William Walker: “Man With A Mission”
William Walker: “Man With A Mission”
by Mark Cook
William Walker, the U.S. diplomat who first acquirednotoriety in Central America in the late 1980s, is now being used to promote a seriously discredited atrocity story to justify NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia [see box]. It has been a hard sell forsomeone with Walker’sreputation.
Walkerwas U.S. ambassador to El Salvador in November 1989 when six leading Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were dragged from their beds and murdered by the Salvadoran Army.
The killings were carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion, which was recruited, trained, and deployed by the U.S. military, supposedly in order to improve the Salvadoran Army’s human rights performance. The Atlacatl was responsible for the worst atrocities of the entire war.
As declassified State Department cables later showed, Walker worked diligently to cover up the real authors of the Jesuit murders, particularly Army Chief of Staff René Emilio Ponce, who was identified in the 1993 United Nations Truth Commission on El Salvador as the senior officer behind the crimes.1
Although journalists suspected Ponce from the first days, Walker suggested the killers were FMLN guerrillas. The suggestion was dismissed as absurd by Jesuits, given the proximity of the murder scene to Salvadoran Armed Forces headquarters, where soldiers would certainly have noticed the shooting.2
When Lucia Barrera de Cerna, a neighbor of the Jesuits and the only eyewitness who dared to come forward, said that she had seen men at the murder scene dressed in camouflage uniforms similar to those of the Salvadoran Army, Walker launched a smear campaign against her, telling journalists that Ms. Cerna had fabricated her story under instructions from a human rights worker.3 He played a key role in organizing the ordeal in Miami in which she was held incommunicado and terrorized in an effort to get her to recant her story.
When Walker learned that the Jesuits and the Spanish and French
embassies were flying Ms. Cerna and her husband out of El Salvador for
safety, he hurried with aides to the airport. He insisted that U.S.
officials accompany the Cernas on their flight to Miami, supposedly to ease their way through passport control. After arguments with French diplomats who were providing the plane and seemed to smell a rat, Walker got his Embassy legal officer and an FBI agent aboard the flight.
Once in Miami, instead of being received by American Jesuits as planned, she and her husband were hustled by U.S. authorities to a hotel where they were held by the FBI for a week of “questioning.”4 Ms. Cerna was subjected to what Jesuit Provincial José María Tojera later called a “cruel interrogation.” San
Salvador’s Roman Catholic Archbishop, Arturo Rivera y Damas, called
it “aggressive and violent” and “blackmail,” saying her questioners threatened to send Mr. Cerna, or both of them, back to El Salvador if she didn’t change her story and “tell the truth.”5
Faced with the threat to her husband, whom U.S. officials were already accusing of being a member of the FMLN, Ms. Cerna recanted her testimony and said she had heard and seen nothing, and in fact never even got out of bed that night. She returned to her original testimony as soon as she was free of the control of U.S. authorities.
Walker denied that government officials had subjected Ms. Cerna to pressure. “Fullprofessionals do not involve themselves in psychological torment,” Walker said.6
As for Archbishop Rivera y Damas’ charges, Walkersaid his information was incorrect. “I am saddened that the archbishop doesn’t believe that the U.S. government and he are in the same quest for the truth” about who killed the priests. “Quest for truth” was the last thing Walker was involved in, as State Department cables released in 1994 reveal. He was requesting Washington to halt all investigation of the Jesuit killings immediately, and to order the Embassy to do the same.
“I have reached the conclusion,” he wrote in a cable on the Jesuits’ case, “that the [U.S.] Embassy [in San Salvador] must cease the pursuit of unilateral overt information-gathering or face continued no-win decisions and criticism. I recommend that the Embassy be so instructed and that all further investigative
effort be left to the GOES [government of El Salvador]. SECRET.”7
A Difficult Resume
Such details look bad on the resume of a human rights and peace monitor, even for a NATO operation in Kosovo. Like an attorney who knows that opposing counsel has devastating information about a witness’s past and is about to introduce it on cross-examination, NATO media handlers in the Balkans have tried to diminish the impact by putting out a sanitized version of the unpleasant details. In Walker’s case, it involves presenting the witness as a man who had learned his lesson.
On ABC-TV’s Nightline special on Walker’s Racak allegations, he confessed, “I was somewhat disappointed when maybe the press, maybe others thought I had been too cautious in pointing the finger when the Salvadoran armed forces did something as atrocious as killing Jesuit priests.”8
The Washington Post’s R. Jeffrey Smith, in a similar piece January 23, claimed that Walker regretted his “silence” on the Jesuits and has vowed never to repeat it.9 Walker has been accused of lies, blackmail, and criminal coverup in the Jesuit murders, but never silence.
Walker first emerged in the Iran-Contra Scandal as the right-hand man of Oliver North and Elliott Abrams in illegal arms shipments to the Contras out of Ilopango airbase in El Salvador. Before that, he was deputy chief of mission
at the embassy in Honduras when U.S. authorities were recruiting officers from Somoza’s deposed National Guard to establish the Contras, and forming military death squads that murdered hundreds of Honduran workers, labor organizers and students.
Any “regrets” he felt must not have lasted long. In May 1996, a decade after the Iran-Contra debacle, Walker was head of a ceremony honoring more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers who secretly fought in El Salvador, in direct violation of the congressional restriction limiting the number of U.S. military “advisers” to 55.10
Walker testified on April 6 in Washington as head of the Kosovo Verification Mission. Abandoning all pretense of running a non-partisan monitoring
organization, he declared that the lessons he has learned are: “One, the mission must be armed, and two, attempting to be balanced and non-partisan does not work.” These are exactly the same policies he pursued ten years ago in Central America.
1. Arthur Jones, “El Salvador
revisited: a look at declassified State Department documents – some of what U.S. government knew – and when it knew it,” National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 23, 1994.
2. As noted by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights,
representing U.S. Jesuits, the killers lobbed grenades, fired a stationary M-60
machine gun, shot off flares, and set fire to the building. Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, A Chronicle of Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in
report, Feb. 1993, p. 236.
Brainwashed Witness, Salvadoran Archbishop Says,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 11, 1989, p. 4.
4. “A Chronicle of Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador,” Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, New York,
report, Feb. 1993, p. 247.
Brainwashed Witness, Salvadoran Archbishop Says,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 11, 1989, p. 4.
6. George Gedda, “U.S. Denies Salvadoran Witnesses Mistreated,” Associated Press, Dec. 18, 1989.
7. Quoted in: “El Salvador Revisited: A Look at Declassified
State Department Documents – Some of What U.S. Government Knew – and When It Knew It,” National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 23, 1994.
8. Nightline, ABC-TV, Jan. 29, 1999, devoted its entire
half-hour to a heroic depiction of Walker
in Kosovo. Ted Koppel began, “…this
American ambassador is trying to stop the bloodshed armed only with two-way radios, four-wheel drive vehicles and the knowledge that he may not have done enough to stop past atrocities. Tonight: “Man with a Mission,”
ABC correspondent Mike Lee took it from there:
“But perhaps the most fitting description of Walker’s role here is that of sheriff.” Walker, looking thoughtful and earnest, responded modestly, “Maybe I will accept the Gary
Cooper sort of role.”
9. “This Time, Walker Wasn’t Speechless; Memory of El Salvador Spurred Criticism of Serbs,” Washington Post, Jan. 23, 1999, p. A15.
10. “Public Honors for Secret Combat,” Washington Post, May 6, 1996, p. A1.
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RACAK STORY: THE “TURNING POINT”
diplomat William Walker’s denunciation of an alleged execution-massacre of 45 people by Yugoslav police in the Kosovo villageof Racak January 15, 1999, was “a turning point” in NATO’s road to war, the New York Times wrote April 18 quoting unidentified U.S. sources.
But Walker’s claims conflict sharply with press reports in leading European newspapers and subsequent reported findings by forensic investigators.
The Yugoslavian government said that the deaths were the result of a battle with elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The battle had in fact been filmed by an Associated Press TV (AP TV) crew, and observed by at least two U.S. teams of international monitors, Walker’s own staff.
Le Monde and Le Figaro first broke the AP TV crew’s story.
“New eyewitness accounts,” Le Monde noted January 21, 1999, “throw doubt on the reality of the horrible spectacle of dozens of piled-up bodies of Albanians supposedly executed by Serb security forces last Friday.”
Le Figaro on January 20 summed up the version compiled for the world by Walker and the press that accompanied him: “All the Albanian witnesses gave the same story: At midday, the police forced their way into homes and separated the women from the men, whom they led to the hilltops to
execute them without more ado.
“What is disturbing is that the pictures filmed by the AP TV journalists-which Le Figaro was shown yesterday-radically contradict that version,” noted the newspaper’s longtime Balkan war correspondent Renaud Girard. Both papers saidthat most of the residents had fled the village long ago. The AP TV reporters saw smoke coming from only two chimneys, Le Monde pointed out.
The village is known as a bastion of KLA separatist guerrillas. The police entered the town in the morning in search of KLA members suspected of murdering a police officer, and came under intense fire from KLA elements dug into the hillside in the woods outside the town. A long firefight took place until
police managed to surround most of the KLA unit.
“Watching from below, next to the mosque, the AP journalists understood that the UCK [KLA] guerrillas, encircled, were trying desperately to break out,” Le Figaro noted. “A score of them in fact succeeded, as the police themselves admitted.”
At 3:30 p.m., after reporting to the press office in Pristina that they had killed at least 15 KLA “terrorists,” the police left, still accompanied by the AP TV crew, and carrying a large amount of captured weapons. The AP TV camera
crew saw no evidence of any execution-massacre, nor did a French journalist
from Le Monde who drove through at 4:40 p.m. and spoke with the monitors from Walker’s KVM organization. Nor did the monitors report any. Nor did the French journalist see or hear of any such atrocity when he returned at 6:00 p.m. Night fell shortly after.
By the next morning, Le Figaro writes, “the village was once again taken over by armed UCK soldiers who led the foreign visitors, as soon as they arrived, toward the alleged massacre site. Around noon, William Walker in person arrived and expressed his outrage. “What really
happened?” asked Le Figaro. “During the night, could the UCK have gathered the bodies, in fact killed by Serb bullets, to set up a scene of cold-blooded massacre?
A disturbing fact: Saturday morning the journalists found only very few cartridges around the ditch where the massacre supposedly took place.”
Both papers noted the efforts the Yugoslav police made to bring journalists to the town during the battle, and the notification given to the monitors which sent two cars with U.S. diplomatic license plates to the scene.
“The police didn’t seem to have anything to hide,” remarked Le Figaro.
The Yugoslav government appeared stunned and outraged by the charges from Walker, and insisted on autopsies for all victims, in the face of efforts to bury the dead immediately in conformity with normal Muslim practice.
Belarussian and Finnish forensic experts, unable to investigate the scene adequately because Walker had led the media over it, nonetheless did a careful study.
(See: “Belarussian Forensic Experts Say Victims of Racak Shot from
Distance,” Agence France-Presse, February 23, 1999; “Finnish Experts Refuse to Give Opinion on Racak Killings,” Agence France-Presse, March 17, 1999.) Although the two teams reportedly reached similar conclusions, the Finnish report was not released due to opposition from NATO powers. NATO had been
seeking a pretext to place troops in Yugoslavia, or to punish the Yugoslavs for refusing. Three days after Walker’s accusations, Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright had come up with a new demand: NATO military occupation of all of Yugoslavia, the only Balkan country still refusing NATO bases. Moreover, virtually all police and military had to withdraw from Kosovo, and Kosovo would be granted “autonomy.” If Yugoslavia did not accept all of NATO’s demands, Belgrade would be bombed. (New York Times, April 18, 1999, p. 13.)
Within a month, the U.S. was at the Rambouillet conference in France
desperately trying to get the Albanians to sign a NATO-imposed “agreement” that had been carefully designed to make it impossible for the Yugoslav government to sign. “If this fails because both sides say ‘No,’ there will be no bombing of Serbia,” Secretary Albright declared February 21. (New York Times,
April 18, 1999, p. 13.)