Published on Thursday, May 31, 2001 in the Madison Capital Times
Rep. Moakley Took Charge for Justice
by John Nichols
Here is a story about how a good congressman got the best of a bad system.
Back in 1990, when Dick Cheney was serving as secretary of defense under Bush the Elder, U.S. Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., was investigating the murders of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter on the grounds of a university in El Salvador. Moakley, a wily Irish pol who lived by his friend Tip O'Neill's "all politics is local" dictum, had known two of the priests. That made San Salvador local enough for Moakley.
Long a critic of U.S. interventions in Latin America, he refused to accept Bush administration arguments that the incident was merely a Salvadoran matter. Such claims, the blunt Bostonian said, were "awful bulls--."
Moakley learned that military aides in the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador were in possession of an affidavit that implicated the Salvadoran military in the slayings - and, by extension, the U.S. military attaches who provided the Salvadoran thugs with training, money and official cover. In his capacity as head of a special commission appointed by House Speaker Thomas Foley to investigate the murders, Moakley asked Cheney for a copy of the affidavit.
Moakley then flew to San Salvador and arranged a meeting with the chief Salvadoran investigator of the crime. Moakley's former aide Jim McGovern - himself now a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts - picks up the story from there.
"He said to the investigator: 'There was something in that affidavit that I have a question about. Darn, I left it in my hotel room. Do you have an extra copy here?' The investigator gives him a copy, Moakley says he doesn't remember the question, and leaves (with the document). Then he goes back to the embassy and tells the ambassador, 'Tell your friends at the Department of Defense they can go f-- themselves, because I got a copy."
There is no record of Cheney's response.
But there is a record of what Moakley did with the information. He tracked the killers down - personally. When the congressman learned that several of the murderers were attending Mass in a church at a government police compound, Moakley - a devout Catholic - suddenly felt an urge to take Communion. "He said that we should ambush them," McGovern recalls. Armed with a photograph of the trigger men, Moakley and McGovern headed for the church. They spotted two of the murderers. Moakley, as he walked back from the Communion altar, leaned down toward one of the men and said, "I'd like to see you and your family together after the Mass."
In a nearby room, Moakley and McGovern questioned the men and got confirmation that they had acted under orders from senior Salvadoran military officers with ties to the U.S. military.
Moakley eventually succeeded in getting Congress to slash military aid to the Salvadoran regime, and he led the fight to shut down the Army's notorious School of the Americas - where generations of military thugs from El Salvador and other Latin American countries received their training in torture, er, "counter-insurgency" techniques.
Before Moakley died this week at age 74, after a battle with leukemia, the great Salvadoran academic Rodolfo Cardenal said, "He is very well known and considered very, very important by the Salvadoran people in terms of human rights, peace and justice. We know from declassified documents that the armed forces and (the Salvadoran) government fear him."
Not a bad epitaph for an "all politics is local" pol, who joined the search for the priest killers because, he said, "it is never a crime to speak up for the poor, the helpless or the ill; it is never a crime to tell the truth; it is never a crime to demand justice; it is never a crime to teach people their rights; it is never a crime to struggle for a just peace. It is never a crime. It is always a duty."
Copyright 2001 Madison Capital Times