; this special presidential declassification represents “the first tranche” of thousands of records, among them intelligence reporting from the CIA and Defense Department, that President Obama promised Argentines would be released in the coming months. “I believe we have a responsibility to confront the past with honesty and transparency,” Obama stated during a visit with human rights victims and activists in Buenos Aires on March 24, 2016, the 40th anniversary of the military coup.

“We are conscious of the lessons of the past,” Secretary of State Kerry stated on August 4 when he personally handed over the first installment of records during a meeting with President Mauricio Macri in Buenos Aires. He, too, noted that there would be “more to come in the future.”

To fulfill President Obama’s commitment, his administration plans a series of releases that will include CIA, FBI, Defense and State Department records. Several of the releases will take place during the next administration. The project is being coordinating by the White House records management office and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which posted the 1,078 pages on its website this week at this URL:

The National Security Archive, which has provided advice on numerous executive branch declassification projects, commended the Obama administration for the publication of records related to Argentina. “This release on Argentina marks an important step forward in the quest for truth, justice and historical accountability,” noted Carlos Osorio, who directs the Archive’s Southern Cone project. “The Obama administration,” according to senior analyst Peter Kornbluh, “has established a precedent and a pattern of using declassified diplomacy.  Obama’s legacy,” Kornbluh said, “will include making the declassification of secret government records a creative component of U.S. policy to advance human rights.”

The documents released this week derive almost exclusively from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. They include numerous White House memoranda recording internal disagreements between the NSC and the State Department over how to implement President Carter’s ground-breaking desire to make human rights a top priority in U.S. foreign policy.  Among the records are formerly secret memoranda of conversation between Carter and Argentine junta leader General Jorge Videla, as well as records of a meeting between Videla and Vice President Walter Mondale in Rome in 1978. The White House records reveal Carter’s personal intervention in obtaining the release of one of Argentina’s most famous political prisoners, newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman. They also reveal the consternation of U.S. officials at former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s efforts to challenge Carter’s human rights policy which, in essence, sought to repudiate Kissinger’s previous embrace of military dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere.

The National Security Archive today posted a selection of eight key White House and State Department records from the administration’s first release.