Access to U.S. Government Information on Human Rights Violations in Honduras
The U.S. government scrupulously collects and archives information related to the operations of its various agencies, and it has measures in place to allow for public access to this information, including classified material. However, it is often difficult for citizens and other governments to obtain the declassification of secret U.S. records, even those containing information about human rights abuses. For those who over the past decade have sought to discover the truth about human rights abuses in Honduras, the process has been especially challenging.
In the early 1980s, Honduras served as a base of operations for U.S. intelligence and military forces in their efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and to eliminate guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Guatemala [link to Central American Conflicts of the 1980s]. In addition to using Honduras as a geographic base for its operatives, the United States provided millions of dollars in aid, weapons and equipment as well as extensive training to the Honduran military. An especially infamous chapter of this alliance is the support the United States provided to Battalion 3-16, a military intelligence unit reportedly responsible for the forced detention, torture and murder of many of Honduras’ nearly 200 disappeared persons, including clergy, students, labor leaders and journalists.
Uncovering the fate of the disappeared in Honduras and the U.S. role in their plight has not been easy. In the early 1990s, Leo Valladares Lanza, Honduras’ first national commissioner for human rights, undertook a formal investigation of forced disappearances in Honduras. Valladares discovered that, like other Latin American countries at that time, Honduras did not have clear laws regarding the retention or disclosure of government records. After conducting an onsite inspection at one military intelligence office and finding the file cabinets completely empty, he was informed that it was Honduran military policy to destroy its records every five years to make space for new files. With such limited access to information inside Honduras, Valladares turned to the U.S. government for information regarding cases of disappearance. Records held by U.S. agencies became a key source of information for his investigation.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the primary vehicle in the United States for releasing classified government documents into the public domain. Enacted in 1966, FOIA established a statutory right of access to information held by U.S. government agencies. According to FOIA, all federal agency information must be accessible to the public unless it specifically qualifies for an exemption. Exemptions allow for the protection of national security, personal privacy, trade secrecy and law enforcement investigations. FOIA stipulates that “any person” –– in theory U.S. citizens, foreign nationals and even foreign government representatives –– may request declassification of information. Such requests, however, are often denied in full or in part. In addition to using FOIA, representatives of foreign governments may also make “state-to-state” requests to the U.S. government for information. This avenue is problematic because, unlike FOIA, there is no mandated time frame for responses, and the denial of information need not be justified and is not subject to appeal.
In 1993, Valladares initiated a state-to-state request for human rights information found in CIA, National Security Council, U.S. Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and State and Defense Department files. His first queries followed FOIA requests for similar information made by the family of the Rev. James Francis Carney, a Jesuit priest who disappeared in Honduras in 1983, and The Baltimore Sun, which subsequently published a groundbreaking exposé on Battalion 3-16 and its U.S. sponsorship. Former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Jack R. Binns also made requests for information. In a 1998 report, “In Search of Hidden Truths,” Valladares characterized his efforts to obtain documentation as “exceedingly frustrating.”
Valladares' request, along with separate requests made by both the Honduran attorney general and the special prosecutor for human rights, yielded little human rights information. Most of the documents that were released came from the State Department and were declassified in 1995. Many of these were either already in the public domain — as a result of the earlier FOIA requests by The Sun and the Carney family — or were of little relevance to the investigations being conducted by Valladares and the attorney general’s office. It was not until 1997 that the CIA and the Defense Department responded to Valladares’ request, despite appeals by members of Congress and the Clinton administration. The CIA and Defense Department documents, however, were far fewer in number than those of the State Department and were heavily censored.
In August 1997, the CIA inspector general prepared a 211-page classified report entitled “Selected Issues Relating to CIA Activities in Honduras in the 1980s.” This report was not immediately released to Valladares or the Honduran attorney general, despite its obvious importance to their ongoing human rights investigations. In response to inquiries by members of Congress and a FOIA request submitted by the National Security Archive on behalf of Valladares, the report was finally partially declassified in September 1998. According to the report, “The Honduran military committed hundreds of human rights abuses since 1980, many of which were politically motivated and officially sanctioned.” It found that “reporting inadequacies” by CIA officials in Honduras prevented CIA headquarters from “understanding the scope of human rights abuses in Honduras” and that some CIA reports to Congress had been inaccurate. However, substantial portions of the report — 44 entire pages and many more partial pages — were blacked out, including the names of individuals who were involved in abuses.
Responding to the original withholding of the CIA report and the general tight-fistedness of the CIA and Defense Department with regard to the declassification of historical records, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. and Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., introduced the Human Rights Information Act in fall 1997. This act would have required that the administration declassify all documents related to human rights violations in Honduras and Guatemala within 150 days. The act, reintroduced in 2001 as H.R. 1152, never came to a vote in the Congress.
A troubling change in U.S. policy occurred on Oct. 12, 2001, when Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a Justice Department memorandum allowing government agencies to deny FOIA requests based on any "sound legal basis." This marked a radical departure from previous policy, which required agencies to release information, unless doing so would cause "foreseeable harm." This shift toward greater secrecy will likely further hamper the efforts of those who have already faced challenges in obtaining government records.
Despite the efforts of Valladares and others, Hondurans have obtained the disclosure of only a minute portion of the human rights information locked away in U.S. government files. According to Valladares, “The transformation of Honduras into a more democratic society lies in our people's spirit, ability and will to know and confront the terrible truth of a legacy of human rights violations." To date, U.S. claims of national security, the basis for keeping these documents secret, have prevailed over Hondurans’ efforts to discover the truth.
For more information
“When a wave of torture and murder staggered a small U.S. ally, truth was a casualty.” (First of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 11, 1995.
“Torturers’ confessions.” (Second of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 13, 1995.
“A survivor tells her story.” (Third of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 15, 1995.
“A carefully crafted deception.” (Fourth of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 18, 1995.
CIA Stipulations to Facts Regarding Honduran Military Activities and U.S. Intelligence in Honduras in the 1980s. Except from the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of John D. Negroponte to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (S. Hrg. 107-781); Sept. 13, 2001.
Testimony of Dr. Leo Valladares Lanza, National Commissioner For Human Rights In Honduras, on the Human Rights Information Act (H.R. 2635) Before the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, May 11, 1998.
“Using the Freedom of Information Act: A Step-by-Step Guide.’ The American Civil Liberties Union.
How To Make A FOIA Request, National Security Archive.
“New Attorney General FOIA Memorandum Issued.”
“Open the Files: A Chance to Aid Demilitarization in Honduras.” Adam Isacson and Susan Peacock. Center for International Policy, 1997.
“In Search of Hidden Truths,” an Interim Report on Declassification by the National Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras. Leo Valladares Lanza and Susan Peacock.