An effort to declassify U.S. documents on Argentina's dictatorship failed Friday in the U.S. Congress, disappointing rights activists in the Argentine capital who believe the secret files could help them identify young people stolen as babies by the military junta.
The amendment by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from New York, was rejected by a vote of 214-194. It would have compelled U.S. intelligence agencies to declassify their files on the 1976-1983 dictatorship, which was closely monitored by U.S. security and intelligence forces.
A similar amendment by Hinchey in 1999 resulted in the Chile declassification project under President Bill Clinton, which led to the publication of more than 24,000 documents that helped prosecute crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Most of the U.S. files on Argentina still remain secret, and some of those voting against the measure said it's best they stay that way. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, said declassifying them would distract U.S. spies from the fight against al-Qaida.
But Alan Iud, an attorney representing the rights group known as Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, said, "I can't understand how a country can proclaim itself a defender of human rights while its congress puts obstacles in the way of a grandmother reuniting with her grandchild."
The rights group has helped 104 people, now adults between 30-35 years old, recover their identities after being stolen at birth from detainees who were later killed. They're still searching for 400 others who may have been born in clandestine torture centers and adopted illegally. Two former dictators are on trial in the baby thefts. All together, as many as 30,000 people were killed or disappeared, activists say.
"For the Grandmothers, it's very important to be able to access this information that can help find the grandchildren," Iud said.
Hinchey called it a missed opportunity.
"The United States can play a vital role in lifting the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the terrible human rights abuses of the despotic military regime that ruled Argentina," he said in a statement. "Our intelligence community may hold the key to helping unlock some of the mysteries behind the identities of hundreds of Argentine citizens who were separated from their biological families as a result of the atrocities."
This is not the first time Hinchey has sought to make public the U.S. intelligence agencies' role in and knowledge of human rights abuses in Latin America. His Argentina amendment won House approval three times before, only to fail in the Senate.
The Chile files revealed that the United States government had been deeply involved in the destabilization of Chile's government and economy for nearly two decades.
Associated Press writers Debora Rey, in Buenos Aires; and Luis Alonso Lugo, in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Warren can be reached at http://twitter.com/mwarrenap