The Consortium

Empire Strikes Back: How the CIA Got Its Man

By Peter Kornbluh

WASHINGTON -- A caller to the office of a senior State Department adviser hears this message: "This is Richard Nuccio. I resigned my position on February 25. Consequently, I can no longer be reached at this office."

The curt message contrasts sharply with the long-running drama of Nuccio's departure from the Clinton administration. In one of the most high-profile resignations over Latin American policy since the early 1980s, Nuccio left his Bureau of Inter-American affairs post denouncing both the CIA -- for covering up its connection to atrocities in Guatemala -- and Bill Clinton's White House -- for failing to defend him and his reputation when the CIA stripped Nuccio of his top-security clearance last December, a move that effectively ended his promising diplomatic career.

In a letter to President Clinton, Nuccio wrote that he was leaving the administration "unwillingly" because of a three-year CIA campaign to "exact revenge" on him for providing the name of a CIA asset in Guatemala to then Rep. (now Sen.) Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.

"I faced no easy choices in March 1995," Nuccio's letter stated. "I had given my word to the Congress that your administration was not covering up wrongdoing in Guatemala. When it became clear to me that the CIA was, I felt obliged to tell the truth to the people's elected representatives. I made a choice that was consistent with the values of your administration and the law."

It was Torricelli, not Nuccio, who subsequently gave the name of Col. Julio Alpirez to The New York Times, along with information that the CIA had covered up its connection to the colonel who was involved in the torture and murder of both American citizen, innkeeper Michael Devine, and Guatemalan rebel leader Efraim Bamaca, the husband of American lawyer Jennifer Harbury.

The Times story, "Guatemalan in Killings Tied to CIA," set off a scandal -- forcing the CIA to conduct a full review of its so-called "liaison" relationships with human rights violators like Alpirez, as well as an internal investigation of wrongdoing inside the agency. On the basis of a 700-page "top secret" report by the CIA's inspector general (that remains classified), two former CIA station chiefs were fired in September 1995 and seven other officials were reprimanded for misconduct.

But Nuccio, a tall, balding, former professor from Williams College, was another casualty. Because he passed on the crucial information to Torricelli, CIA director John Deutch lifted Nuccio's security clearance, known as SCI for Sensitive Compartmented Information. Deutch's decision prevented Nuccio from reading highly sensitive cable traffic and intelligence reports necessary for doing his job.

Jeopardizing [Deleted]

Nuccio appealed, arguing that his communications with Torricelli were authorized and protected under the law. But his appeal was denied. In a letter dated Dec. 5, 1996, Deutch informed Nuccio that his actions constituted "serious errors in judgement."

"What you did," Deutch wrote, "jeopardized not only [deleted] but also the security and integrity of [deleted] U.S. intelligence sources, methods and activities."

Then, in early March 1997, there was other fall-out embarrassing to the CIA. Intelligence sources leaked word to The Washington Post and The New York Times that about 100 CIA "assets" had been dropped from the agency's covert payroll because their "value as informers was outweighed" by their human rights atrocities and other criminal behavior. Half of those assets were in the militaries and secret police services of Latin America.

So, with those political fireworks, Nuccio's four-year Executive Branch career ended. The former academic hadn't expected events to go that way. He had entered the State Department with more mundane hopes of eventually landing an ambassadorship. But he would find himself at the center of too many controversies.

Nuccio served first as a senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs where he handled not only the complicated U.S. policy toward Guatemala but the politically touchy dealings with Cuba. In May 1995, while the Guatemala controversy simmered behind closed doors, Nuccio was promoted to the White House to become "special adviser to the president and [to the] secretary of state for Cuban affairs."

In that capacity as the official point person for Cuba, Nuccio became "Mr. Track II," the architect of a Caribbean version of ostpolitik designed to open contacts between U.S. groups -- involved with human rights, academia and development -- and their counterpart Cuban organizations, as a way to undermine Fidel Castro's hold on power.

But Nuccio's Cuban policymaking role was short-lived. After Cuban MIGs shot down two unarmed planes that had invaded Cuban air space on Feb. 24, 1996, Nuccio was the lone official inside the White House to oppose Clinton's hasty decision to sign the punitive Helms-Burton law and codify the strict U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Rather than publicly defend Helms-Burton, Nuccio transferred back to the State Department and was assigned to handling policy toward Brazil.

Reluctant Celebrity

By then, however, the CIA had decided to strip him of his high-level security clearance because of the Guatemala flap. Quickly, the Nuccio case became a cause celebre, a front-page story about the CIA's cover-up of torture and murder in Guatemala. In some of those news reports, Nuccio was portrayed as a martyr and a hero. But in reality, he was a reluctant player in the drama.

The person who actually forced the cover-up into the open was Jennifer Harbury, a Harvard-educated lawyer and widow of the late Guatemalan rebel leader Efraim Bamaca (aka Commandante Everardo). She argued that her husband had not committed suicide on the battlefield, as the Guatemalan government claimed, but had been captured alive and had been seen in secret detention by two companeros who later escaped.

If not for Harbury's tenacious quest -- she went on three hunger strikes demanding information from the Guatemalan and U.S. governments -- the CIA cover-up of its connection to the torture and murder of her husband and to the slaying of American Michael Devine might never have unraveled.

In 1993-94, Nuccio's job overseeing the Guatemalan peace negotiations also made him the key State Department official responsible for the Harbury case. Even as Harbury starved herself, however, Nuccio remained unsympathetic to her plight, for two reasons. First, helping her might have undermined U.S. influence in pushing the Guatemalan military to negotiate a peace accord with the insurgents. "State (Rick Nuccio has the lead) apparently has been reluctant to act because of the peace talks," noted a confidential NSC e-mail memorandum in early October 1994.

Second, while some NSC officials and members of Congress found Harbury's claims about her husband credible, Nuccio disparaged her story to all who would listen. "Frankly, I thought her story was kooky," he said in an interview, "and I told that to the congressmen and reporters who asked me."

A Cover-up Unravels

But in late October 1994, Nuccio came across a May 1993 CIA intelligence report based on Guatemalan military sources, which explicitly supported Harbury's position that her husband had been seen alive in detention. On Nov. 1, 1994, Nuccio and deputy assistant secretary of state Ann Paterson met with three CIA officials, including the Guatemala reports officer from the Directorate of Operations and the Latin American branch chief from the Directorate of Intelligence. When pressed, the CIA officials refused to identify the source for the cable (who would turn out to be Col. Alpirez), stating only that he was "a discredited source."

In a secret report on the meeting, the State Department's Bureau of Inter-American Affairs stated that it was "disappointed with the results of Tuesday's 90-minute meeting and believes the CIA representatives were not entirely forthcoming in discussing the reliability of sources of its memos ... or willing to fully employ existing collection capabilities to develop new information that may be available."

Possibly, Nuccio's most important contribution toward ending the cover-up occurred then, when he pressed the buttons in the State Department that forced the CIA to provide additional information about Bamaca's fate. On Jan. 25, 1995, a CIA intelligence report quoted a Guatemalan official as stating point blank that "Commandante Everardo was killed by Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez."

But the CIA station chief in Guatemala withheld this report from the U.S. ambassador, the State Department and the White House for more than a week. The apparent reason was that once Alpirez's name appeared in Washington, the CIA would have to admit that he was a longstanding CIA "asset." Even more troubling, his identification would reveal that while on the CIA payroll, Alpirez was implicated in the murder of an American citizen, Devine.

Bizarre Behavior

In October 1990, Devine had been seized by security forces near his rural hotel. He was tortured and killed, his body dumped on a road near his property. (The motive for his death remains a mystery.) Several CIA intelligence reports placed Alpirez at the scene of Devine's death -- although the reports were later disputed -- and others concluded that Alpirez participated in the cover-up of the murder.

One secret CIA memo about the Devine case, written by deputy director for operations, Thomas Twetton, in October 1991, described Alpirez as "an extremely violent man who has murdered guerrilla prisoners in the past. He recently has been observed engaging in bizarre behavior, such as walking through the town where he is currently stationed, exposing himself, and firing weapons in the air."

Despite a near rupture in U.S.-Guatemalan relations over the Devine killing, the CIA covered up its connection to Alpirez. According to a later report by Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board, the CIA's failure to inform Congress was "a dereliction of responsibility and a violation of its statutory obligation." Instead of supplying data that could have led to the arrest of Alpirez for conspiracy to murder an American citizen, the CIA decided in 1992 to give him a retirement package -- $44,000 in cash delivered in a brown paper bag.

When the Jan. 25, 1995, intelligence report about Alpirez's role in the Bamaca murder reached Washington, Clinton's national security managers realized they had a big problem. For months, Nuccio and other officials had told Congress that the administration had no concrete knowledge of Bamaca's fate. Now, it turned out that the CIA had not only known about his death, but had what the intelligence community calls a "liaison relationship" with his possible murderer.

In late January and early Februrary 1995, four meetings were held in the office of national security adviser for Latin America, Richard Feinberg, to "review the policy options for acting on this intelligence," according to secret minutes of the meetings. Publicly revealing this information meant violating the CIA's principle of protecting "sources and methods." But the decision was made to have high-level officials brief the House Select Committee on Intelligence behind closed doors on Feb. 5, and share the information with the panel.

'Time Bomb'

It is still unclear exactly what the administration told the committee at that session. But Torricelli missed the meeting and the administration's assumption that the committee would promptly leak the news proved unfounded. "We thought it would be in the papers the next day," one participant confided to me in private.

By mid-March, Nuccio was telling his colleagues that the issue was "a ticking time bomb" and that when it exploded in the press, it would smell like a cover-up. Secret State Department Intelligence and Research Bureau memos noted that "the Alpirez [CIA connection] could become public, inadvertently or not, in a number of ways": through CIA briefings to the Senate Intelligence Committee; through congressional demands for 1,500 pages of documents on the Bamaca and Devine cases; and at the then-upcoming confirmation hearings of John Deutch.

As the most prominent administration spokesman on Guatemala, Nuccio feared that when the story broke, he would be perceived as another Oliver North. "They've been trying to cover this up," he remembers thinking, "and nobody will believe that I wasn't a participant." For that reason, Nuccio decided to share the information with Torricelli. He cleared his decision with the State Department's Bureau of Legislative Affairs before meeting the congressman, and Nuccio reported back to his superiors after the conversation.

On March 22, 1995, an irate Torricelli wrote a letter to the president accusing the CIA of harboring a "criminal element" which was "out of control." That letter was given to The New York Times. Ironically, the Times reporter confirmed the information on Alpirez not with Nuccio but with other administration officials, reportedly including George Tenet, the current acting director of the CIA.

A subsequent Justice Department investigation exonerated Nuccio of any criminal wrongdoing. "Because Torricelli was cleared to receive the classified information pursuant to his membership on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence," the Justice Department concluded, "Nuccio's disclosure is not a violation" of the law protecting the names of secret CIA agents.

'Future Misconduct'

Moreover, Nuccio's communication with Congress was ostensibly protected by the 1912 LaFollette Act which states that "the right of employees ... to petition Congress or a member of Congress or to furnish information to either House of Congress, or a committee or member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied."

By seeking to impede his right, and that of other Executive Branch officials who come across CIA wrongdoing, to talk to Congress, Nuccio now says, the agency is "attempting to guarantee that its future misconduct will not be reported to Congress ... and it seeks to avoid accountability to the American people for activities it supposedly carried out in their name." At his press conference in Washington announcing his resignation, Nuccio accused the CIA of a "mutiny" and "open rebellion" against the administration's human rights policies.

The CIA's recent decision, prompted by the Alpirez scandal, to "scrub" some 100 assets because of human rights violations, Nuccio asserts, vindicates his actions but doesn't address the larger issue of the CIA's relations to human rights violations. "The real story here is that the CIA didn't only have one guy on its payroll, it had a hundred -- so they say -- doing these things," he notes. "Now, they admit it is a good thing to get rid of them. It is all very nice to get these criminals off the CIA payroll. But what about their victims?"

The answer, for citizens in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and even Mexico, lies in the still-secret records the CIA has compiled on the human rights atrocities of their former Latin American agents.

But now that Nuccio has taken up employment in the office of the legislator to whom he once confided, Senator Torricelli, Nuccio is perhaps in an even more powerful position to push for disclosure of the abuses committed by all the Julio Alpirez's who received CIA money and support, throughout Latin America.

(c) Copyright 1997

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