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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CIA Winked at Torture

The CIA made the astounding official admission last week that it knew about hundreds of human rights abuses committed by the Honduran military in the 1980s, all while the U.S. provided the military abusers with training and more than $1 billion.

This acknowledgment came in a report, prepared by the CIA inspector general, that specifically links the military to death squad activity and "politically motivated and officially sanctioned" torture and murder.

This document purports to answer important questions posed by The Baltimore Sun in a prize-winning 1995 series of investigative articles on the CIA's link to Honduran torturers.

Among the questions raised was whether any CIA employees were present at hostile interrogation and torture sessions in Honduras in the early 1980s. The CIA's finding, dutifully reported by media outlets around the world, was a resounding "We're not sure."

The report and other documents do confirm, however, that the agency was aware of - and turned a blind eye to - the systematic use of torture during interrogations by Honduran military officials whom it had trained, funded and advised.

By its own admission, the CIA trained Honduran military intelligence officers in "human resource exploitation" - its euphemistic reference to interrogation and torture. The agency also has acknowledged that its personnel regularly visited clandestine centers where dozens of people were being illegally detained and undergoing interrogation. Declassified CIA records give the names of Hondurans who were kidnapped, interrogated under duress and summarily executed by military and paramilitary units.

Take the case of one woman, a suspected "subversive" named Ines Consuelo Murillo. She was abducted March 12, 1983, and held without charges in clandestine detention for 78 days, during which time she was tortured. Remarkably, an internal CIA memorandum, prepared a decade ago for the CIA's inspector general's office, notes that almost a month after Murillo's capture, the CIA was asked for, and provided, help in "exploiting her questioning."

This memo reveals that a temporary duty officer was quickly dispatched to Honduras by the CIA and personally checked on Murillo's condition during his first visit to the secret jail.

He reported "she was blindfolded and appeared to be either unconscious, asleep or feigning sleep. ... She had some small marks on her arms and legs which could have been bruises. A 55-gallon drum filled with water was in the room, and he was told that Murillo had been repeatedly immersed headfirst in it when she refused to answer questions."

The description of Murillo's interrogation is yet more remarkable. It states that temporal "disorientation was used with Murillo. The light was kept on at all times. There were no windows in the room so she had no way to judge the time of day. No particular schedule of questioning was kept, but the two questioners tired, too, so they were unable to exploit this." The U.S. officer noted further: "The two Special Unit questioners were careful to wear ski masks (despite the heat and the fact that she was blindfolded) and to use aliases (e.g., 'Rony') while dealing with her."

How does the CIA justify the presence of its employee at a clandestine detention center where illegally detained people were being held? By boasting that his presence resulted in improvements in Murillo's situation.

The U.S. officer "immediately ordered clean clothing and a hot meal for the [prisoner], and had the water drum removed." The officer, we are told, informed the Honduran questioners that "Ms. Murillo was not to be mistreated again, and that he immediately would break off CIA assistance to her debriefing if this rule was violated. ... Thereafter, he said he checked on her condition upon his arrival at the site each day and before he left at the end of the day."

While hot meals would certainly have been an improvement, the bottom line is that Murillo remained in clandestine captivity and was subjected to grueling interrogation sessions. Her family did not know her whereabouts. She still had not been turned over to judicial authorities. And, incidentally, Murillo says she never got a hot meal.

Parenthetically, this account of the temporary duty officer did not become public until 1997 - after the Sun series on human rights abuses in Honduras and a request by Dr. Leo Valladares Lanza, the Honduran human rights ombudsman, prompted John M. Deutch, then director of central intelligence, to order an internal review. Even then, versions of the document that was released were heavily blacked out. In these circumstances, CIA demands that the Honduran military stop abuses were disingenuous. They amounted to little more than a wink and a nod.

In fact, the CIA played down and covered up these horrific crimes during the 1980s because Honduras was the staging ground for President Ronald Reagan's Central America policy, including covert support for Nicaraguan Contras.

Although newly declassified CIA records report on an officially organized pattern and practice of abuses by the Honduran military, U.S. assistance was unwavering.

The CIA's close ties to Honduran General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez epitomize this. Newly released documents indicate that, as commander-in-chief of the Honduran armed forces, Alvarez authorized the execution of numerous individuals by the ELACH, a state-run death squad.

And he established the dreaded Battalion 316, a Honduran military intelligence unit notorious for human rights abuses. At the same time Alvarez was at the helm of these abuses, he received the U.S. Legion of Merit for "encouraging the success of democratic processes in Honduras."

"Alvarez was our key man in the Honduran government," wrote Duane R. Clarridge, the CIA's former Latin American division chief, in his book, "A Spy for All Seasons." "Getting rid of him would be the last thing we'd do."

Susan C. Peacock is a visiting fellow at the U.S. National Security Archive. She contributed this comment to The Baltimore Sun.