Clinton stops CIA aid to Guatemala intelligence unit

President Bill Clinton yesterday stopped CIA funding of a Guatemalan intelligence unit suspected of human rights abuses. But that move alone will not stop the spreading scandal here over US links with Guatemala's repressive military and police, alleged to have killed or tortured almost two dozen Americans over the last two decades.

Long overshadowed by the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Guatemala is emerging as another shabby showcase of clandestine US involvement with some of the most brutal regimes of the hemisphere - conducted either in the ignorance of elected policy-makers or with their deliberate connivance.

Yesterday's announcement by the White House seems more a case of injured embarrassment than calculated cover-up. According to officials, Mr Clinton ordered a halt to covert CIA operations in Guatemala in 1993, but - apparently unbeknown to him - funding, at least for the intelligence unit, continued.

Another top official kept in the dark was the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who assured a television interviewer on Sunday that "there's no money going down there now". Only when Mr Christopher's aides found out the true situation was the White House informed, leading to yesterday's presidential order. In the meantime, on Capitol Hill and in the US media, the "Guatemalan connection" has assumed a life of its own.

For years, there has been no mystery about human rights atrocities in Guatemala, but the charges suddenly gained new force last month with claims that a Guatemalan army colonel, a paid informer of the CIA, was responsible for the torture and killing of an American inn-keeper in 1990, and two years later of a left-wing rebel leader married to an American lawyer.

It is further claimed that the US army and the National Security Agency, specialising in electronic eavesdropping, may also have known of Colonel Roberto Alpirez and shredded documents which might have incriminated him. Amid public anger over the death of Michael DeVine, the innkeeper, in 1990, the Bush administration halted direct military aid to Guatemala, but instead secretly channelled up to $7m (£4.4m) a year to the government there through the CIA.

Now new horror stories are emerging - most lately of Sister Dianne Ortiz, an American nun who was raped, tortured and almost killed by Guatemalan police in 1989, two years after she had arrived in the country to teach poor children. She is convinced the US government tried to cover its tracks by orchestrating a "smear campaign" against her, to "avoid admission of its involvement in these crimes". And after Mr Clinton last week ordered the CIA's independent supervisory board to investigate the allegations, the Senate opens its own hearings into the atrocities, at which Jennifer Harbury, the Harvard-educated widow of Efraim Bamaca Velasquez, the murdered guerrilla leader, will be among the witnesses.

For all the sinister machinations on display, the occasion is unlikely to become another Iran-Contra spectacular, not least because a Republican Congress will not want to probe too deeply into misdeeds mainly committed under Republican presidents, from Gerald Ford to George Bush. Republicans, moreover, are temperamentally less inclined to see the CIA as the root of every evil on the planet.

But Democrats are on the offensive, and the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, will be hard-pressed to protect the demoralised CIA from another public humiliation, after the Aldrich Ames spy affair and its admission of sexual discrimination against women employees.

The new charges against Colonel Alpirez were aired by Robert Torricelli, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Mr Gingrich accuses Mr Torricelli of leaking information given to the committee. To which the latter retorted that Mr Gingrich's remarks indicated "a stronger allegiance to the CIA than to the truth".

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