There is an old joke that defines an ambassador as someone who lies abroad for his country. A country’s diplomats are usually the overseas implementers of a government’s policies however corrupt and venal, and are expected to cover them up but once in a while someone comes along who transcends that role and tries to uphold the truth. Robert White, who died on January 13, 2015, is an example of that. He was a whistleblower who, as US ambassador to El Salvador, exposed the truth about that country’s regime in the face of US complicity.
White was US ambassador to El Salvador at a time when that country’s authoritarian, corrupt, and murderous government was ruthlessly eliminating is opponents using its notorious death squads. The US government was a close ally of the government and was covering up its abuses and continuing to fund it and supply it with arms and other material
Former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman has a nice appreciation of White that shows that once is a while there are people who can defy their own governments in the pursuit of truth and justice, in the teeth of opposition from their superiors. In doing so, he was taking on a rogue’s gallery of high US officials. He was fired from his post in 1981 because he would not go along with the official lies coming out of Washington and the El Salvador dictatorship. He had been ambassador for less than a year.
Bob White was the ambassador in El Salvador in December 1980 when four American churchwomen were raped and murdered by the armed forces of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government. The evening before their murders, two of the women had dinner at White’s home to discuss the problems that relief workers were having in El Salvador. At the grave site for two of the women, White repeated over and over again that “This time they are not going to get away with it.”
White took what started as a clandestine assassination attempt and turned it into a full-fledged international incident. He filed cables to the Department of State and testified to the Congress. Secretary of State Haig suppressed White’s cables from El Salvador, and FBI Director William Webster refused to release any documents related to the murders. The Reagan administration made sure that the efforts of the families of the murdered women could get no access to documents from the State Department, the FBI, and the CIA.
In 1989, the CIA even relocated to Miami the Salvadoran defense minister complicit in the murder of the American nuns. Until very recently, White was active in testifying in Florida in the trials of those involved in the murders.
Nine months before the murder of the nuns, Ambassador White informed the State Department that El Salvador’s leading right-wing politician, Robert D’Aubuisson had ordered the assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero. In this case, the CIA knew exactly who pulled the trigger to kill Romero, but failed to inform the congressional intelligence committees. The CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, Robert Gates, suppressed all intelligence on the killing, part of the Agency’s effort to bury many of the truths of American policy toward Latin America in the 1980s.
White was obviously aware of these truths, and in 1980 forwarded a series of sensitive cables condemning the extreme forces on the right made up of the rich landowners, their private armies, and high-ranking military officers. He warned that there would be no end to the violence against the clergy and the disadvantaged unless the United States used its influence with the uniformed military. Unfortunately, Secretary Haig and CIA director William Casey had other ideas that involved a massive paramilitary program to protect the right wing in El Salvador and to train and arm the Nicaraguans in Honduras–the Contras–to overthrow the Sandinistas. This marked the beginning of Iran-Contra, which Ambassador White would never have tolerated.
In challenging the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Elliott Abrams, White tried to get a replacement for the CIA station chief in San Salvador, who was forwarding politicized intelligence to justify continued military support for the government. White also took issue with a State Department “white paper,” drafted by CIA analysts on instructions from Gates, that falsely pictured a “flood of arms” from such Soviet allies as Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Bulgaria to Central America.
Goodman’s full account is well worth reading because it reveals how the US government covered up the atrocities of one of the worst governments in Latin America even when it ordered the murder of US nuns, and even went against its own representative in that nation. It also shows how the US provides refuge for some of the worst criminals in the world as long as they serve US interests.