The CIA Channels its Inner Authoritarian

On Monday, the US Director of National Intelligence delivered the second of at least three tranches of newly declassified government documents concerning Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship. This latest batch seemed to hold greater promise than the first, as its contents are drawn largely from the briefings, memos, and reports prepared for three presidents (and one unusually powerful vice president) by the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence organs. Despite scattered sensationalistic claims in the press, the documents do not appear to include any true bombshells. Indeed, the closest that they come to shocking is their confirmation, reported by the National Security Archive yesterday, that the CIA knew of attempts by agents of the six-country Operation Condor network to assassinate targets in Europe, possibly including human rights activists. (Scholars and journalists have already documented these efforts, though we have never seen such clear proof that the CIA itself knew about them.)

What these documents lack in explosive power, however, they make up for in granularity, illuminating in remarkable detail one aspect of the “intelligence community” (IC) that has received far too little attention: its relationship to the presidency. Then as now, the briefing materials that the CIA and other agencies prepare for the president are key shapers of (sadly still just) his worldview. This dynamic is particularly salient at present, with the incoming president refusing to receive Presidential Daily Briefs and the CIA using charges of Russian election interference to all but openly declare its opposition to Trump. So let’s dig in and take a close look at one particularly interesting document from the tranche: a November 1978 CIA assessment of Southern Cone perceptions of Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy in the region, which in this case includes Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay — five countries led at the time by extraordinarily repressive right-wing authoritarian regimes.

First, though, some background. When it comes to relationships with the IC, Carter is to my mind the most interesting of recent presidents. He came into office having decided, at the tail end of his presidential campaign, to overhaul the United States’ relationship to the world — and its own Vietnam War-bruised self-image — by making human rights the center of US foreign policy. This proved to be a tremendous challenge. While a slice of the State Department, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Patricia Derian, worked to execute Carter’s promised turn, they met fierce resistance from a foreign relations and security establishment willing to brook little deviance from the “pragmatic” Kissingerian approach of the past. And future, of course — the establishment largely won in the end. Nonetheless, for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Derian and a band of sympathetic Congressional Democrats did manage to make human rights an issue central to the US’ relationship with the Southern Cone — and, in turn, to the president’s relationship with the IC.

It was within this context that the CIA presented Carter with its November 1978 analysis of Southern Cone reactions to the US emphasis on human rights. Readable in its entirety at the bottom of this post, the memo reveals the subtlety of CIA manipulation at work. Take, for example, the summary that opens the document:

The Southern Cone governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay have a somewhat cynical view of US policies toward Latin America. The perspective is shaped by the conviction that Washington’s preoccupation since the mid 1960s with other parts of the world has left the US out of touch with Latin American realities. They view US policy toward their region as inconsistent, incoherent, and unreasonably punitive. There is a strong feeling that in the broader arena the US has been outmaneuvered by the Soviets and is losing its ability to lead the West.

By tying US economic and especially military aid to improvements in civil liberties and detainee treatment, Carter and his allies have fallen “out of touch” with the “realities” of the region — in other words, with the view, long championed by the CIA and by the security establishment at large, that Latin America was at risk of falling into Soviet hands, a risk that only strong (and bloody) leadership could mitigate. The risks are so great that in the next two sentences the report’s authors go right for the jugular, labeling Carter’s policies not only “inconsistent” and “incoherent,” but indicative of a broader failure of the US to keep the USSR in line and effectively “lead the West.”

But wait, you might object, isn’t the CIA simply relaying the perceptions of others? Indeed — and therein lies the very brilliance of the report. By channeling the voices of their stated subjects (the title promises an approximation of “Southern Cone perceptions,” after all), the memo’s authors can deliver a damning critique of U.S. foreign policy without appearing insubordinate, and thereby maximize their chances of countering opponents like Derian.

Nonetheless, the authors’ voice slips through at times – though they can be hard to spot, given how little they depart from the regimes’ own perspectives. For instance, in discussing an upcoming UN vote concerning Chile, the memo’s authors explain that “the Chileans will be interested in the US vote on the UN Human Rights Committee’s attempt to provide funds to ‘victims’ of Chilean human rights violations.” The word “victims” surrounded by quotation marks stands out as an inadvertent revelation, suggesting the authors’ skepticism as to the status of these individuals, then denounced as terrorists by regime sympathizers.

The authors then turn to broader Chilean frustrations with the US, noting that Chile’s leaders

…believe that there is a small coterie in Washington that is actively working to undermine the Pinochet regime. They find it incomprehensible that the US does not realize that the stringent government controls in Chile were a necessary course of action after the overthrow of the Marxist Allende regime.

By “stringent government controls,” the authors mean, of course, the extrajudicial execution of some 3,000 and the torture of many thousands more.

Such abuses, however, are never enumerated in the report. Instead, the authors include list after eulogistic list of the many human rights improvements made by these regimes in recent years. These improvements are the only exception to the otherwise unfailingly negative tone of the memo. Indeed, while Southern Cone states are clearly upset about Carter’s approach to diplomacy,

This does not mean that US human rights policy has had a completely negative impact on the area. On the contrary, police and military officials in these countries are now sensitized to human rights considerations. Every chief of state in the area claims to have made clear to his subordinates that torture and arbitrary arrest will no longer be tolerated. All of these countries have shown general improvement during the past year in their treatment of prisoners.

The CIA has eyes and ears across the continent; while it can report honesty that every regional leader now “claims” to have told police and military officials to stop torturing, it cannot possibly have believed that these statements carried the weight of truth. Yet rather than question these purported advances, the authors find an altogether distinct concern to raise. Southern Cone governments feel, they explain, that “these improvements go unacknowledged by Washington, and moreover, the torrent of criticism, adversary treatment, and antagonistic US legislation has continued.” The implication is clear; Congressional Democrats and the White House need to reward “these improvements” by loosening human rights-based restrictions and drawing valuable allies closer to the US.

The worldview undergirding this implication comes most clearly into focus in the report’s most fascinating section, “Public Views of US Policies.” While conceding the difficulty of getting an accurate view of public sentiment in the Southern Cone, the authors nonetheless claim that “most citizens seem to support the military governments; the rest are either unconcerned with politics or belong to a declared opposition.”“Judging from newspaper commentary and personal conversations,” moreover, “US human rights policy has had little impact on the general populace.”

This characterization of public sentiments may indeed by correct; what little research has been done on the question suggests that the region’s dictatorships did indeed enjoy substantial popular backing, especially from the middle and upper classes. Yet the CIA memo includes no discussion of the factors that could have contributed to such sentiments, questions of great relevance to US policymaking. Southern Cone dictatorships worked hard to exaggerate the threat posed by armed insurgents already decimated by repression, limit access to information concerning abuses, and terrify those who might think to step out of line and publicly criticize the regime. Those who dared to do so nonetheless receive no credit in the CIA’s discussion of “public views”; instead, they are cast uniformly — and suspiciously — as members of the “declared opposition.” Indeed, the authors continue, “some political groups that have long opposed the various governments and other groups representing civil and human rights causes have used the policy to air their own specific grievances. Liberal clergy have also cited the policy as being similar to their own programs.” If you’re familiar with the CIA of the 1970s, you’ll know that dissent is only celebrated east of the Iron Curtain, and “liberal clergy” is a phrase never uttered admiringly. The implicit criticism of these characterizations is echoed later in the report, in the authors’ contention that Chile’s longstanding opposition political parties “view US human rights policy as made to order for their own campaign against the government.”

“Their own campaign,” “declared opposition” — these are phrases designed to emphasize that by failing to appreciate the complex political realities of the Southern Cone, Carter is playing the stooge, allowing the US to serve the interests of those who aren’t likely to put Washington’s needs front and center. Reading this sustained but ingeniously packages assault on the coherence and effectiveness of Carter’s human rights policy, I can’t help but wonder: when its authors note, toward the middle of the report, a “growing opinion in Brazil that the US has lost or is losing its resolve and even some of its capacity as a world power,” might they really have meant to say, in the CIA?

Southern Cone Perceptions

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