WASHINGTON -- The Baltimore-born widow of a Guatemalan guerrilla fighter produced a raft of documents yesterday indicating that the U.S. government lied to her about knowledge that might have prevented him from being murdered by Guatemalans after more than a year of imprisonment and torture.
Jennifer Harbury, whose 1995 hunger strike turned a harsh spotlight on the past U.S. relationship with Guatemalan military authorities, provided the documents to a congressional committee, when she appeared yesterday for a hearing on access to classified information.
Had the information been made known at the time, Harbury says, the lives of her husband, a Guatemalan guerrilla fighter named Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, and other prisoners might have been saved.
Documents she has obtained over the past couple of years under the Freedom of Information Act "indicate that many high-level officials in U.S. government agencies were fully aware that my husband and many other prisoners were being secretly detained, tortured and executed without trial by the Guatemalan military," Harbury testified yesterday before a House Government Reform subcommittee.
Harbury's testimony, and documents she provided to the subcommittee and separately to The Sun, indicate that the State Department and its embassy in Guatemala knew more about Bamaca's imprisonment and torture than has previously been disclosed. Much of the CIA's role in the affair has already been reported. Two officials were fired in 1995 over mishandling of covert operations in Guatemala.
"Despite the clear reports in their possession, [the U.S. government] repeatedly sent letters to inquiring congressional offices that there was no evidence that such prisoners existed and that they had no information as to the whereabouts of my husband," Harbury said, referring in particular to the State Department and the National Security Council.
Harbury, a Harvard-trained lawyer who married Bamaca in 1991, was one of several witnesses who testified yesterday about delays and frustrations they have faced in trying to obtain documents from the U.S. government about its Cold War relationship with Central American military leaders thought to have committed human rights abuses.
Another witness was Leo Valladares, a Honduran human rights investigator who has been struggling since 1993 to obtain documents about the CIA's relationship during the 1980s with the Honduran military unit known as Battalion 316, which was responsible for the disappearance of 184 individuals.
The witnesses testified in support of legislation that is intended to increase greatly the release of U.S. government documents to "truth commissions" in Latin America and the Caribbean that are trying to uncover Cold War abuses.
Sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, the legislation has support from Rep. Steve Horn of California, the subcommittee's Republican chairman. But the legislation is opposed by the CIA, which says it would hinder the kind of trust among governments that is needed for future intelligence collection.
The administration has commented extensively in the past on Harbury's campaign for information, but the State Department was not ready yesterday to respond to her latest testimony. A CIA official who testified after Harbury's appearance did not address her specific assertions; nor was he asked about them.
Harbury came to national attention in 1995, during the last of a series of hunger strikes she waged to pressure the U.S. and Guatemalan governments to release information on the whereabouts of her husband, who had vanished in 1992 during a skirmish with Guatemalan military forces. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who was then a House member, caused a furor that year when he obtained information that Bamaca had been killed.
The Guatemalan military told Harbury in 1992 that Bamaca had been wounded and then committed suicide to avoid capture. But she was later informed by an escaped prisoner of war that he had been captured alive and was being tortured. In 1993, she began a protracted effort, aided by human rights groups and members of Congress, to learn his whereabouts.
Harbury said she was assured of cooperation from the State Department, which "sent a form letter to all inquiring congressional offices, stating that they had no independent evidence that any secret prisoners existed, and that they had no information about the whereabouts of my husband."
In fact, the files she has obtained show that the White House and State Department received a CIA bulletin just six days after her husband's capture. The document, she testified, noted that Bamaca had been captured alive, that the army was keeping this a secret and would probably fake his death. She wasn't told about this document when she approached the State Department a year later.
In May 1993, the State Department received a CIA report, based on information from a Guatemalan officer, that her husband was still alive and that the Guatemalan army was holding about 350 prisoners. The department, however, "continued to declare that no independent evidence existed as to any clandestine prisoners."
Neither she nor Congress was told in September 1993, when the Pentagon reported to the State Department and the U.S. Embassy that Bamaca had been captured alive, interrogated and killed, and also that clandestine prisons still existed in Guatemala.
Pentagon documents from April and September 1994 that Harbury says were apparently sent to the State Department describe Guatemalan torture of prisoners and the practice of throwing them from helicopters after interrogations. A Pentagon spokesman, Bill Darley, contacted last night, said his office had not reviewed Harbury's testimony and could not comment.
Lee S. Strickland, a key CIA official in charge of declassifying information, said the legislation is unnecessary given the information the agency is now disclosing. He also said it would create costly additional bureaucracy to carry it out. Most significantly, he said, it "would seriously damage intelligence collection activities in those countries subject to its terms."
Pub Date: 5/12/98