Chicago. -- During the Cold War, the principle that the ends do not justify the means, a banner of Western ethics, was frequently unfurled by Washington against Moscow. A core evil of the communists was their insistence that noble ends justify ignoble means.
Yet all too often Washington dishonored its own ethical standard. The latest example to come to light is United States complicity in the torture and disappearances of hundreds of Hondurans during the early 1980s. The facts were revealed last month by Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson in a carefully documented series in The Baltimore Sun.
How many U.S. newspapers would invest two investigative reporters for over a year to dig up the past in, of all places, Honduras? No other paper, it seems, undertook any serious follow-up after late 1993, when Honduras' human rights commissioner, Leo Valladares, issued a lengthy report on that country's "dirty war" that included strong suggestions of U.S. complicity.
So The Sun is to be commended for its journalistic judgment. The matter is important not only for Hondurans but also for us.
Did the U.S. knowingly fail to curtail gross violations of human rights in a country where it had the power to do so? Even more disturbing: Did the U.S. stimulate, condone, connive in, cover up and benefit from practices it claims to abhor? If so, why and what lessons are to be drawn?
It no longer can be disputed seriously that in the early 1980s the Honduran military engaged in gross violations of human rights. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights so held in 1988, and Honduras' own human rights commissioner admitted as much in 1993. At least 180 Hondurans, and probably more, were kidnapped by heavily armed men and taken to clandestine detention centers, where they were brutally tortured before being dumped on roadsides or in unmarked graves.
Much of the cruelty is there is to see, in words and color photos, in the Sun series. There are the grim faces of the torturers as well as anguished portraits of the surviving victims and grisly photos of the bones of those who didn't.
All this occurred in the name of defeating communism. The ends motivated the means.
What role did the U.S. play? Not a proud one. Among other examples documented by The Sun:
* In June 1981, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Jack Binns, cabled Washington to express concern over what he described as "increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations of political and criminal targets . . ."
For this lapse, he was summoned to a meeting in Washington with then Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders.
During that meeting, Mr. Binns told The Sun, Mr. Enders ordered him to "stop human rights reporting except in back channel . . . [The State Department] wanted to keep assistance flowing. Increased violations by the Honduran military would prejudice that."
Mr. Enders confirms that he instructed Mr. Binns that "the most effective way to overcome . . . human rights violations was to promote democratically elected governments and that should be his point of focus."
* To train the Hondurans, the U.S. in 1981 brought in the Argentine military, by that time already notorious for torture and disappearances during Argentina's own "dirty war."
Mr. Enders explained that "there were not many people with counterinsurgency experience. How many people were there who were Spanish speakers? [Human rights] was obviously a concern, but when we got through looking at it, we didn't see that we had any clear choice."
* Although U.S. officials apparently did not participate in the torture, a CIA officer known to the Hondurans only as "Mr. Mike" regularly visited the secret torture centers. From the graphic descriptions reported by The Sun, no one with eyes and ears could have failed to realize what was going on.
* John D. Negroponte, who replaced Mr. Binns as ambassador to Honduras in November of 1981, was inundated with allegations of torture and murder. Yet the human rights reports he sent back to Washington were sanitized on the grounds that the allegations had not been proven conclusively. In 1983, the U.S. even awarded the Legion of Merit to Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the Honduran army officer who directed the torture.
* When former Honduran legislator Efrain Diaz Arrivillaga complained about the U.S. refusal to denounce the repression, he said that Ambassador Negroponte told him, "You and others, what you are proposing is to let communism take over this country. "
In other words, the ends -- defeating communism -- justified the means -- bringing in known torturers as trainers, hushing up the resulting torture and giving awards to the head torturer.
The Cold War is over. Have we now recognized our errors? Have those responsible received their due? Just ask Thomas Enders, who is now a managing director of a major Wall Street firm, or John Negroponte, now U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.
Douglass Cassel is executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute of DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. This commentary was broadcast July 19 on "World View," an international affairs program of WBEZ-FM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Chicago.