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.
F. Allen “Tex” Harris’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 10, 1999.
Read Tex Harris’s full oral history HERE (pdf).
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.
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].