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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Dubious Honor

The Central Intelligence Agency is giving one of its highest honors, the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal, to the highest-ranking CIA official fired in a 1995 scandal for failing to inform Congress about the CIA's ties to human rights abuses in Guatemala. Human rights advocates expressed outrage at the news, but according to The Washington Post's Vernon Loeb, who broke the story last week, the CIA sees the 1995 scandal as a mere lapse in Terry Ward's otherwise outstanding CIA career.

The available declassified documentation suggests, however, that what the CIA sees as outstanding, most American citizens would regard as reprehensible. Because so much of Ward's career took place undercover, and because so much of the related documentation consists of black blotches censoring information the CIA says would damage the United States' national security if released, it is very difficult for outsiders to second-guess the CIA's judgment.

It may well be that Ward's work saved lives and made the United States more secure. But that remains a secret. The declassified record points to the opposite conclusion, when we correlate the documents with what is known of Ward's career: While Ward served in CIA stations in countries such as Argentina and Peru, the CIA used two manuals to train Latin American militaries and security services in interrogating suspects, one dating from 1963, the other an update in 1983.

When a furor arose in Congress and the press in 1984 over the CIA's training methods - including multiple allegations of torture - the CIA rewrote the 1983 manual. One passage read in the original, "If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, the subject may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him. It is advisable to have a psychologist available whenever regression is induced.'' The latter sentence was rewritten to read, "This illustrates why this coercive technique may produce torture.'' Other sections remained unchanged, such as the one admonishing interrogators to check the electric outlets before selecting an interrogation room, to make sure the necessary transformers were on hand for electric shock treatment.

A 1997 CIA Inspector General's report established that by 1986, when Ward was serving as deputy chief of the Latin American division, the CIA knew that the Honduran military - including the CIA's own paid assets at the highest levels - had organized a death squad called Battalion 316.

The Inspector General noted that CIA Director William Casey specifically assured Congress in 1986 that the CIA would fully investigate this death squad, but it certainly didn't do so during the next two years, when Ward was posted as station chief and CIA paymaster in Honduras. Last month, the Honduran government began paying $2.1 million to Battalion 316's victims, now estimated at 184 murdered.

A State Department-funded investigation that was conducted in 1986 and 1987 - while Ward was deputy division chief for Latin America and then Honduran station chief overseeing the Nicaraguan contra operation - established that the contras repeatedly tortured and murdered their prisoners. Journalist Sam Dillon's 1991 book "Commandos'' puts Ward on the scene in 1987 when the contras carried out a lengthy "counterintelligence'' campaign within their own ranks, including CIA polygraph experts as well as routine torture and indefinite detention, while the contras' CIA handlers "turned the other way.''

On Oct. 15, 1991, the CIA station in Guatemala sent an "eyes only'' cable to Ward, then the chief of the Latin American division, summarizing the murder of U.S. citizen Michael Devine and stating that "the entire command structure of the military zone where the killing took place was controlled by men known to be capable of murder under the most casual pretext'' - at least one commander was a CIA asset.

After discussing several other cases, the cable concludes by reporting that "the extrajudicial killing of certain categories of persons is almost routine.''

On June 28, 1996, the President's Intelligence Oversight Board reported that during the period of Ward's direction of Latin American operations, the CIA provided "vital'' funding, ranging from $1 million to $3.5 million per year, to the Guatemalan military intelligence services, whose human rights records "were generally known to have been reprehensible by all who were familiar with Guatemala.'' The board said, "We learned that in the period since 1984, several CIA assets were credibly alleged to have ordered, planned or participated in serious human rights violations such as assassination, extrajudicial execution, torture or kidnapping while they were assets - and that the CIA was contemporaneously aware of many of the allegations.'' The board concluded that the CIA rewarded its officers for recruiting assets regardless of any damage done to other United States interests such as human rights or civilian control of foreign militaries.

If all this makes for a "distinguished career,'' one can only ask the Central Intelligence Agency: What qualifies as undistinguished?

Tom Blanton is director of George Washington University's National Security Archive, a research library. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.