A dispute over whether to release Argentina’s most famous political prisoner of the “Dirty War” almost fractured the country’s military regime in the early 1980s, according to declassified documents released this month by the National Security Archive. NSA senior analyst Peter Kornbluh talks about the jailing of journalist Jacobo Timerman. Timerman’s son, Hector, the Argentine ambassador to the United States, also discusses his father’s legacy.
All Blues Hail MaryArtist: by Joe Henry
BOB GARFIELD: Newly published declassified documents from long ago fill in another piece of history. In Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” of the late 1970s and early '80s, between 13 and 30,000 people were “disappeared” by the ruling military regime. Journalist Jacobo Timerman was one of them. A popular reporter, he founded the daily newspaper La Opinion in 1971. Under his leadership, the paper focused on the dictatorship’s human rights violations. On April 15th, 1977 he was arrested, accused of subversion and subjected to beatings, electric shock torture and solitary confinement, all of which he later chronicled in the book, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. Timerman became a poster child for the repression of the regime, which came under great pressure from the world, especially the United States, until he was finally released and exiled 30 months later. After democracy returned to Argentina in 1983 Timerman moved back to Buenos Aires and lived there until his death in 1999. Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst with the National Security Archive, says declassified documents published by his organization earlier this month give new insight into the Timerman case.
PETER KORNBLUH: The documents confirm the Argentine military regime almost fractured due to the international pressure to release Timerman. The titular head of the junta, General Videla, threatened to resign, as did the entire Supreme Court, if the military high command did not actually agree to release Timerman. And the documents show that the high command voted six to three to keep him prisoner, even after the Supreme Court for the second time had ruled that there was absolutely no reason to hold him.
BOB GARFIELD: Those in the regime who were insisting that the military release Timerman weren't exactly bleeding hearts.
PETER KORNBLUH: We're not really talking about a great range on the political spectrum here in Argentina. This was a military junta. The head of the junta, General Videla, came under direct pressure. President Carter talked to him about the Timerman case, Vice-President Mondale talked to him about the Timerman case and our U.S. ambassador talked to him repeatedly about the Timerman case, and he received all the pressures from around the world, as well. Basically, he came to the conclusion that even the military regime would be better served if Timerman was released. But there were other hardliners in the high command who felt that he should be held as a subversive.
BOB GARFIELD: Do we have any reason to believe that alleged subversion was what the kidnapping and torture were really all about?
PETER KORNBLUH: Really, the declassified record shows that the Argentine military had had it in for Jacobo Timerman for years, and those documents go all the way back to the '50s. And they show that Argentine intelligence was tracking Jacobo Timerman as a journalist during his entire journalistic career, and that as early as 1959 they were putting out internal reports on him, which had language like this [SPANISH], which translates, “He is considered a dangerous Jew.” And the anti-Semitism of the Argentine military clearly was a major factor in spying on him, arresting him in April of 1977, brutally torturing him for over a year and then keeping him under house arrest for more than a year after that.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this was a case that had essentially the direct intervention of an American president, Jimmy Carter. At the time, was the administration’s participation fully public?
PETER KORNBLUH: Well, it wasn't fully public. Carter actually spoke directly with Videla after Timerman was arrested in 1977, when Videla came to the signing of the Panama Canal Treaties, and asked that Timerman be released. One of the documents we posted is a meeting that Timerman had with our Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Patricia Derian, just two-and-a-half weeks before he was arrested. And I think that that document actually gives you a sense that one of the things that angered the generals in Argentina was the fact that he was meeting with U.S. officials who were now, under the Carter Aadministration, speaking up very clearly about human rights atrocities in Argentina.
BOB GARFIELD: I must say, Peter, it was kind of refreshing looking at the traffic that these documents revealed, because, you know, only a few years earlier and, in fact, also only a few years later, U.S. participation in places in Latin America had a much more sinister cast.
PETER KORNBLUH: Carter ran as a human rights president to repudiate the Nixon and Ford Administration’s embrace of not only the junta in Argentina but the Pinochet regime in Chile. After Carter lost his election to Ronald Reagan, you'll recall Reagan decided that he would go with what he called “quiet diplomacy” which in many people’s minds was equal to no diplomacy on human rights, and cozied up to the military regimes in the Southern Cone. So yes, the record of the Carter period is an important one on human rights, and these documents on the Timerman case shed further light on the more active efforts of the White House during the Carter era to get political prisoners, like Timerman and others, released from torturers in Chile and Argentina and Paraguay and Uruguay, and elsewhere.
BOB GARFIELD: One for the good guys.
PETER KORNBLUH: One for the good guys.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter, thank you very much.
PETER KORNBLUH: It’s a pleasure to be with you one more time.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst for the National Security Archive, a nonpartisan, nonprofit documentation center in Washington, D.C. Timerman had three sons. One of them, Hector, is a journalist, a human rights activist, and now the Argentine ambassador to the United States. He says the recently released documents reaffirm the brutality of the military regime during the Dirty War.
HECTOR TIMERMAN: I don't want to use a common phrase, but this is the banality of evil. All the information is gossip, nothing, small talk among different spying organizations. But what is really sad about all this is that many people in Argentina died because of those reports, that, for instance, in the case of my father, he was called a dangerous Communist. Then he was called two years later a Communist but not so dangerous. All the time he’s being called a Jew, you know, a Jewish Communist, a Jewish this, a Jewish that. It is really worth reading to see that Hannah Arendt was right, absolutely right.
BOB GARFIELD: The banality of evil. Looking at these documents that have emerged, what has crystallized about that period that perhaps had never crystallized before?
HECTOR TIMERMAN: Well, something that I have learned, not now, but during the dictatorship, is that the fans of democracy, and democratic values in general, have to be above anything else. I was a revolutionary when I was a young person. I didn't have any concern about democratic values. But now I think that everything, everything has to be done with a respect for democracy and democratic institutions.
BOB GARFIELD: With the release of this documentation, both from the secret police of Argentina and the U.S. State Department, how has it been covered in the Argentine press? And how has the public reacted?
HECTOR TIMERMAN: His case was so well known that nobody really gets impressed by what the newspapers are publishing these days. It’s not like the same thing when you find out somebody who was missing and they found their bones or they found what happened 30 years ago with them, no?
BOB GARFIELD: So these documents, are you saying it’s like unearthing a grave of bones? And we've long since known what happened to the “disappeared” but, ah, yeah, here are the bones, but, of course.
HECTOR TIMERMAN: What I'm saying is that many times I have to pursue my father’s case because it’s a good way to bring attention to other people’s fate who are not so well known, especially, for instance, the kids that were born 30 years ago in the illegal and the clandestine jails. You know that we have 400 kids that were born in captivity, that we are still looking for them; we don't know where they are, the children of political prisoners who were born in captivity.
BOB GARFIELD: In some cases actually have been adopted by their captors.
HECTOR TIMERMAN: Yeah. Well, they are kept by their captors. The problem is that we don't have too much information and they are not eager to give information. They should know who their real parents are. But anyway, going back about that, my father is a very well-known and very well-regarded person by his colleagues and by the public, in general, so the figure of my father brings me a lot of happiness. And I'm very proud of what he did, the way he did it. He stands up for his values. He pays the price, but he show that it did work sometime, paying that price. And so if I keep my father’s memory, not only just to pay honor to my father but to use his well-known case in order to bring attention to the people who were forgotten in Argentina.
BOB GARFIELD: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.
HECTOR TIMERMAN: No, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Hector Timerman is the Argentine Ambassador to the United States.