BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- A long-classified memo describing a secret meeting between diplomats in a clubby Washington restaurant has become key evidence in the trial of two former Argentine dictators charged with stealing babies from political prisoners.
The 1982 memo was fully declassified by the U.S. State Department this week at the request of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The human rights group has spent decades gathering evidence against the 1976-1983 military junta.
"Its content is key to proving that, far from treating them as isolated incidents, there existed a defined policy at the highest levels of the armed forces to make sure that the babies were appropriated," the group said in a statement.
At the time, the junta officially denied any knowledge of systematic baby thefts, let alone responsibility for the disappearances of political prisoners. In public, the U.S. government also was circumspect, even as the junta's death squads kidnapped and killed its opponents, eventually eliminating more than 13,000 "subversives."
But the memo by former senior State Department official Elliot Abrams suggests close communication between the governments.
He wrote it after meeting with Argentina's ambassador to the U.S. at the Jockey Club in Washington's Ritz-Carlton hotel. At the time, Abrams oversaw human rights at the State Department, and the junta was eager for certification that its rights record was improving.
"I raised with the Ambassador the question of children," Abrams wrote.
"Children born to prisoners or children taken from their families during the dirty war. While the disappeared were dead, these children were alive and this was in a sense the gravest humanitarian problem. The Ambassador agreed completely and had already made this point to his foreign minister and president," Abrams wrote.
The Abrams memo suggests the junta spurned his appeals to come clean on its rights record by "telling everything it could about the fate of individuals," or by inviting the Catholic Church to reunite the children with their birth families.
"The military is absolutely united and determined to avoid widespread and vengeful punishment for its acts," Abrams noted.
But Abrams also reported that he told the ambassador certification would not be a problem, based on the junta's public record.
Asked about the memo by The Associated Press on Thursday, Abrams said through a spokeswoman that "he will not comment on the substance of this memo or any other questions due to the fact that he may have to testify in the coming future."
The document was found among nearly 5,000 records on Argentina declassified by President Bill Clinton after a Freedom of Information campaign by the nonprofit National Security Archive.
"This is a prime example of the power of declassification to advance the cause of human rights in Argentina," the archive's senior analyst, Peter Kornbluh, said Thursday. "As a humanitarian act of archival diplomacy," he said, President Barack Obama "should release all U.S. military and intelligence records that shed light on these particularly heinous acts of repression."
Until this week, several paragraphs had been censored. The complete file shows they merely describe speculation about Argentine politics, and are irrelevant to the case. But there was no way to know that until the memo was fully declassified.
"The newly released parts don't deal with the grandchildren issue at all. They never should have been redacted in the first place," Kornbluh said. "But having the whole document dispels any suspicions that the U.S. is hiding information relevant to the missing grandchildren cases. So it is important to release it."
The Grandmothers group thanked U.S. Ambassador Vilma Martinez in Buenos Aires for her help.
"We hope that this will be the start of the declassification of all the documents that the United States has, in particular those of agencies like the CIA and FBI, to contribute to clearing up the crimes of humanity that occurred in our country."
Abrams wants it known that he also is "in favor of having relevant U.S. documents declassified" as well, said Rachel Steyer, his research associate at the Council for Foreign Relations in Washington.