State Department's 'Chaperons' Meddle

Aryeh Neier is the vice chairman of Americas Watch in New York.

When I first visited El Salvador in 1981 I went with a congressional delegation. As we were waiting to see the archbishop, an amazing thing happened: A U.S. Embassy political officer attempted to force his way into our meeting, getting into a shoving-and-shouting match with the American church official who had arranged the meeting. The man from the embassy was persuaded to leave only when a spokesman for the archbishop emerged to say that our meeting was to be private.

That episode gave me an appreciation for the latest tangle between legislative and diplomatic interests: Secretary of State George P. Shultz's denunciation of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) for trying to conduct "his own foreign policy."

Dodd, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had attempted to meet privately with foreign leaders in the course of a December trip to Central America. When Dodd stopped in Honduras, Ambassador Everett Briggs informed him that a directive from Shultz prohibited such meetings. Briggs may not have had to shove and shout, but he got into Dodd's meeting with President Jose Azcona Hoyo.

The State Department's insistence on sitting in with members of Congress traveling abroad is not confined to meetings with heads of government, at least so far as Central America is concerned. Recently, embassy officials invited themselves into meetings that congressional delegations visiting El Salvador had set up with a representative of Americas Watch, with a representative of the Roman Catholic Church's human-rights office and with an official of a Salvadoran development agency that is assisting people displaced by the earthquake in efforts to rebuild their destroyed homes and to resettle.

The intrusion of embassy officials into such meetings has an unfortunate effect; indeed, it may nullify the value of congressional fact-finding trips abroad. The purpose of such visits is to see and hear at first hand those who are affected by U.S. foreign policy. If the president of Honduras wants to say something to a visiting senator about the U.S. military buildup in his country, or about the presence of the Nicaraguan contras , or about pressure on his government to allow their continued use of Honduras as a sanctuary, it probably won't be said in front of the U.S. ambassador. Washington's capacity to punish critics is formidable; an aid payment might be delayed, or a political leader's sentiments might be reported to his own domestic critics to use as they will.

When embassy officials force their way into meetings between members of Congress and human-rights monitors, the consequences may be even more severe. Frequently, victims of abuses provide data to human-rights monitors on the condition that it not be shared with the governments that have victimized them. Since the embassy shares data with friendly host governments, that precludes disclosing such data when embassy officials are present. Also, the State Department has the habit of selectively leaking cables from embassies that often seriously distort what has been said at such meetings, causing considerable embarrassment to human-rights groups whose data and interpretations are misrepresented.

One of the duties of Congress is to collect information that will permit it to perform wisely its legislative and oversight duties. If members of Congress want only the State Department's version of events, they can get that without leaving Washington. But if they are to enhance their understanding and their knowledge by traveling to other countries, they should be free to meet with anyone who might serve that end.

The State Department's insistence on chaperoning all official visitors' meetings suggests that the department is afraid of what might be said to influence congressional thinking when its agents are not around. Perhaps that fear is warranted, but, if so, it makes the case for private meetings all the stronger.

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