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Where the Information Comes From

Brazilian and U.S. files feed investigations into crimes committed by the dictatorship

Diagram of the method employed in spying; example from materials kept at the National Archives

National ArchivesDiagram of the method employed in spying; example from materials kept at the National ArchivesNational Archives

At the end of March 2014, the National Truth Commission (CNV) accused retired general José Antonio Nogueira Belham as having been one of those responsible for the death of Congressman Rubens Paiva, who was imprisoned and tortured by the military dictatorship. Paiva was detained and killed in January 1971 at Air Force and Army bases in Rio de Janeiro. Belham at the time was commander of the DOI-CODI (Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations) in Rio de Janeiro, but had always maintained that he was on vacation when Paiva was arrested. A personnel record card that he himself provided to the CNV showed, however, that he had received his daily pay for service on precisely those days.

Dictatorship special issue

The episode demonstrates not only the importance of examining the files of the agencies that were controlled by the dictatorship, but also of paying attention to details that sometimes go unnoticed even by those who are most interested in finding them. “The primary importance of the work by the CNV is that it gives us the ability to connect the dots between witness testimonies and materials obtained from different sources,” says Vicente Câmara Rodrigues, an assistant to the board of the National Archives for the project known as Revealed Memories—Political Conflicts Reference Center, 1964-1965, at which Inez Stampa serves as coordinator and researcher.

The collection, which can now be found online, became the final destination of documents about the military dictatorship when, in 2005, the Executive Office of the President decided that federal institutions should transfer all the information they had saved about the period to the National Archives. This resulted in a tenfold increase in the volume of data about the regime that is stored at the institution. “In the National Archives alone, we estimate that there are 16.5 million pages of text; then there are about 10 million pages in the various state archives,” Rodrigues says.

With Brazil’s Freedom of Information Act of 2011, the National Archives prepared to release to the public, in 2012, all its documents on the military dictatorship, except those were still undergoing technical processing. Compiled there are all the files from the National Security Council (CNS), the General Investigations Commission (CGI) and the National Information Service (SNI), obtained from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN).

Every federal government agency has a representative on staff from the Archives Document Management System (SIGA) or the Executive Office of the President, who coordinates and makes available papers from the military dictatorship, among other materials, and passes them on to the National Archives. The representative can also take the initiative to look for documentation at those agencies. According to Rodrigues and Stampa, the National Archives has now obtained documents from 30% of the federal government agencies (a figure that does not mean 30% of the entirety of the data).

Once they have been obtained, the papers must go through various processes before they reach the public. First, they are summarily classified. If necessary, they are sent to the preservation department for treatment. Then they go to the information control office, where they are more fully described (what they are, who sent them, who they were sent to) and digitized. After that they are open to the public in the Revealed Memories database.

File folder from the Deops in São Paulo: almost ten million pages about the dictatorship

léo RamosFile folder from the Deops in São Paulo: almost ten million pages about the dictatorshipléo Ramos

Even with all this care it is not always possible to determine whether the files had been tampered with and their content changed. But since each agency had a system for handling the confidential information it was sending the SNI, the copies sent to that agency are valuable for comparisons with the originals. In cases where the agencies ordered the destruction (burning) of files, it can be proven whether that really occurred by looking at the formal records that were required under the former Regulations for Safeguarding Confidential Matters. Exchanges of information with the CNV were facilitated when employees from the National Archives were detailed to the CNV to assist in the investigatory work. And at archives headquarters, a specific area has been set aside for exclusive use by CNV researchers.

The state of São Paulo maintains records of 340,000 fact sheets obtained from the State Department of Political and Social Order (Deops) that have been open for public consultation since early 1994 by order of the state’s Secretary of Culture. According to Lauro Ávila Pereira, former director of the Department of Preservation and Dissemination of the Collection, there are almost ten million pages of documents on the military dictatorship in the files, only 10% of which have been digitized. The treatment and digitizing of the documents were funded by FAPESP and the Ministry of Justice’s Amnesty Commission through the request for bids made under the Landmarks of Memory program.

The Deops documents are the ones most often requested from the State Public Archive, and the fact that they have now been available for 20 years has helped, as Pereira says, “train a generation of expert researchers.” They took over the difficult task of reading the information contained in the documents. To prevent loss, the State Archives decided to retain the filing system developed by the regime’s security agencies in São Paulo.

Valuable supplemental contributions about human rights violations during the dictatorship have come from researchers who worked with the files kept by the U.S. government. Two of the most important of these researchers came to Brazil to participate in the events marking the 50th anniversary of the coup: James Green, historian from Brown University, and Peter Kornbluh, director of documentation on Brazil at the National Security Archive, a non-profit organization affiliated with George Washington University.

Green attended the inauguration of the Opening the Archives project website, developed by a partnership between Brown and the State University of Maringá (Paraná). The site contains almost 10,000 U.S. documents provided by the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In them are records of observations about the backgrounds of the students who were demonstrating against the regime, the active support from some in the Brazilian business community, and details about the activities of Col. Vernon Walters, U.S. military attaché during the initial years of the regime.

“We are learning important details about the support for Institutional Act No. 5 by the Brazil-United States Chamber of Commerce in São Paulo, and about the internal debates within the State Department concerning the effects of the decree,” Green says. “But we need to understand that the most interesting research at this time is a long and detailed effort that involves bringing together sources, elements, and evidence in order to construct a more dense reading of the relations between the two countries.”

U.S. indirect participation in the coup and in the military dictatorship was confirmed in 1977 by researcher Phyllis Parker, who found documents about the Brother Sam operation and published a book on the subject entitled O papel dos Estados Unidos da América no golpe do estado de 31 de março (The Role of the United States of America in the Coup d’état of March 31). Human rights violations had been added to the government affairs agenda at the initiative of President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). “Until then, confidential reports did not emphasize the torture and other abuses that occurred during the first decade of the dictatorship,” says Kornbluh. “But the U.S. documents that are being disclosed now are shedding light on horrible aggressions committed by the military—and they also expose the role of Brazil in Operation Condor and other covert actions taken by the Brazilian police forces in other countries.”

Preservation and dissemination of public memory: modernization and enlargement of the laboratories of the State of São Paulo Public Archive (No. 2009/54965-1); Grant mechanism Infrastructure Program 6 – Archives; Principal investigator Carlos Bacellar—FFLCH-USP; Investment R$1,692,982.33 (FAPESP).