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CIA Staff Told to Justify Missions in Latin America

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As part of a top-to-bottom review of the CIA’s troubled Latin America operations, CIA Director John M. Deutch is demanding that the agency’s chiefs in Guatemala and other sensitive regional posts explain why their offices should not be shut down.

Sources said Deutch, who took the helm at the agency last month, is demanding that all Latin America station chiefs provide him with brief memos explaining the purpose and goals of their offices and describing how U.S. policy-makers are served by the information they collect.

The review comes as federal budget cuts are forcing the CIA to make sharp reductions in field operations around the world, sources said.

The agency is shutting nearly a dozen small stations in Africa, but it is unclear whether Deutch has set a similar goal for Latin America.

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His review focuses on a region where many of the agency’s most questionable activities have occurred--questions have arisen most recently over the CIA role in Guatemala. It also comes amid disclosures that the George Bush and Clinton administrations continued covert CIA aid to Guatemala from 1990 to 1994, despite State Department warnings that the Guatemalan government viewed the continued aid as a sign that the U.S. government tolerated its human rights abuses, according to sources involved in the policy debates.

Several members of Congress have reacted angrily to revelations of the agency’s links to a Guatemalan army officer allegedly involved in the murder of an American citizen.

The CIA recalled its previous Guatemala station chief under congressional pressure earlier this year but has taken no further action since Deutch took office. He apparently views an overhaul of the CIA’s Latin America operation as a top priority--and does not want his tenure marred by another scandal from Central America.

Latin America station chiefs are being asked to explain what they are trying to do there, one source said: “Put it on a couple of sheets of paper what you’re trying to do. . . . Incidentally, be sure that your top policy customers agree with what you are trying to do.”

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Deutch also has stressed to the CIA station chiefs that they must give top priority to curbing human rights abuses and fostering democratic reforms.

The review provides another sign that Deutch is moving quickly to put his stamp on CIA management, although he has yet to choose a new chief of the directorate of operations--the person who oversees covert espionage around the world. The job is the most sensitive post at the agency. Lisa Harper, chief of the Latin American affairs division and the most senior woman inside the operations directorate, could be a leading candidate.

Guatemala has been the most troublesome of the agency’s Latin America posts in the 1990s. Open U.S. military assistance to that country was ended by the Bush Administration in December, 1990, in response to the murder of American Michael DeVine by Guatemalan soldiers.

But U.S. officials acknowledged that they had allowed the CIA to continue at least three covert programs there--including direct assistance to Guatemalan intelligence units suspected of human rights violations and secret cash payments to informants in the Guatemalan military.

Government sources said the decision to continue the CIA aid came after direct warnings that the money seemed to persuade some Guatemalan military and government leaders that the United States was not serious about human rights--and that the decision to continue CIA funding might even encourage future abuses.

In meetings in Washington, Cesar Sereseres, a State Department Guatemala expert, warned Joseph Sullivan, then the department’s director of Central American affairs, and Bernard Aronson, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, that the aid sent mixed signals to Guatemalan officials about the U.S. attitude toward military repression in the aftermath of the DeVine death, several State Department sources said.

Sereseres returned to Washington from a mission to Guatemala to discuss whether the Guatemalans truly “understood why the pipeline had been cut and whether there was anything we could do to get the message across,” one source said. The source said Sereseres told Sullivan that “if you really want to send a strong message” about human rights, “you are going to have to do something about the [CIA] relationship” with Guatemalan intelligence “because these are the people involved, some as investigators, some as perpetrators” in the DeVine killing.

But the State Department did not push to cut off the CIA funding. The Clinton Administration did not phase out the CIA’s main covert program until late 1994--and only suspended the CIA’s secret assistance to Guatemalan military intelligence units this spring.

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Meantime, the Guatemalan government continued to drag its feet in its investigation and prosecution of military officers implicated in DeVine’s homicide and in the 1992 torture-killing of rebel leader Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, the Guatemalan husband of American Jennifer Harbury.

Disclosure of the warning shows that there was a far greater awareness in the Administration than previously reported of potential harm from continuing the covert CIA payments. To critics, it also raises questions about the U.S. commitment to support human rights in Guatemala. Sources said the House Intelligence Committee is investigating the State Department role in the Guatemalan controversy.

All three State Department officials refused to comment. Sereseres is now an associate dean at UC Irvine, Sullivan is chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba and Aronson, who was at the State Department during the Bush Administration and the first three months of the Clinton Administration, is an executive with Goldman Sachs, an investment firm.

But other officials said they are confident that the Guatemalan military responded to the message to stop the killing, even though the CIA money continued.

“They got the message big-time,” said Thomas Stroock, U.S. ambassador to Guatemala in the Bush Administration. “Every time I met with any Guatemalan army officers, they would ask when we were going to lift the suspension, and I can tell you that the message was clear. There were no more killings of Americans after that.”

Some national security officials added that maintaining the CIA funding, which peaked at $3.5 million in 1989, was a valid strategy for improving human rights in Guatemala. “If you cut off everything . . .” one State Department official said, “you have nothing left to negotiate with.”


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