Legacy of Late State Department Human Rights Champion Tex Harris Reverberates Today

The recent passing of F. Allen “Tex” Harris, a retired diplomat who repeatedly risked his career and life to serve brilliantly on the dangerous “front lines” of President Jimmy Carter’s human rights revolution, serves as a much-needed reminder of the value of moral courage and principled dissent in foreign policy. This at a time when top U.S. officials undermine American values by exerting unprecedented pressure to enforce “loyalty” to an individual rather than to the defense of freedom and democracy at home or abroad.

Harris’ life work, especially during his service from 1977 to 1979 at the U.S. Embassy in Argentina during the rule there of a far-right military junta, stands in stark contrast to those in the Trump administration (and before) willing to give vile authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia a pass on human rights to advance business ties. Or who, despite military-intelligence excesses, look to the Pentagon or the intelligence agencies rather than State Department professionals for direction in foreign policy. And then there are those who — by chilling word and often-sneaky deed — seek to scuttle the federal careers of ethical dissenters. During Harris’ remarkable career in the U.S. government for five decades no one succeeded in preventing this “joyful contrarian,” as Tex called himself, from helping others.  As he once noted in ironic triumph:  “I made a career out of being a pain.”

“Tex was a human rights saint,” Rev. Joseph Eldridge told me. A former American University chaplain, Eldridge was the first long-term director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization, and in the 1970s worked closely with the 6-foot-7 Harris. “If the measure of a man is his solidarity and work on behalf of the vulnerable, then Tex was a giant of a man in more ways than one.”

Harris died on Feb. 23 at the age of 81, a few days after explosive revelations in the Washington Post on the extent to which the CIA, through supposed third-party sales of compromised encryption machines to the Argentine military government, became aware between 1976 and 1983 of the reach of Argentina’s dirty “warriors,” those operating more than 340 secret concentration camps. Harris was the eyes and ears in Buenos Aires of Carter’s equally brave Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Patricia Derian (in 1977, Patt herself called Argentine generals to account face-to-face in their offices). Harris worked almost entirely without intelligence community support (the FBI being the notable exception) to compile comprehensive reports on the many thousands of people who had gone missing.

Harris began working in Buenos Aires in June 1977, 12 years after joining the Foreign Service and a year after then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made comments in a closed-door meeting that Robert C. Hill, a Nixon ambassadorial appointee, later revealed served as a “green light” to the Argentine junta for its campaign of disappearances, torture, and state terror.

The junta that had taken power by overthrowing an elected government publicly maintained its fight was the “opening battle of World War III” against a supposedly vast leftist guerrilla threat. However, as the fabled FBI legal attaché in Buenos Aires, Robert W. Scherrer, later noted: “Terrorism was a convenient vehicle for irresponsible elements of the military and their civilian counterparts to seek retaliation against real or imagined wrongs … At no time did terrorism ever represent a threat to the stability of the government.”

Daily Threats, Physical and Political

Harris put himself at risk almost daily at his post with the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires. He tried to help thousands of families seeking news about those kidnapped, tortured, and clandestinely executed as part of a delusional bloodfest by Argentina’s generals. Harris’ work demonstrated that the junta’s drive to eradicate the much-exaggerated, if vicious, leftist terrorist movement also killed or “disappeared” thousands of innocents, including children, pregnant women, senior citizens, and handicapped individuals. According to an Argentine Foreign Ministry statement last week, from 1977 to 1979, Harris filed some 13,500 official complaints on human rights violations.

Harris risked physical reprisal by meeting with the courageous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who organized in 1977 and marched every Thursday to the Casa Rosada presidential palace, wearing white headscarves and holding photos of their “disappeared” children, with the much taller Harris frequently in tow. (In high school in Dallas, Texas, Harris was an all-state basketball star.) At the marches, Harris sometimes also accompanied brave activists such as Emilio Mignone, whose 24-year-old daughter Monica “disappeared” in 1976, never to be found, and who in 1979 founded the authoritative human rights organization Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (Center for Legal and Social Studies).

“I remember when he would go to Plaza de Mayo with Emilio on Thursdays at 3 pm,” Mignone’s daughter, Isabel, told me last week. “It was so hard for him to ‘pasar desapercibido’ (go unnoticed) due to his height.” The memory years later became something of a joke between the two.

Using his expanding web of local contacts, Harris passed to Washington chilling and detailed renditions of the unspeakable atrocities taking place. In doing so, he out-maneuvered hostile Cold War colleagues who were unwilling to embrace Carter’s sweeping reset of American diplomacy, and armed more-senior administration officials, particularly Patt Derian, for factual slam dunks on Capitol Hill.

But senior U.S. Embassy officials viewed Harris as a bureaucratic upstart who dared keep the Carter State Department’s Human Rights Bureau informed about institutional lawlessness in what was once considered the most developed country in Latin America. U.S. Ambassador Raul Hector Castro, a political appointee who had been Arizona governor, excoriated Harris for supposedly going outside embassy chain of command. Castro himself was at odds with the president’s human rights policy. The ambassador’s ire was carefully stoked by the embassy’s Economic/Commercial section, the Military Group, and the defense attache’s office, each seeking to promote closer U.S.-Argentine relations. Derian, for her part, was furious that Harris was threatened with being muzzled, she told me later.

The tensions became so acute that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David D. Newsom, who sympathized with Harris’ plight, brokered a previously unheard of agreement between the embassy country team and the human rights officer. The pact was meant to ensure that critical information and analysis was included as “official-informal” letters sent to Washington, even if the country team disagreed. Harris was required to share a copy of his reporting with Castro, but in return he was able to get unfettered information and analysis into the right hands without fear of censorship from his Buenos Aires office mates.

Repeated Internal Sabotage

The agreement was frequently broken by Harris’ embassy foes. In one instance, a misleading performance evaluation jeopardized his career advancement, as critics claimed that he was not producing enough human rights reports even as they prevented the many he produced from being sent to Washington. A now-forgotten political counselor lectured Harris on the importance of “working for those who had more experience and wisdom.”

“As a young FSO, it was tough to fight with the ambassador,” Harris recalled, remembering having to return to Washington in 1979 as one of the worst of the Argentine military mafia called for a toast to his removal. “I stood firm on the need to get the full facts to Washington. I knew that my performance evaluation would suffer. I was almost fired for insubordination… In 1993, with the benefit of 15 years of historical hindsight, the State Department awarded me its highest medal — the Distinguished Honor Award — for my reporting from Argentina.”

President Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 having thoroughly disparaged the Carter administration’s human right efforts, particularly those centered on the Buenos Aires junta. Facing unbending congressional opposition to funding anti-Sandinista Contra rebels in Nicaragua, Reagan and the CIA turned to Argentina’s “dirty war” generals to secretly train and supply them. Meanwhile, Harris’ failure to be a “team player” at State meant that his diplomatic career ground to a halt for several years. Serving at the Environmental Protection Agency in the interim, he became the first person fired by Ann Gorsuch, Reagan’s EPA administrator, due to his efforts as the head of its International Activities Office to ban chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, responsible for destroying upper atmospheric ozone and creating a hole above the Antarctic.

Harris later served in South Africa during that country’s move away from apartheid, helping to fight against the transmission of the HIV virus as deputy director of State’s Office of Southern African Affairs. He also was one of the four people who drafted the 1976 legislation that led to the Foreign Service grievance system, and served two terms as the president of the American Foreign Service Association, from 1993 to 1997. As head of AFSA, he did battle against government shutdowns, the appointment of grossly unqualified political ambassadors, major management abuses such as official nonpayment of overtime, and professionally painful layoffs at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In 2000, AFSA created the F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for Constructive Dissent by a Foreign Service Specialist to bring the same recognition to specialists as has been afforded to Foreign Service Officers since 1968. The dissent awards “publicly recognize individuals who have demonstrated the intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand, no matter the sensitivity of the issue or the consequences of their actions.” The criteria for the Harris Award are phrased in a way that define his life and legacy of seeking to right wrongs, to take “an unpopular stand, to go out on a limb, or to stick his/her neck out in a way that involves some risk.”

“Today a nation is judged by how it treats its own citizens, establishing a new norm in modern diplomacy,” Harris said in the ornate caucus room of the House Cannon Office Building in 2013, as he received an award from the United Nations Association for “the use of diplomacy to advance human rights.” An unforgettable mentor as well as role model for many of those who fought to make Carter’s human rights revolution a reality, Harris will be remembered as a real hero, especially at this particularly troubled time abroad for American democracy and leadership.

IMAGE: F. Allen “Tex” Harris at the U.S. State Department for the American Foreign Service Association Awards in October 2019 (Photo courtesy of AFSA/Joaquin Sosa)

 

About the Author(s)

Martin Edwin Andersen

1st national security whistleblower to receive the U.S. Office of Special Counsel's "Public Servant Award." Author of "Dossier Secreto: Argentina's Desaparecidos and the Myth of the 'Dirty War," and "Peoples of the Earth; Ethnonationalism, Democracy and the Indigenous Challenge in 'Latin' America." Follow him on Twitter (@InsightCaptain).