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An Unpopular Opinion: Tex Harris and the Yacyretá Dam Project in Argentina

To directly defy orders from one’s superiors undoubtedly takes nerve and, above all, conviction and belief in doing the right thing. In an organization like the Foreign Service, where each individual takes part in representing an entire country, such a dynamic is only amplified.

The Yacyretá Dam (2006), WikiMedia Commons
The Yacyretá Dam (2006), WikiMedia Commons

The bureaucracy of the State Department creates a concrete hierarchy. Yet, the content of life in politics is such that policy decisions made by few directly affect the lives of many.

For F. Allen “Tex” Harris, a posting in Buenos Aires, Argentina marked the beginning of two years of defiance in favor of protecting the innocent people of the country from an insidious regime at a time when the Argentine government routinely organized the “disappearance” of any dissidents. Tex Harris, to the chagrin of his superiors, began in depth investigations into these disappearances and deeper manifestations of corruption and wrong-doing by the Argentine government, putting on the line his own fledgling career in the Foreign Service as a Political Officer.

The tension between Harris and the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires came to a head with the discovery of a file on the planned Yacyretá Dam project, a hydroelectric dam to be constructed between several South American countries with EXIM [Export-Import Bank of the United States] financing for the involvement of an American company. However, Harris quickly noted something unusual about the Argentine manufacturer listed in the file he had borrowed. It had deep connections to the government regime, information that had not been shared with Washington.

In this “Moment,” Tex Harris describes the difficulties and the risk to his personal career he faced in spreading awareness of the dangers of U.S. involvement in the Yacyretá Dam project, highlighting the barriers to morality he occasionally encountered within the bureaucracy.

Tex Harris, after the repercussions of his moral convictions in Argentina, continued to serve a long career in the State Department, notably helping to steer the transformation of the American Foreign Service Association, where he would later serve as its president.

F. Allen “Tex” Harris’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 10, 1999.

Read Tex Harris’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Miranda Allegar

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Excerpts:

“ Well, I realized that this was something that could not happen and should not happen but that there was no way that I was going to be able to get a message out about this information . . .”

           
U.S. Diplomatic Pouch (2018) Diplomatic Security Service, Flickr
U.S. Diplomatic Pouch (2018) Diplomatic Security Service, Flickr

Stumbling upon the truth: This is an example of the bitterness, and also it’s an example of the high-water mark of policy. The Yacyretá Dam was a major hydroelectric dam project between Argentina and Paraguay and Brazil. They were going to share the power and the expenses. It’s a major thing. We just had gone online recently. It’s one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the world. I had somehow picked up that there was a U.S. company that was interested in bidding on this and that there might be the possibility of some EXIM financing for this. I went down to the commercial officer’s office and asked to see the file. He was not there, and his secretary lent me the file, and it became very clear that what was taking place was a proposal by something called Acieros Argentina, which means “Shipbuilding Yards Argentina,” and the major company is . . . in Pennsylvania to build a turbine manufacturing facility in Argentina to manufacture the turbines, the multi-multi-multi million-dollar pieces of equipment, the major part of the expense of the equipment. Instead of buying them abroad, they would be manufactured by this Acieros Argentina. What also was in the file was information that Acieros Argentina was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Argentine navy, which was [on] the top-branch enemies list because of the very obvious way in which the navy mechanical school had been fingered as being a major perpetrator of this. Now, the information had gone back to Washington in support of the . . . company [from Pennsylvania]. The[y] had a proposal for support and an insurance guarantee with the U.S. government, which was up for consideration. Well, I realized that this was something that could not happen and should not happen but that there was no way that I was going to be able to get a message out about this information, and so I wrote an official-informal letter, and . . . I gave a copy of the letter to the ambassador and a copy of the letter to the HA [Humanitarian Assistance] Bureau, Human Rights Bureau, and a copy of the letter went to ARA [Bureau of Inter-American Affairs], telling them of my concerns that this EXIM financing was going to go to this Pennsylvania outfit to build a turbine factory for essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of the military. Now, military ownership of industry was quite common in Argentina. A lot of the underwear and socks that people wore, the average guy in Argentina wore, were made in military-run factories. They were owned by the military, because they made socks for their soldiers and so they just started making more socks and selling them on the market. But this was a shipyard that wanted to build a turbine factory, [and] then they could build turbines for ships and other things like that and start a new industry in the country. The ambassador was not there, and so my letter, sealed to the ambassador, was opened by the DCM [deputy chief of mission], who called the political counselor in and instructed the political counselor to go into the pouch room and to retrieve the letters that I had sent out of the pouch and to bring them back to me and to have me withdraw the letters and not send them, because this would be very disruptive and this was something of such high policy import. It was a multi-multimillion-dollar, twenty-or-thirty-million-dollar deal, which would be submarined by my letter. This is a good story.

“I just went back to my office with a feeling of satisfaction that I had overcome what had been a significantly bad event.”

Defying superiors: So Bill Hallman [the political counselor] came into my little airless office, like an overgrown closet, and he sat down and he talked about responsibility and team play and all the other kinds of things that we had to understand in the Foreign Service, that there was a responsibility to doing things in a collective way and that, even though we may feel strongly about something as an individual, we had to put things into perspective and [accept] the judgment of senior people and other visions and other ideas, and blend in. We had this long philosophical discussion. Bill was a wonderful, very thoughtful and conscientious Catholic probably trained in a Jesuit school. He was very intelligent and a fine Officer. So we had this very, very theoretical discussion about responsibility in the Foreign Service to be a member of the team and to fit your ideas into the fabric of an embassy’s reporting. Then, like a bombshell, he pulled out my letters and said that the DCM and he had requested me to withdraw these letters and not to send them in the pouch, that they shouldn’t go up as an official-informal with information that was as pertinent and as potentially disruptive to a major multimillion-dollar arrangement. It should be done in a considered way by the embassy. Well, I don’t get angry, I really don’t get angry, but I was really upset. I didn’t lose it, but I was really upset, and I told Bill absolutely not, I had considered this, and if the embassy wanted to send up a detailed telegram, it would get there certainly before the classified pouch got there. These were marked “confidential,” and these official-informal letters would come after the fact, and the embassy would send a telegram out in the next day or so, next day or two, and still put its considered view, and I refused to withdraw the letters and they should go in the pouch. So we talked for another half an hour, and then when it was all over, Bill then said to me, “I guess I’ve done one thing. At least we’ve missed the closing of the pouch for this day,” . . . it bought him some more time. This was before e-mails. This was when telephone calls were big deals, and the main thing was either pouch or cable. So Hallman left. I felt I had just been hit with about a three-hundred-pound stone. I went down kind of reeling to the “cobra,” to the pouch room, where you put your messages in the communications center. The guy was there and I said, “I’ve got to get these in the pouch. They were taken out by the DCM, but now I want to send them back.” He said, “I’m sorry. I can’t. We’ve closed the pouch.” So probably my greatest negotiation as a diplomat was to convince the communicator to open the pouch. After some conversation about the importance of this, he decided that he would open the pouch, which meant he had to redo all the seals and redo all the paperwork. He did it and put these two letters back in the pouch and closed them up. I didn’t say anything further to Hallman. I didn’t tell him that I had gotten them in the pouch. I just went back to my office with a feeling of satisfaction that I had overcome what had been a significantly bad event.

Ripples in Washington and beyond: These official-informals hit Washington like a bombshell, because it was a multi-tens-of-millions-of-dollars deal to build this turbine factory. It was to be a turn-key operation . . . and it would mean literally hundreds and hundreds of jobs in Pennsylvania, people building the equipment for export and a lot of money on site in Argentina to build this factory, an entire turbine factory, which is a major, major export sale. Of course, when this got to Washington, the Human Rights Bureau, Derian [Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs], and Mark Schneider [Senior Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs] moved very quickly to stop it. When it came up at the EXIM meeting, there were human rights issues posed that were pretty clear because there was a deal between this . . . Company in Pennsylvania and the Argentine navy. It wasn’t a private sector deal at all; it was a sale to the navy, and it was clearly against the thrust of the Carter human rights policy. And the deal was killed.

Well, there are two lines, and the story continues. Let’s talk about the policy line. The company went absolutely berserk, angry as hell, and they launched [a review], with the help of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other organizations and the Department of Commerce. This was to be a major feather in the Department of Commerce’s hat for serving as the intermediary for this tens-of-millions-of-dollars sale of U.S. exports to Argentina, and now the deal had queered, because without the EXIM financing and the EXIM guarantees, the Pennsylvania company was unwilling to go ahead with the deal. They then went to the House and Senate Commerce Committees and the Department of Commerce and held hearings and instituted a worldwide review, which was conducted by the Department of Commerce, in terms of how much overseas business had been lost because of the Carter human rights policies. . . . With that information in hand, the hearings were held in the House and, I believe, the Senate—I’m not sure, but certainly in the House—on the failure or the cost of the Carter human rights policy to American jobs. And this Yacyretá Dam turbine was the linchpin, it was the key issue, and this event marked the high-water mark of the Carter human rights policies.Up until then, Derian and Schneider and the others had been successful in winning all the battles bureaucratically in the Department of State, but [with] this business challenge, [the] U.S. Chamber, House and Senate Commerce Committees, and the Department of Commerce went on the warpath, and it really marked that as the high-water mark. From then on, the human rights policy lost issues because there were jobs at stake, and American exports were seen as a good that had to be very carefully weighed and considered in the balance. That was a pretty good story.

Footnotes of history: Now the substory of this is that the officer, the Foreign Service Officer who was the commercial officer there—I’ll think of his name, I think it was Jones—was so angry that he wrote his members of Congress and he wrote many, many letters to the Hill and to American businesses, talking to them about the perfidy of the American human rights policy as applied in Argentina, which had prevented and was keeping six to seven hundred Pennsylvanian skilled craftsmen from doing their job in building these turbines for turbine factory equipment in Argentina. He then resigned from the Foreign Service and went to work for the turbine manufacturing company in Pennsylvania but as their representative in Paraguay, with the goal in mind that, since the turbine deal had been screwed in terms of manufacturing them in Argentina, they would now manufacture them in Pennsylvania and ship the turbines to Paraguay. So he left the service and went to work for the turbine manufacturing company, which I always found to be a strange and wonderful footnote in terms of how these events have really great magnitude and great effect.

           
Tex Harris at the State Department (2020) American Foreign Service Association photo
Tex Harris at the State Department (2020) American Foreign Service Association photo

Facing the music: I got what was probably the worst efficiency report ever written on any individual. It was absolutely incredible: “not a team player, his own sense of values and priorities,” and so forth, and I got a fairly rigorous and tough but in a sense fair from his perspective [review] from the political counselor. There was a certain amount of negotiation involved in that. But the DCM, who was a very skillful writer, Max Chaplin, wrote a review that was absolutely an epitaph, just carved in stone. When this got back to Washington, I was identified for selection out. My tour was going to be a three-year tour, and the Argentine government had come to the ambassador, Castro, and said that they were going to PNG me [make me persona non grata], and Castro talked them out of that on the theory that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, and if you send Harris back, then Derian will send someone else down here who may be even taller and worse than Harris. So Castro talked them out of that, and they didn’t PNG me, but things became so difficult in the embassy after this Yacyretá business. . . .

It was quite clear that my career was in deep trouble with this efficiency report. I had sent a copy of it to Derian and to Mark and asked them if there was anything they could put in the file to balance it off, and he put a very good—I think Mark may have signed it, Patt may have been out—and it was a very well done praise of the work I had done and the contribution I had made to American foreign policy. So the review board—after having been low ranked, I went to the review board—essentially gave me a censure. It wasn’t an official reprimand or anything where I lost pay or things like that, but essentially wrote me a letter of censure that I had to become a better team player, and of course I had been low-ranked. Now, I was the guy who had invented the grievance system. I had been there at the beginning with other people, and here was an efficiency report that was absolutely defective, but I was so emotionally unable, psychologically unable, to deal with the ramifications of going through all this pain that was associated with the report and my being identified for selection out, and all these other painful moments, that I ran away from it, which is a very standard psychological behavior of diverting from things that are difficult and hard and painful. It’s the way the body protects itself. So for year after year after year I couldn’t get promoted, because they’d open up the file and here was this low ranking, this selection-out procedure in the file, and this horrific report, and I was facing [the] time in class [deadline].

Public Recognition: The story of what I had done—here was this guy who was viewed by the Human Rights Committee as being kind of a hero—came to a producer for Bill Moyers. Bill Moyers was doing on CBS a show that was kind of a “60 Minutes” look-alike but a summer replacement. So this producer called me up—

Q: “60 Minutes” is an investigative journal report, very popular on TV.

This was a popular show. Moyers and the fellow who did on-the-road shows, Charles Kuralt: Kuralt would do the lighter ones, and Moyers would do the heavier ones. So they did this story. Bill Moyers came to the house and interviewed me, and they interviewed other people. . . So they filmed this and it ran, and the Department of State got mailbags full of mail to the Secretary of State saying, “How can you fire this guy?” because the story ended in about ten minutes. They show it to all the junior officer classes as they come in now, as a model of what Foreign Service people can do. How can you fire a guy who’s done such a great job for doing that great job, which was in a sense what was happening, but we then had the perspective of hindsight, because everybody knew that what I had been saying was in fact the truth. . . . So Hank Cohen—who is a guy that is truly courageous and thoughtful, understated, wonderful guy, was the director of personnel, the deputy DG, director general—pulled my file and sent it to the Office of the Legal Adviser (L), and said, “Is this a legal file?” Because under the regulations, the director of personnel and the director general have responsibility to ensure that the records in the personnel system are correct. They can make any additions or subtractions or changes into the records of the personnel system to ensure that they are correct. Well, L came back with kind of a pen drawn through with a little number that this is illegal because of this, this statement is wrong because of that, and so Hank then had the report amended on the basis of the judgment made by the L, and the old report was taken out, and the new edited report, pursuant to the legal adviser’s and the director of personnel’s authority, was entered into my file. I was then promoted the next year, but I went years and years and years without being promoted. Because of that, I’ve had the longest career in my class. That’s the good news, and for the most part they’ve been just absolutely great years. The Moyers program ran, and it was a very touching program.