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Secrets and Lies: The Use (and Abuse) of Declassified Documents

October 28, 2009

In an article published today at Semana.com (in Spanish), and in English on nsarchive.org, I respond to the badly misinformed debate in Colombia about a declassified U.S. document that blames the Colombian Army for deaths and disappearances in the infamous Palace of Justice case. The document has been used and abused in the Colombian media and its meaning has been distorted in the process.

The Palace of Justice tragedy began on November 6, 1985, after insurgents seized the building, taking a number of hostages. The building caught fire and burned to the ground during Colombian military efforts to retake the Palace, killing most of the guerrillas and hostages still inside, including eleven Supreme Court justices.

The document, a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Colombia in January 1999, is directly relevant to the case against Col. Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega, who is now on trial for the disappearances of eleven civilians during the operation, so it immediately stirred up controversy when it hit the press.  The report recounts a meeting between Colombian human rights groups and senior Army representatives including Col. Plazas.

“The presence among the “NGO representatives” of two military officers (one active duty, one retired), who killed time with lengthy, pro-military diatribes, also detracted from the military-NGO exchange. One of the two was retired Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vargas [sic], representing the “Office for Human Rights of Retired Military Officers.” Plazas commanded the November, 1985 raid on the Supreme Court building after it had been taken over by the M-19. That raid resulted in the deaths of more than 70 people, including eleven Supreme Court justices. Soldiers killed a number of M-19 members and suspected collaborators hors de combat, including the Palace’s cafeteria staff.” [Emphasis added.]

For whatever reason, initial press reports about the paragraph above included additional unsupportable claims that the information had been gathered by “intelligence agents at the service of the U.S. Embassy in Colombia” and that it had been “brought to the attention of Colombian authorities in 1998.” Supporters of Col. Plazas, including members of his immediate family, used these distortions to try to discredit the entire document.

The experience has been a sharp lesson about the use and abuse of declassified documents. Read more about it here.

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