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A Mess of Improprieties

written and illustrated by Murray Kempton

Human Rights Watch World Report 1996: Events of 1995

Human Rights Watch (distributed by Yale University Press), 388 pp., $30.00

Henry James introduced us to the Countess Gemini, whose repute among soberer Tuscans was “as a lady who had so mismanaged her improprieties that they had ceased to hang together at all—which was the least that one asked of such matters.” All the same she remained a countess. The Central Intelligence Agency appears to manage its improprieties with the same slipshod hand she dealt for hers. Nonetheless, the CIA remains the CIA. In each one’s case, a title accompanied by a spot of mystery carries a warrant of immunity.

Human Rights Watch has recently issued another of those annual reports that the morally sensitive have grown to cherish as a world almanac of official infamies. And once again there peeps forth the toe that is still all we are permitted to see of the heavy foot of the CIA.

We are introduced again to Emmanuel Constant, the fiery commander of the Front for Advancement and Progress in Haiti (FRAPH). FRAPH was the recruiter of goons for jobs too dirty because too overt for the generals who expelled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The gossip that Constant was a CIA agent became valid currency when, shortly after the US landings, our embassy sponsored a rally where Constant spoke feelingly of peace and order. Such dignities seldom fall to a job-deprived captain of thugs unless they are urged on his behalf by his CIA handlers.

Having failed to rally Haitians to his vision, Constant decamped to the United States on a tourist visa, which the Immigration Service now says was a “mistake,” as in the case of Sheik Omar Rahman, who had also in his time done the CIA some service. Now Constant is under an order of deportation and, galled by our ingratitude, he took 60 Minutes to charge that he drew $700 a month from the CIA payroll and enjoyed lengthy conversations with the CIA station chief for Port-au-Prince.

Constant’s is a word whose taking needs a bushel of salt. Fortunately, historians have an easy way to assess its truth, which must lodge in the 150,000 documents seized and returned to Washington after a 1995 US army raid on FRAPH headquarters. Unfortunately, despite pleas from Haitian authorities, our government has refused to yield them up. The pettifoggeries tendered to explain the steadfast denial can scarcely conceal an underlying determination not to embarrass the CIA.

That same insistence on burying mismanaged improprieties applies to Honduras. In the Eighties, when the Reagan administration’s anti-Sandinista fevers were off the chart, the CIA trained Battalion 3-16, a Honduran army unit responsible for counterintelligence and, in the process, for the torture, the murder, and the disappearance of citizens beyond count.

The Hondurans have since tried most conscientiously to seek out their recent history’s dreadful facts. There have been hearings and witnesses from Battalion 3-16’s alumni register. One recalled the American instructor who explained such refinements of interrogation as sleep deprivation, putting rats in the suspect’s bed, etc., all of which had to seem oversubtle to students who were torturers of the cruder old school.

Two years ago, Honduras’s human rights commissioner submitted a lengthy questionnaire to the United States government about its part in Battalion 3-16. He is still waiting for a useful reply. Solicitude for the good name of past Republican presidents obtains no less for a present Democratic one.

Just last spring, Col. Julio Alpirez, graduate of the Army’s school at Fort Benning and a CIA free-lancer, emerged as prime suspect in the willful and motiveless murder of Michael DeVine, an American citizen. The CIA presented Alpirez with a $44,000 buyout and, having less to complain about than Constant, he has been less revelatory. Then a group of congressmen asked President Bill Clinton to declassify documents pertinent to the CIA’s doings in Guatemala. He has yet to vouchsafe an answer. Mme Gemini could be a moral sloven and still be a countess. So too can the CIA and still be the CIA.

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