WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration's noncommittal reaction to the arrest in Britain of Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet has baffled and angered human rights activists, who say the White House is passing up a chance to strike a blow against repression and terrorism.
"The silence is deafening, and it's been noticed by the human-rights community all over the world," says Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat.
In the past, the administration has championed war-crimes tribunals to try those accused of mass killings in the Balkans and Rwanda and had explored ways of prosecuting the late Pol Pot for his murderous reign of terror in Cambodia. But it is keeping its distance from efforts to have Great Britain extradite the 82-year-old Pinochet to Spain for trial on charges of human-rights abuses, including the killing and torture of Spanish citizens during his rule in Chile.
"This is a legal matter between Spain, the UK and Chile," James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said this week, repeating the consistent American line since Pinochet was arrested in London on Oct. 17.
The administration says it has cooperated in providing information to Spanish authorities about Pinochet's possible crimes. This includes material from a federal criminal investigation into the 1976 assassination of a former Chilean foreign minister and his American assistant on Embassy Row in Washington.
But it has taken no new steps to declassify any of the thousands of secret documents that experts believe are still in U.S. government files. That material likely includes information from past American intelligence on Chile, where the U.S. actively undermined Pinochet's democratically elected predecessor.
"I think its position is regrettable," said Diane Orentlicher, a professor of international law at American University. "[The administration] ought to be expressing support in a much more clear way for the efforts of the Spanish magistrate -- particularly since the crimes of the Pinochet regime came to our own streets."
Samuel R. Berger, the president's national security adviser, shed new light on the administration's stance yesterday. Answering questions at the National Press Club, he suggested it was largely up to Chileans to decide how to confront their bloody past.
"I think it's for every country itself to determine how, as it emerges from this period, in its own interests it can best reconcile the demands for justice and the need for reconciliation," Berger said.
But analysts say the bland American reaction also stems from a combination of worry over Chilean stability and economic considerations. Eight years after Pinochet yielded power in an agreement that granted him lifetime amnesty, Chilean democracy is still fragile. Pinochet himself still enjoys support from a middle class that prospered under the economic reforms he enacted.
The United States counts Chile as a major trading partner and as the next nation that will join a free trade pact with the United States, Canada and Mexico. U.S. warplane manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed-Martin have courted Chile as a potential customer.
"No one doubts it has performed better than any other country in Latin America economically," said Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "And it's one of the two or three best-functioning democracies" in the region.
In a letter to President Clinton last week, Miller and 35 other House members demanded that the administration cooperate with Spanish investigators and, in particular, declassify documents that could bolster their case.
Pinochet may never fall into the hands of the Spaniards seeking to try him. A high court in London declared this week that present and former heads of state enjoyed immunity in the United Kingdom. The British House of Lords will hear an appeal of the case next week.
But the Spanish inquiry is expected to continue nonetheless. It received a boost yesterday when 11 high court judges in Spain rejected an internal Spanish attempt to halt the investigation.
In the pantheon of Latin American strongmen, few have stirred ideological passions in Washington as much as Pinochet, who rose to power in a coup that toppled Salvador Allende Gossens, a Marxist. The Nixon administration initially tried to prevent Allende from assuming office in 1970. Failing that, it worked to undermine his regime economically until Allende was overthrown.
But Pinochet quickly became a symbol of brutal Latin repression and a target of President Jimmy Carter's human rights campaign.
"In many ways, Pinochet launched the concept of 'disappearances' in Latin America that was replicated by the Argentine junta," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the practice of causing political dissidents to vanish without trace.
Pinochet's Chilean regime also embarked on a campaign of terror abroad that included the 1976 assassination on a Washington street of Orlando Letelier, foreign minister under Allende, and Letelier's American assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt.
A U.S. grand jury indicted four members of the Chilean security police, including its director and chief of operations, both of whom were imprisoned in Chile.
Lawrence Barcella, the American prosecutor in the case, said yesterday that "it's inconceivable to me that [Pinochet] didn't know about it, if not order it."
Survivors of the assassination victims have urged the Clinton administration to reopen the investigation of Pinochet's involvement in the attack and have asked U.S. officials to cooperate fully with a Spanish inquiry into Pinochet's responsibility for human-rights abuses, the Associated Press reported yesterday.
"I am writing to ask your assistance in supporting the governments of Britain and Spain in the currently pending effort to extradite General Pinochet to Spain for trial on charges of crimes against humanity, murder and terrorism," Samuel J. Buffone, attorney for the survivors of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright last Friday.
Spokesmen at Justice and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment.
A Spanish magistrate came to Washington in the summer of 1997 seeking evidence against Pinochet and interviewed Barcella. Without disclosing classified or grand jury material, Barcella said he told the magistrate about evidence his inquiry had uncovered of Pinochet's connection to other crimes, including those against Spaniards in Chile and plots against Chileans in Spain.
U.S. officials have also turned over documents from the State Department, Defense Department, CIA and the FBI, according to a Justice Department official. Rubin said this week that the State Department alone had provided "hundreds of documents."
But Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, said the material turned over to Spain represents a fraction of the documents the U.S. government has on Pinochet.
Mutual legal assistance treaties, such as those the United States has with Spain, do not usually require that a government provide any classified material. But international law specialists say there is growing recognition that the responsibility for judging serious abuses of human rights crosses national boundaries.
"The legal foundation on which [the Spanish] request is made is a direct and logical outgrowth of Nuremberg," said Richard Wilson, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University, referring to the trials of Nazi leaders after Germany's defeat in World War II.
Pub Date: 10/31/98