Stakes are high in the controversy over the CIA's role in the deaths of a U.S. citizen and the husband of another U.S. citizen in Guatemala. Once again the agency's credibility is in question. Not just whether it tells ordinary citizens the truth, but whether it lies to senior U.S. officials and congressional leaders, or withholds material information from them, which is just as bad.
No one accuses the agency of complicity in the slayings of Michael DeVine, a U.S. businessman living in Guatemala, or Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a guerrilla leader whose wife has been trying to learn his fate for two years. But it now appears clear that a Guatemalan army officer on the CIA payroll was responsible for both deaths. The issue is the old Washington conundrum: What did CIA officials know, and when did they know it?
Plainly the agency knew more than it admitted, if not at the time of the two deaths in 1990 and 1992, then before senior U.S. officials began asking pointed questions. On the facts publicly known thus far -- and in these matters that is an important qualification -- even Anthony Lake, the president's national security adviser, did not know everything the CIA did two years after Mr. Bamaca's death. That's not just unacceptable, it's dangerous. It's not the first time the agency has kept embarrassing information from its superiors in the White House or congressional watchdogs. As long as it continues to feed the belief that it is a rogue elephant frequently out of control, the CIA's usefulness is drastically impaired.
The affair also revives interest in the agency's checkered role in Latin America. Some of the greatest villains there, usually military officers, were paid CIA informants and/or graduates of special U.S. Army schools training Latin American troops in counter-terrorist operations. Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, who is believed to have supervised the slayings, is both. He joins the sordid list headed by Gen. Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian strongman who now dwells in a Florida penitentiary for narcotics violations, and peopled by a roster of thugs and murderers.
The kind of foreigners an intelligence agency relies on for information or clandestine activity isn't always the sort you would invite home for supper. But that does not excuse connivance at the murder of a U.S. citizen, even after the fact. Unless they were inexcusably lax, CIA officials must have had suspicions about Colonel Alpirez before they paid him off two years after Mr. DeVine's death. That sort of conduct, coupled with continued dishonesty in dealings with the White House and Congress, plays into the hands of those who want to dismantle the agency.