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PROBES BY the FBI and others ordered by President Clinton can help dig out the truth about mysterious killings in Guatemala several years ago.

But because they are conducted by agencies of the executive branch, into allegations that target the CIA, an executive-branch agency, they cannot completely satisfy the requirements of the public for the truth.

That reassuring role must be played by Congress and its intelligence committees. They oversee intelligence operations of presidents and are independent of them.

This tragedy involves an especially tangled web of charges and countercharges.

Congress must scour for the facts about the killings of Michael DeVine, an American innkeeper in Guatemala in 1990, and a Guatemalan leftist guerrilla leader, Efrain Bameca Velasquez, two years later. Bameca was married to an American, Jennifer Harbury, who has pushed relentlessly to unearth the truth.

One issue is simply what happened and why. Another is whether the killings were ordered by a Guatemalan military officer, Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, who denies a role in them, and whether he was on the CIA payroll.

But there are substantially more serious issues to clarify. Despite its denials, did the CIA withhold information from the State Department or responsible authorities during the Bush and Clinton administrations?

That would be serious indeed. It would
present one more example of a rogue intelligence agency willfully covering up its mistakes and trying to mislead the public authorities to whom it is responsible.

To his credit, President Clinton has not sat idly by this winter. He reassigned one CIA official in Guatemala and warned others who withheld information in this case.

Meantime, the Bush administration lies exposed to charges of cynical hypocrisy. There are disclosures that while the Bush White House publicly reduced American aid to Guatemala in the wake of the DeVine murder five years ago, it continued to pump millions of dollars through the CIA to the Guatemalan military.

Such duplicity between a public and a covert policy is indefensible if the Bush administration knew what was going on. And if it didn't, it should have. It opens a dreaded credibility gap for the White House.

So Congress should track down the truth and, for the moment, cut off U.S. financial aid to Guatemala until the facts can be determined.

The aid to Guatemala -- and especially its ruthless military -- buys no bargains. The regime has used charges of leftist activity to justify wholesale killings of the country's Maya Indians. U.S. aid may have paid for the murder of an American. It may even have furthered duplicity that continues to corrode the word of the United States government.

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