CIA Errs in Guatemala, But No Proof of Murder

CENTRAL Intelligence Agency officials have been cleared of involvement in the murder of a US innkeeper and the disappearance and presumed execution of a rebel leader in Guatemala. But the agency has not escaped untarnished.

The CIA's own inspector general and President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) found that CIA officials produced flawed intelligence reports on the two cases and strayed from established procedures. CIA officials also failed to keep the State Department and Congress properly briefed, they concluded.

The investigations, though, left a central question in the 1990 slaying of Michael DeVine and the disappearance in 1992 of guerrilla leader Efraim Bamaca Velazquez unresolved: Was a paid CIA informant involved? Senior CIA officials indicate they don't intend to pursue an answer. Says one: ''I'm not sure we will do a lot more work on this.''

As a result of the investigations, the findings of which were announced Wednesday, CIA director John Deutch is mulling disciplinary action against unnamed agency officials and working on new guidelines to improve the CIA's cooperation with Congress and US ambassadors. He is also overhauling the methods the CIA uses to select its overseas station chiefs, recruit informers, and monitor human rights abuses.

The steps represent the latest reform effort Mr. Deutch has launched since assuming the agency's top job in May with a pledge to lead it out of one of the bleakest eras of its 48-year history. He must repair damage inflicted by double agent Aldrich Ames, tackle sex-discrimination problems, and root out lingering cold-war-bred cronyism and disdain for accountability.

''As I have said before, when we have done something right, we should be proud; when we have done something wrong, we must acknowledge mistakes and act properly to correct them,'' Deutch wrote to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees this week.

CIA officials, however, acknowledge that lawmakers are not happy with Deutch's assurances, especially his assertion that agency officials did not deliberately withhold information about Guatemala. ''They disagreed with our view that there was not an intentional misleading,'' one CIA official says.

Deutch's statement accompanied the findings of the IOB and an in-house CIA investigation into the murder by Guatemalan soldiers of DeVine, an American who ran a tourist inn, and Mr. Bamaca, who disappeared after his 1992 capture by the Guatemalan Army

President Clinton in March ordered the IOB to oversee a government-wide review of the DeVine and Bamaca cases after lawmakers expressed fears of a coverup of CIA involvement. The panel released its preliminary findings at the same time that the CIA announced the results of the inquiry by its inspector general, Fred Hitz.

Both investigations concurred there was no CIA involvement in the cases and that the agency was operating within its official mandate in Guatemala. But they failed to reach conclusions on allegations that Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, a Guatemalan Army officer and paid CIA informant, had a hand in the DeVine murder and the torture and execution of Bamaca. Colonel Alpirez has denied the allegations, but did not meet with CIA investigators who traveled to Guatemala.

SENIOR CIA officials said a review of CIA files found that agency reports that initially linked Alpirez to the DeVine and Bamaca cases were ''seriously deficient.'' The CIA had certified as reliable only 10 percent of its Guatemalan sources, they said.

A CIA officer, they added, was also no longer certain about the accuracy of his 1991 report that said Alpirez was present when DeVine was interrogated by the Guatemalan soldiers who shot him. One official described as ''hearsay upon hearsay'' a 1995 CIA report that Alpirez had killed Bamaca.

Hitz's review of the CIA files found no credible information implicating Alpirez, the official said. But he then added that the CIA tends to believe reports by the US Embassy in Guatemala and a private detective who concluded that Alpirez had a hand in DeVine's death. Alpirez ''may very well have been involved,'' the official said.

An IOB statement deepened the confusion by saying ''substantial evidence contradicts the allegation that Alpirez directed or was present at the presumed death of Bamaca.'' and contradicting itself, saying ''no credible evidence obtained to date contradicts'' the testimony of a former rebel who implicated Alpirez in torturing Bamaca.

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