Fear of the truth

THE Truth Commission on El Salvador reported two weeks ago that government forces had carried out appalling atrocities through the 1980s. The report was a direct challenge to the U.S. officials who saw to it that we armed and supported those forces. What would they say?

The answer is now in. The men responsible for policy toward El Salvador will admit nothing and regret nothing. Their line is: We didn't know who committed the atrocities, and anyway our policy was right because it defeated communism.


But they did know. Here is one grisly example of what they covered up.

The archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, was assassinated as he said mass on March 24, 1980. Within two weeks U.S. Ambassador Robert E. White sent to Washington documents indicating that Roberto D'Aubuisson, the country's leading right-wing politician, had ordered the killing.


I have now been told that the U.S. government had even more devastating evidence on the shooting of the archbishop. It came from the CIA, which had exceptionally good sources inside the Salvadoran forces.

The CIA knew who actually pulled the trigger at D'Aubuisson's order. He was a regular Salvadoran army officer whose nom de guerre was Captain V.

The agency did not inform congressional intelligence committees, except for one partial briefing of a single senator. On orders of Robert Gates, then CIA deputy director, information on the Romero killing was suppressed even inside the agency.

As an example of how former U.S. officials have responded to the Truth Commission, it is hard to beat Alexander Haig. The Truth Commission criticized his comments, as secretary of state, on the murder in El Salvador of three American nuns and a lay church worker.

Mr. Haig wrote to the New York Times to deny having suggested that the four women "might have run a roadblock." In using those words at a congressional hearing in 1981, he said, he was merely reporting a Salvadoran government theory.

Americans can judge Mr. Haig's truthfulness, and his honor, for themselves. Here is what he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 18, 1981:

"I would like to suggest to you that some of these investigations would lead one to believe that perhaps the vehicle [in which the women were traveling] may have tried to run a roadblock, or may have been perceived to be doing that, and there was an exchange of fire. . . ."

No one but Mr. Haig, then or since, has advanced such a theory. Nor has Mr. Haig explained how it would fit the facts: the nuns raped and shot in the head at close range.


Then there is Thomas Enders, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. He wrote an article for the Washington Post last week denying that he had covered up the 1981 massacre of hundreds of civilians in El Mozote by the Salvadoran government's elite, U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion.

Mr. Enders said embassy representatives could not get close enough to El Mozote then to investigate. But in fact one of them reported that something terrible had probably happened. And government forces could have got there any time if Mr. Enders had really wanted to know. He didn't, for an obvious reason: Confirming that a U.S.-trained elite force had carried out a massacre could have been fatal to his policy.

Finally there is the comment of another former assistant secretary, Elliott Abrams. He said the Reagan administration should be praised for its "fabulous achievement" in defeating the Salvadoran guerrillas. The end justifies the means.

The "fabulous achievement" of U.S. policy saddled El Salvador with a terrible impediment to democracy: a huge military establishment that decides for itself whether to obey the rules. Right now it is resisting the Truth Commission findings, which all had agreed to respect.

Peace, however fragile, came to El Salvador because congressional pressure led President Bush and his assistant secretary, Bernard Aronson, to change the policy from confrontation to encouraging negotiation with the rebels. The peace agreement gave them a form of power-sharing.

That kind of solution could have been had in the 1980s. But it was blocked, at terrible human cost, by U.S. officials -- the same ones who are still trying to bury the truth.


Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.