The U.S. government knew of an imminent plot to oust Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chávez, in the weeks prior to a 2002 military coup that briefly unseated him, newly released CIA documents show, despite White House claims to the contrary a week after the putsch.
Yet the United States, which depends on Venezuela for nearly one-sixth of its oil, never warned the Chávez government, Venezuelan officials said.
The Bush administration has denied it was involved in the coup or knew one was being planned. At a White House briefing on April 17, 2002, just days after the 47-hour coup, a senior administration official who did not want to be named said, "The United States did not know that there was going to be an attempt of this kind to overthrow - or to get Chávez out of power."
Yet based on the newly released CIA briefs, an analyst said yesterday that did not appear to be the case.
"This is substantive evidence that the CIA knew in advance about the coup, and it is clear that this intelligence was distributed to dozens of members of the Bush administration, giving them knowledge of coup plotting," said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington.
However, Kornbluh said that while the documents show U.S. officials knew a coup was coming, perhaps implying tacit approval, they do not constitute proof the United States was involved in ousting Chávez, Venezuela's elected leader. That is partly because the briefs are from the intelligence side of the CIA, not the operational side.
A CIA spokeswoman contended the agency played no role in the coup and was merely collecting information about political events in Venezuela for top U.S. officials. She said it was up to those officials and not the CIA to determine what to do with the information.
"The CIA was simply doing what it is we do, in terms of analyzing events and providing policy-makers with our best estimate of the events as they unfold," said the spokeswoman, who declined to be named. She added that alerting Chávez to the impending coup "would suggest we would meddle in the affairs of another nation."
Asked to comment on the CIA documents, a U.S. State Department spokesman would say only, "As we've stated before, there is no basis to claims the United States was involved in the events of April 12-14 in Venezuela."
One of the CIA documents filed just five days before the coup would appear to support that statement. It notes that "repeated warnings that the U.S. will not support any extraconstitutional moves to oust Chávez probably have given pause to the plotters."
White House and National Security Council officials had no immediate comment.
Chávez was traveling in Spain yesterday and could not be reached for comment, although his information minister, Andres Izarra, said through a representative that his government had not yet taken a position on the documents. Tarek William Saab, a state governor and member of the president's inner circle, said the documents showed "that the United States was implicated in this coup and did nothing to stop it."
The Bush administration and Chávez, a fiery former paratrooper, have clashed repeatedly, with Chávez accusing the United States of backing the coup against him and U.S. officials denouncing his leadership as authoritarian. The United States was one of the few nations to embrace the coup initially, though it later reversed its position.
The documents were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by Eva Golinger, a Long Island attorney and pro-Chávez activist who also is investigating U.S. funding of groups opposed to the Venezuelan leader. Golinger said she was outraged by the documents. "If they knew that a democratic government was going to be overthrown, why wouldn't they send signals to it or at least explain what was going to happen?"
The documents - called Senior Executive Security Briefs - are one level below the highest-level Presidential Daily Briefs and are circulated among about 200 top-level U.S. officials, Kornbluh said.
Chávez was arrested and overthrown on April 12, 2002, after military dissidents blamed him for violence at an opposition protest march that left 19 people dead and 300 wounded. He was returned to power two days later.
All the CIA documents were heavily censored before being released. One, dated April 6, 2002, states that "dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chávez, possibly as early as this month."
The document adds: "The level of detail in the reported plans [censored] targets Chávez and 10 other senior officials for arrest - lends credence to the information, but military and civilian contacts note that neither group appears ready to lead a successful coup and may bungle the attempt by moving too quickly."
The brief also states, "To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or ongoing strikes at the state-owned oil company PSVSA."
While there is no requirement that one government inform another with which it has diplomatic relations that it may be facing a coup attempt, such an alert would be in keeping with the spirit of the Inter-American Democratic Charter of which both Washington and Venezuela are members, according to international relations experts.
Julia Sweig, deputy director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington, said: "The fact that we didn't call Chávez and say, 'This is brewing,' reflects the incredible antipathy toward Chávez at that time" on the part of the Bush administration.
Jones was reporting from Long Island and Tayler from Caracas.
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