If Spain is able to extradite Gen. Augusto Pinochet to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, the former Chilean dictator may not be the only one answering tough questions.
The United States could also find itself having to justify a disturbing chapter of its cold-war foreign policy - its ties to General Pinochet and his security forces, who killed thousands of opponents at home and abroad.
Much is known about the CIA's hand in the 1973 coup, in which Marxist President Salvador Allende died and Pinochet took power. But new disclosures could bring fresh embarrassments for the US - and potential legal problems for former and current officials, who justified their actions in Chile and elsewhere as protecting American interests from Soviet-sponsored communism.
"People in government acted on an old set of rules that assumed ... the diplomacy and Realpolitik of the time trumped human rights law," says Michael Posner of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "But it's a new day."
For almost a year, the Spanish judge seeking Pinochet's extradition from Britain has requested access to secret US archives on the 1973 coup and Pinochet's 17-year reign. As many as 3,200 people died or disappeared under his tenure, including three Americans and other foreigners. Judge Baltasar Garzon in Spain wants to try Pinochet for those deaths.
The archival material could help convict Pinochet, aiding international efforts to bring to account the world's most egregious human rights violators. Yet to date, the Clinton administration has refused to open a single file to Judge Garzon.
"These documents have the utmost contemporary relevance for one purpose: a judicial process against somebody who has committed heinous crimes," says Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives, a Washington group that seeks declassification of US secrets.
The case poses a dilemma for President Clinton, who has promoted an unprecedented declassification of cold-war secrets. But his advisers worry that Pinochet's prosecution could ultimately result in legal actions against former US officials, such as Henry Kissinger, architect of US policy toward Chile while serving in the Nixon administration. The Pentagon also worries about frivolous lawsuits against American soldiers serving in combat zones.
Amid intense world attention on Pinochet's extradition fight, the US this week announced its secret Chile archives will be screened, and any files that do not hurt US security will be released to Garzon.
"We will declassify ... as much information as possible," says White House spokesman P.J. Crowley.
BUT many experts are doubtful. Citing the Clinton administration's lack of support for Pinochet's extradition, its reluctance to bring its own charges against him, and its foot-dragging on the archives, they say the US is anxious to avert any new revelations about its involvement in Chile.
"There is an incredible reluctance to let anything out," says Martha Honey of the Institute for Policy Studies. The Washington think tank has long advocated Pinochet's prosecution in the 1976 car-bombing in the US capital of one of its fellows, Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier, and his American aide, Ronni Moffitt, by Chilean secret police.
Responds Defense Secretary William Cohen: "We have nothing to fear from any particular judicial proceedings."
But the September release of a batch of classified documents to the National Security Archives suggests there could be troubling new material in the archives. The declassified records include this Sept. 16, 1970, directive from CIA headquarters to its station chief in Chile: "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown in a coup."
The cable was sent a day after Nixon and Dr. Kissinger ordered then-CIA Director Richard Helms to launch "Operation Fubelt" against Allende. In his declassified notes of the meeting, Mr. Helms records: "full-time job ... best men we have ... $10,000,000 available."
Garzon is believed to be most interested in classified material concerning US knowledge of "Operation Condor," a cooperative effort among Latin American dictatorships to kill opponents at home and abroad. Its architect was allegedly Col. Manuel Contreras, the former chief of DINA, a secret police unit that answered directly to Pinochet. Colonel Contreras is now in prison for the murder of Dr. Letelier and Ms. Moffitt.
Garzon has been investigating Pinochet's complicity in that and DINA-orchestrated assassinations and attempted murders elsewhere, including Italy and Argentina.
US defense and intelligence officials maintained extensive contacts with DINA, while FBI agents who investigated the Letelier slaying accumulated considerable materials on the organization's activities.
A 1975 US Defense Intelligence Agency report, among the documents released in September, provides a taste of what might else might be in the secret US archives: " ... Contreras has reported exclusively to, and received orders only from President Pinochet."