WASHINGTON — President Clinton, reacting to a spate of reports that Americans have been killed and tortured by Guatemalan police and army death squads, on Thursday ordered a little-known intelligence watchdog committee to find out if the CIA, the American Embassy or any other U.S. agency was implicated in committing the crimes or in covering them up.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that Clinton ordered the Intelligence Oversight Board to conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations. He promised that the White House will "provide to the American public as much information about the review as possible."
McCurry said that Clinton instructed the CIA, the National Security Agency, the State Department and other agencies to make sure that no relevant documents are destroyed.
The inquiry was prompted by reports that a Guatemalan army colonel, a paid informant for the CIA, ordered the killing in 1990 of an American citizen who owned a Guatemalan hotel and that the colonel supervised the torture and murder in 1992 of a leftist guerrilla leader married to a Harvard-educated American lawyer.
In addition to investigating the deaths of innkeeper Michael DeVine and guerrilla leader Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, McCurry said that the investigation would "also include any available information on the deaths or human rights abuses of other Americans, including the torture of Sister Dianna Ortiz in 1989, the death of Griffith Davis in 1985 and the death of Nicholas Blake in 1985."
About the time McCurry was describing the investigation to reporters in Tallahassee, Fla., where Clinton was addressing the Florida Legislature, seven Americans including Ortiz, Blake's brother, and Bamaca's widow, Jennifer Harbury, told harrowing stories of murder, rape and torture at a news conference in Washington.
Ortiz, a nun who worked as a missionary in the highlands of Guatemala in 1989, said she was tortured by Guatemalan troops who seemed to be led by an American. Samuel Blake, a Pentagon consultant, said his brother, free-lance journalist Nicholas Blake, and Davis, a photographer, were killed by Guatemalan soldiers.
Although Harbury estimated that at least 100,000 Guatemalans have been killed for every American murdered, she said the press conference was limited to a discussion of U.S. citizens because their stories seem to have a far greater impact in the United States.
"Until we speak out against what is happening in Guatemala, nothing will change," Harbury said. "When Guatemalans speak out in this country, they are told: 'You just want to get your green card.' When they speak out in Guatemala, they are shot."
All of the allegations of abuse described at the press conference happened before Clinton took office, although cover-ups seem to have continued well into the present Administration. Harbury said that human rights abuses by the Guatemalan government have increased in recent months, despite the army's acceptance of a peace plan that was supposed to curb extralegal killing.
Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced its own investigation, starting with a public hearing next week, into the murders. And members of the House Intelligence Committee said that panel also expects to conduct an investigation.
At the Justice Department, Associate Atty. Gen. John R. Schmidt said the department inspector general has begun his own investigation "of any potential violation of U.S. law." Other officials said later that the inspector general will focus on whether the CIA withheld information when it reported to Justice earlier this year on the DeVine killing.
Last week, White House officials said that Clinton believes the CIA may have misled him about the extent of the agency's involvement in the crimes.
At the press conference, Ortiz said she was kidnaped, burned with cigarettes, lowered into a pit full of corpses and raped repeatedly. In what turned out to be the last torture session, she said, a tall, fair-skinned man who spoke with an American accent seemed to be in charge.
"He ordered them to stop the torture, explicitly telling them that I was a North American nun and that my disappearance had become public," she said. Ortiz said the man later offered to drive her to the U.S. Embassy but she jumped out of the car and escaped.
"I attempted to explain to him that the reason I remained in Guatemala was rooted in my commitment to a suffering people," she said. "He told me that he too was concerned about the people and, consequently, he was working to liberate them from communism."
In addition to the cases cited by McCurry, other Americans who appeared at the press conference included John R. Wolfe of Berkeley and Paul Joslin, a former Roman Catholic missionary.
Wolfe related that his brother, Peter, a Peace Corps volunteer, was killed by a gunman in Guatemala City in 1984. He said that the killer was turned in by his own mother but was released by the authorities. Joslin reported on the killing of a colleague in 1982. He said that when he appealed to U.S. Ambassador Frederick Chapin for assistance from Washington in bringing the killers to justice, "the message was very loud and clear that we should not expect anything from the authorities in Guatemala."
Times staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow and Melissa Healy contributed to this story.