WASHINGTON -- The Reagan administration knew more tha it publicly disclosed about some of the worst human rights abuses in El Salvador's civil war and withheld the information from Congress, declassified cables and interviews with former government officials indicate.
Charges that the Reagan administration, and to a lesser extent the Carter and Bush administrations, may have covered up evidence of abuses to win congressional approval of about $6 billion in aid were revived with the release last week of a United Nations-sponsored report documenting widespread human rights violations by the Salvadoran military.
Late last night, El Salvador's Congress approved a general amnesty for people accused of civil war atrocities, flouting the recommendations of the U.N. report.
The move was certain to anger both the victims of the brutal
12-year war and the rightist government's foreign backers.
In the U.S. Congress, plans are under way to investigate the testimony of dozens of U.S. officials during the last decade to determine whether, in their zeal to save Central America from Soviet influence, they misled lawmakers.
A number of formerly classified diplomatic and intelligence documents obtained by the New York Times show that U.S. officials knew far more about the workings of right-wing death squads than they told Congress or the American people.
For example, even as senior officials were denying that Salvadoran troops trained by the United States had massacred peasants at El Mozote in December 1981, a U.S. Embassy officer interviewed refugees who said they had seen dozens of bodies at the mountain hamlet.
The papers show that while Reagan administration officials were debunking evidence gathered by the Carter administration apparently linking Roberto d'Aubuisson, a right-wing politician, to the slaying of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, in 1980, President Reagan's own ambassador sent a cable describing d'Aubuisson's presence at a meeting where the murder plot was hatched.
In the case of the murders of four U.S. churchwomen in 1980, a cable from Ambassador Robert E. White to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. expressed incredulity that the administration had complimented the ruling military junta in El Salvador for its investigation of the deaths.
The Salvadoran military "protects its own, ignoring, suppressing, covering up" abuses, according to a November 1981 Pentagon report signed by Brig. Gen. Fred F. Woerner and declassified last month. "Unabated terror from the right and continued tolerance of institutional violence could dangerously erode popular support the point wherein the Armed Force would be viewed not as the protector of society, but as an army of occupation," the report concluded.
Reagan and Bush administration officials justified their policy in El Salvador as a lesser evil compared with the alternative of allowing a victory by Marxist guerrillas. And they point out that the policy ultimately brought peace and restored democracy to the country.
"Let them go have hearings," Elliott Abrams, a senior State Department official in the Reagan administration, said of Congress on Friday.
"This is an allegation that the entire top rank of the Foreign Service is filled with liars. It is a reprehensible McCarthyite charge," said Mr. Abrams, who dealt with Latin America and human rights at the State Department.
But Mr. White, the Carter administration's ambassador in 1980 and 1981, said:
"The Salvadoran military knew that we knew, and they knew when we covered up the truth, it was a clear signal that, at a minimum, we tolerated this."