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Tom Harkin — From Tiger Cages to Pinochet

Harkin, right, listens to Cau Nguyen Loi describe what it was like to be shackled and beaten inside a 'tiger cage' on Con Son Island, Vietnam. (POOL/AFP/Getty Images File Photo)

Sen. Tom Harkin's human rights legacy began with exposing the tiger cages in a secret South Vietnam prison.  

"Let me show you," the retiring Iowa Democrat said as he retrieved a large, clear plastic bag that contained a July 1970 edition of Life magazine. The magazine published photos Harkin took as a congressional aide depicting abuse of political prisoners by the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese government.  

His work in Vietnam led to an interest in human rights that's remained with him throughout his career, including an effort that made protecting human rights a criterion for receiving U.S. aid, a role in the downfall of Augusto Pinochet, efforts to fight child labor and securing funding for the Bureau of International Labor Affairs.  

But it all started with the tiger cages. In an interview, Harkin recounted how he came to Washington in 1969 to work for Iowa Democratic Congressman Neal Smith. In the summer of 1970 he went as an aide to a group of House members to Vietnam.  

Harkin was interested in the student and Buddhist protest movements and wanted to talk with their leaders to get their independent view on the war and what the Vietnamese people sought in the future.  

So he sought out Don Luce, a journalist living in Saigon, who had written a book about Vietnam, titled, "Vietnam — The Unheard Voices" and had contacts in those communities.  

Harkin went to Luce's apartment, where it just so happened that a group of former prisoners was meeting. Harkin asked about the student leaders, but was told they were being held in tiger cages hidden within Con Son prison, Luce told CQ Roll Call in an interview.  

Harkin asked how to get to the prison and one of Luce's guests, Cao Nguyen Loi, drew a map.  

Harkin convinced Rep. Augustus Hawkins, D-Calif., and Rep. William R. Anderson, R-Tenn., who were part of the delegation, to visit the prison, located on Con Son Island, part of an archipelago off the south coast of Vietnam.  

"I couldn’t have done it without them," Harkin said.  

Luce went as a translator.  

While Luce distracted their tour guides, Harkin followed the map to the door of a building, which was opened from the inside by a guard who heard people talking.  

Once inside Harkin took many photographs of the prisoners, some of whom Harkin still keeps in touch with.  

The prisoners were held in rows of roughly 5 feet by 9 feet cells dug into the floor with bars over the top. Each contained three men or five women.  

"There were about 500 people in these cages," Harkin said.  

On the trip back to Washington, Harkin said Rep. G.V. Montgomery, D-Miss., who led the delegation, pressured him to turn over the film after news of its existence started “rumbling through the State Department.”  

"I am just a goddamn staffer," Harkin said, noting that he was scared, but nevertheless refused to give up the film, which he had hidden.  

"I didn’t know what was on the film; I just knew I had taken a lot of pictures … so I demurred," Harkin said.  

Harkin said he was heartened by a talk with Hawkins — California’s first black representative in Congress and a civil rights champion — who told him not to turn over the film or he would never see it again.  

“All the way back no one would talk to me,” Harkin said, adding he had to wait a day before having the pictures developed because they got back on Independence Day.  

Harkin said he lost his job over the incident, but it lit a fire in him over human rights issues.  

“That’s what … got me going on ... human rights work,” Harkin said.  

In a cover story he wrote for The Progressive in October 1970, Harkin detailed his shock at lawmakers preferring to cover up the truth about the prison.  

"I learned how Congressional 'fact-finding' can become an exercise in blind acceptance of official handouts," he wrote. "I learned how men supposedly dedicated to the public interest can ignore — or even conspire to conceal — the most blatant injustice. I learned how easily moral courage and even common decency can be subverted by political expediency. And I learned that you don’t have to go along. One man can stand up and make a difference.”  

In 1972, Harkin ran for Congress and lost, but he won two years later — one of a wave of young lawmakers elected after the Watergate scandal, known as "Watergate babies." And in his first term he championed and passed an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits certain types of U.S. aid to governments that abuse human rights.  

Success there led him to a close relationship with groups opposing dictatorships in Latin America, including the Institute for Policy Studies, where he befriended Orlando Letelier.  

Letelier was Chile’s ambassador to the United States under the government of Salvador Allende. He was imprisoned by the regime of Augusto Pinochet after the 1973 coup, but was later released and moved to Washington where he worked to try to expose Pinochet’s government.  

He was assassinated in Washington by Pinochet’s secret police.  

"So then I got involved in all this work in Chile," Harkin said.  

In 1976, Harkin along with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and former Rep. Toby Moffett, D-Conn., traveled to Chile to investigate claims of human rights abuses carried out by Pinochet’s junta. During the visit, Harkin uncovered the Villa Grimaldi, a detention center used by the military junta.  

The trip led to legislative efforts to stop U.S. aid to Pinochet’s military regime and calls for the extradition of junta members who were found responsible for Letelier’s assassination.  

This March, Harkin and Miller were both presented Chile's highest civilian honor for non-Chileans — the Orden de Bernardo O’Higgins award.  

Harkin said one of the most important things he did for Chile was using his seat on the Appropriations Committee to get $1 million to support the “no” vote in the 1988 Chilean referendum on whether Pinochet’s rule should be extended another eight years.  

The "no" campaign used marketing and advertising techniques — which are the subject of the 2012 movie "No" — to sell their message and won 56 percent of the vote.  

"It’s a great movie," Harkin added.  

Harkin said he heard from his Chilean allies that without the funding, the victory over Pinochet wouldn't have happened.  

"It may be an exaggeration, but what the hell, they said it," Harkin said. "So that’s why I got the award."  

 Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Related: Tom Harkin’s Reflecting, but Trying Not to Stare Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.