Washington -- IN 1974, AT a lawn reception at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., a young colonel in dress uniform came up to me and introduced himself by saying elliptically, "I know you, but you don't know me."
Then he told me one of the strangest, most ominous stories I had heard. "When you were with the guerrillas in Guatemala in the Sierra de las Minas in 1966," he related, "I was the Special Forces adviser to the Zacapa Regiment. We had been told by the CIA that you were there."
At that, my eyes widened and my heart began to pound, for I knew exactly what he was saying. As a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, I was living in those rough, raw mountains to the east of Guatemala City for a week to write the first articles about the first Marxist guerrilla movement in Central America. But, it turned out, I was not the only American there.
Not only was the Guatemalan military (the "Zacapa Regiment") trying to catch us, and then most probably kill us, but also it was doing so on the basis of our own American intelligence and with the assistance of our own officers. The fact that the colonel was in truth very nice -- he later freely admitted to me, "I was never sure that you weren't the one who was on the right side" -- did little to assuage the shock I felt at this perfidy by my own government.
And now what a sad and shameful repetition of history! For Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., by his own admission a loose cannon who doesn't play by the "old boys" rules, has revealed that two recent brutal killings in Guatemala were carried out by a Guatemalan officer who was also a paid CIA informer and who remained on the CIA payroll until only two years ago.
The first was the 1990 decapitation/murder of an innocent American innkeeper, Michael DeVine, who had the bad luck to happen across one of the many Guatemalan military smuggling operations; the second, the torture/murder of Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a leftist guerrilla married to an American lawyer.
The latter case has become a small but important cause celebre, because the haunted-looking, Harvard-educated lawyer, Jennifer Harbury, has for months been dramatizing the "disappearance" of her husband with hunger strikes in Guatemala City and even in front of the White House. This week, she knew that she was dealing with something far beyond his disappearance and even his murder.
As Mr. Torricelli said in an angry letter to President Clinton, "The direct involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in the murder of these individuals leads me to the extraordinary conclusion that the agency is simply out of control and that it contains what can only be called a criminal element." Tragically, he is right.
The CIA has gone so far beyond working within a framework that embraces honor and harsh reality that the people in the agency are beginning to look like a band of cynics who not only can't catch spies right in their own ranks (the shocking Ames case, which led to the virtual destruction of our entire Soviet espionage cadre) but who regularly welcome and maintain murderers and torturers within their ranks.
Look, for instance, at the Guatemalan "officer" whom Mr. Torricelli, using intelligence materials, accuses of the murders. Beginning in 1970, Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez received military training at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. Upon his return to Guatemala, he served as an officer in a counterinsurgency unit that became notorious in the early 1980s for killing tens of thousands of Indians in the very mountains where I had been with the guerrillas in 1966. Finally, he became a CIA informer earning $44,000 a year.
If this tragic case stood alone, there would be reason to excuse the CIA for dealing with such a foolish and undependable source, but this pattern of working with the most reprehensible characters looks all too much like business-as-usual. Only this winter, the leader of Haiti's most notorious paramilitary group, Emmanuel Constant of Fraph, was revealed to be a CIA informer. (The fact that the American intervention there was directed against such people would be funny were it not so tragic.)
Many of us who were critical of such cynical behavior in the early days thought that the CIA had reformed. We thought it had professionalized beyond such shenanigans. It is increasingly clear that it has not. And what may be worse than the exaggerated immorality of the agency today is its increased incompetence.
Someone has to go in there and clean the "old boys" up and make them competent again.
Meanwhile, from Guatemala, that beautiful but tormented land, come "words of wisdom" from former Guatemalan Defense Minister Gen. Hector Gramajo. Speaking of Col. Alpirez, he said, "I am sure he is a good officer. He does not drink. He does not argue. He is a good father. He is the kind of officer who you would want under your command."
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.