John Deutch, the CIA director, was yesterday preparing to dismiss or punish up to a dozen of his "operatives" for enlisting suspect agents in Guatemala and covering up glaring evidence of human rights abuses there in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.
The threatened sanctions, among the heaviest in the CIA's history and said to be the first to punish covert operatives for offences connected to human rights, contrast with the kidglove treatment of those involved with the debacle of Aldrich Ames, the worst spy in the agency's history. In spite of massive evidence of internal CIA bungling, no one was dismissed or even demoted.
That fiasco, however, led to the appointment of Mr Deutch, a no-nonsense former deputy defense secretary, with a mandate to put the CIA's house in order. The recommendations of a special internal review board, set up to look into the agency's behaviour in Guatemala, give him his most visible opportunity so far to do so.
Facing possible dismissal are two high-ranking officers, Terry Ward, chief of covert operations for Latin America between 1990 and 1993, and Frederick Brugger, station chief in Guatemala City for much of that period. Mr Deutch was due to announce their fate to Congressional intelligence supervisory committees yesterday.
Close ties have recently come to light between the CIA and senior Guatemalan military officers - some of whom were on its payroll - responsible for killing and torturing thousands of civilians in their long and brutal campaign against a left-wing guerrilla movement in the country. These crimes, it is alleged, were ignored or covered up by CIA staff. Some officers are said to have destroyed the incriminating reports. Earlier this year, Washington was forced to cut off military aid to Guatemala's regime, following an outcry over the murder in the early 1990s of Michael DeVine, an American innkeeper, and Efrain Bamaca, a left-wing radical and guerrilla, married to an American civil rights lawyer, Jennifer Harbury. Implicated in the killings was Colonel Julio Alpirez, a Guatemalan officer who was then in the service of the CIA.
The review board was then set up, delivering the conclusions that are said to have caused "uproar" in the agency's Latin American section.