"I believe you have the right to know what happened back then, and how it happened," President Clinton stated last fall on his policy to declassify documents on U.S. involvement with the Pinochet regime in Chile.
The CIA, however, disagrees.
In a clear attack on the principle of openness and accountability, CIA Director George J. Tenet has decided that the Agency - not the president - determines what American citizens should know about the history of their government's conduct abroad.
At the behest of his covert warriors in the Directorate of Operations, Tenet is refusing to declassify hundreds of records from the early and mid-1970s on CIA covert intervention to destabilize the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and support the violent consolidation of the Pinochet dictatorship.
If the White House does not take steps to overrule his position, the credibility of the administration's human rights policy abroad, and the rights of Americans to evaluate what was done in their name - but without their knowledge - will be severely compromised.
Since early last year, the Clinton administration has been conducting a groundbreaking special "Chile Declassification Project." Bowing to international pressure to take a stand on former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's arrest in London in February 1999, the Clinton White House ordered all agencies to "retrieve and review for declassification documents that shed light on human rights abuses, terrorism and other acts of political violence in Chile," before and during the Pinochet regime.
To date, more than 7,500 formerly secret records have been declassified - most of them from the State Department. Under the admirable direction of Secretary Madeleine K. Albright, the department has cleaned its archives of hundreds of important documents on what the U.S. knew about Pinochet's atrocities, including the death and disappearance of three U.S. citizens in Chile and the Sept. 21, 1976, act of international terrorism in Washington that took the lives of Ronni Moffitt and former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier.
The CIA is a different story.
The Agency has the most to offer to the Chile Declassification Project - but also the most to hide. While some CIA reporting on Pinochet's atrocities has been declassified, to date not a single document on the Agency's own involvement in promoting political violence to undermine democracy and to help bring a violent dictatorship to power has been released.
Indeed, with the same tenacity used to destabilize Chile's democratic institutions in the early 1970s, the CIA has sought to undermine the credibility of the declassification project.
When the guidance for gathering and reviewing documents was being drafted in early 1999, Agency officials insisted on inserting language which it claimed would exempt any search of covert-operations files.
When White House officials overruled that argument, the CIA asserted that documents on its covert role in political violence in Chile, and its support for Pinochet's secret police forces, were "nonresponsive" to the president's directive.
When the National Security Council rejected that argument, the CIA blocked the release of approximately 800 covert-action documents found in the Nixon and Ford presidential libraries and submitted by the National Archives for declassification.
My organization, the National Security Archive, is a leading advocate for the public's "right-to-know" on foreign policy issues. Last fall, the archive led a campaign to end the CIA's obstruction of the Chile Declassification Project, which forced Tenet to reconsider.
The CIA sent "written assurances" to the White House that such documents would be gathered, reviewed and released. CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield told the press that "the CIA recognizes its obligation to release documents on covert actions in Chile. By the time this process is completed, the documents ... will be released."
To their credit, CIA analysts did compile hundreds of records covering the whole history of U.S. clandestine involvement in Chile, from 1962 through 1975 - which includes the first two years of the Pinochet regime. These documents were reviewed and redacted - information on sources and methods was blacked out to safeguard national security - and readied for final release on Sept. 14.
But, in a coup against the democratic concept of freedom of information, high officials at the Directorate of Operations, the CIA's covert-action division, have intervened to block public access to even censored records on U.S. operations in Chile. The official justification: "in their aggregate," as Tenet wrote earlier this month to Congress, "these materials present a pattern of activity that had the effect of revealing intelligence methods that have been employed worldwide."
As it has so many times in the past, the CIA is trying to protect a fictional secret. The aggregate "pattern of activity" - the multiple methods of undermining democracy and supporting dictatorship in Chile - has, in fact, already been officially revealed; it was published 25 years ago in two comprehensive Senate Committee reports based on the very documents the agency now claims must remain secret.
The special Senate Committee, chaired by the late Sen. Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, recorded the bribery, kidnapping, propaganda operations, clandestine funding of politicians, newspapers, journalists and businessmen, as well as the liaisons with the Chilean military before, during and after the coup. The level of detail got down to the dollar amounts the CIA spent on financing El Mercurio, Chile's leading newspaper ($1.6 million) to the caliber of weapons passed to assets in an attempt to foment a military coup.
Covert action, Sen. Church concluded after his long inquiry, was a "semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies - whatever is deemed useful in bending another country to our will."
To be sure, the CIA's operational files on Chile are, in essence, the 'Pentagon Papers' of a major covert war. Their release is certain to stir a substantive reaction among Chileans over the degree of Washington's covert influence in altering the history of their nation. Similarly, the documents will renew a debate in the United States over the propriety of that "pattern of activity" the CIA seems so desperate to conceal.
But that is the purpose of being free to study the historical record - to learn the lessons of the past and provide for informed decisions about the future.
The CIA must not be allowed to arbitrarily hold this history hostage. At home, it is a danger to the democratic principle of an informed electorate to permit the Directorate of Operations to designate itself the chief archivist of the United States and determine what the public can know - and what it can't - about government conduct, and misconduct, more than 25 years ago.
Abroad, it will undermine the credibility of U.S. leadership on human rights, and our diplomatic efforts to help countries like Chile address and resolve the horrors of the past and move on to stronger democratic futures.
With the State Department pushing to obtain a thorough accounting of the murders and disappearances of three U.S. citizens and the act of terrorism in Washington, the CIA's continuing coverup of accountability can only weaken our diplomatic efforts to press the Chileans to acknowledge the truth and pursue those responsible.
Chile's civilian authorities deserve ample credit for recently taking bold and courageous steps to confront a painful past by moving Gen. Augusto Pinochet toward a historic trial on human rights abuses.
It is a far less courageous, but no less necessary step for the Clinton White House to assert civilian control over the keepers of the secrets and order the CIA - in the name of democracy abroad and at home - to acknowledge and disclose the record of Washington's contribution to Chile's tragedy.
Peter Kornbluh directs the Chile Documentation Project at the Public Interest Research Center, the National Security Archive in Washington. He is author of "The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability."