The Senate is urging President Clinton to "expeditiously" declassify government documents about the torture and murder of Honduran citizens by a CIA-trained Honduran military unit during the 1980s.
The call came in an amendment sponsored by three Democrats, saying the president should "order the expedited declassification of any documents in the possession of the United States government," pertaining to kidnappings and murders, or so-called "disappearances" at the hands of the military unit, known as Battalion 316, and make those documents available to Honduran authorities investigating the abuses.
The action on the floor of the Senate followed a series of articles in The Sun in June detailing torture and murder committed by the Honduran intelligence squad, and the CIA's involvement with the squad, at the height of the Reagan administration's war against communism in Latin America.
The amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill was sponsored by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. It was adopted Wednesday night by the Senate.
"I'm hoping declassification will show the Congress and the public the kind of lies and cover-ups that went on when covert policy was substituted for foreign policy," Mr. Leahy said in an interview yesterday.
"That's what happened -- and it was a terrible failure," the senator continued. "But if we don't understand the extent of the failure, there is a possibility that we may make the same mistakes in the future."
In addition to calling for the declassification of documents, the amendment adopted by the Senate contains two specific "findings."
* That during the 1980s, Battalion 316 "engaged in a campaign of systematically kidnapping, torturing and murdering suspected subversives. Victims included Honduran students, teachers, labor leaders and journalists."
* That U.S. government officials were aware of the activities of Battalion 316 at the time, but "in its 1983 human rights report, the State Department stated that 'There are no political prisoners in Honduras.' "
The "findings" mirror the facts reported in The Sun's four-part series. The Sun reported that the CIA and State Department collaborated with Battalion 316, even though U.S. officials knew of its abuses. The articles detailed how U.S. officials deliberately misled Congress and the public about the Honduran military's activities in order to keep up public support for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
The collaboration and deception were revealed in previously classified documents and in interviews with U.S. and Honduran participants. Those interviewed included three former Battalion 316 torturers who acknowledged their roles and detailed the battalion's close relationship with the CIA.
Though the language adopted by the Senate does not require President Clinton to do anything, the "sense of the Congress" amendment sends a strong signal that the administration should step up its cooperation with Honduran authorities, who have been seeking U.S. government records about Battalion 316 since late 1993.
Mr. Leahy said in proposing the amendment that the White House has been slow in responding to requests for information by the current Honduran government.
"The fact is that as many as 184 people remain unaccounted for who may have disappeared, and the Honduran government, to its credit, has undertaken to determine their fate," Mr. Leahy said.
"Regrettably, the U.S. government has not done all it could to assist in this effort," he said. "In fact, it has been unhelpful."
A White House spokesman said yesterday that the Clinton administration was cooperating with Honduran authorities and was moving as quickly as possible to declassify records. He added, however, that the declassification process is necessarily slow because the administration does not want to reveal sensitive sources and methods of intelligence gathering.
"We will continue to respond in accordance with standard procedures," the spokesman said. "The agencies have already declassified significant quantities of documents, and we have supported the efforts of Honduran authorities through our document reviews."
In December 1993, the Honduran government sought records about Battalion 316 from the United States, but U.S. officials responded that the demand was too broad and asked for a more specific query.
Seven weeks ago, Leo Valladares, the Honduran government's human rights commissioner, submitted a more detailed request seeking information about U.S. ties to the late Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who, as chief of the Honduran armed forces, directed the secret intelligence group responsible for the kidnappings, torture and murders of hundreds of alleged subversives.
Mr. Valladares asked for all documents mentioning General Alvarez and Battalion 316, and requested documents about six of Battalion 316's victims.
The amendment urging the White House to declassify documents about Battalion 316 is the latest of a series of actions that have occurred since publication of the articles in The Sun.
In June, John M. Deutch, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, ordered the CIA to review the history of its relationship with the Honduran military during the 1980s.
Last week, Mr. Deutch said the review, which is continuing, would provide lessons for the agency on "how not to do things" in the future.
In addition to the actions in Washington, the Honduran government has filed indictments against 10 present and former military officers implicated in specific cases of brutality and murder in the 1980s.
A Honduran judge taking further evidence in the cases must eventually decide whether the officers will be arrested and brought to trial.