Bring Pinochet, Kissinger and George Bush the Elder to Justice

The Letelier-Moffitt Assassination Revisited

by Sunil K. Sharma

Dissident Voice

 Issue #2, March 2001



In the minds of the world at large, we are closely associated with this junta, ergo with fascists and torturers. . . . Chile is just the latest example for a lot of people in this country of the United States not being true to its values.


                                                    -- Richard J. Bloomfield, US Embassy officer in Chile

                                                       Classified memo, July 11, 1975


This just in from the Surprise, Surprise Department: according to a new book, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was released by British authorities last March after over 500 days under house arrest, because of a secret accord reached between the Chilean and British governments. In Augusto Pinochet: 503 Days Trapped in London, Chilean television reporter Monica Perez and Felipe Gertdtzen, a son-in-law of former Chilean President Eduardo Frei, report that the plan to kick Pinochet loose was hatched in a phone conversation between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Frei in mid-1999. High-level Spanish officials were also involved.


The latest revelation describes how Blair, "under pressure from Frei to get the former dictator released back to Chile on humanitarian grounds," suggested establishing a "back channel" between London and Santiago. "Frei's press attaché Cristian Tolosa and Jonathan Powell, an assistant to Blair, were reportedly charged with secret contacts, and Tolosa made six visits to London in the second half of 1999."


Officials acting under an arrest warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon detained Pinochet in London on October 16, 1998. Garzon attempted to extradite Pinochet to Spain to try him for crimes against humanity.


Pinochet came to power with an ample assist from the US in 1973, when the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup. Pinochet, who ruled until 1990, went on to compile a horrendous human rights record, with a conservatively estimated 3,200 people killed and tens-of-thousands tortured and disappeared.


While Pinochet was under house arrest, a series of British courts debated the extradition order. On March 2, 2000, British Home Secretary Jack Straw decided to free Pinochet, claiming two medical examinations "unanimously and unequivocally" showed Pinochet was too mentally ill to stand trial. The medical report "allowed Straw to exercise his discretion to release Pinochet on humanitarian grounds even though the former dictator had never said he was too ill to stand trial." Straw tried to keep the report secret, but it was leaked in February after the High Court in London forced Straw to disclose it to the Spanish and other governments. [1]


Pinochet's Ernest Saunders Routine [2]


At the time of and shortly before Pinochet's release, a number of reports belied Straw's claim. Shortly after the examinations in January 2000, the Observer (UK) interviewed Oxford University Professor Sir John Grimley Evans, one of the four medical experts appointed by Straw to examine Pinochet. According to Evans: "All we did was to list the medical facts. Whether those medical facts constitute unequivocal grounds for decreeing unfitness for trial is outside our field of competence and outside our responsibilities." Evans states the claim that Pinochet was unfit to stand trial was Straw's judgment. [3]


Six days after Pinochet's release, eight Spanish doctors acting on the request of Judge Garzon reviewed the British medical report Straw had cited in his decision to release Pinochet. They condemned the report as "absurd, surreal, incoherent, and untrustworthy." The Spanish doctors stated that Sir Evans and his colleagues treated Pinochet's condition in quite a frivolous manner. [4]


Two months after Pinochet returned to Chile, three distinguished Chilean psychiatrists published a report claiming the diagnosis which led to the ex-dictator's release was marked by a "lack of scientific rigor." "As we understand it, this neurological exam did not show any significant damage, only small alterations possibly linked with his advanced age: stiff joints, diabetes, a prior operation on the spine, signs of gout attacks." The psychiatrists concluded that the British examinations "were not sufficient to demonstrate a state of dementia or mental derangement which could incapacitate him to go before a tribunal." They emphasized that the examination "was realized in less than eight hours, during which the patient was subjected to a series of clinical and laboratory tests. It was done by an insufficient medical team which did not include a neurological or psychiatric doctor, in such a manner that a true evaluation of the existence of a mental pathology was left in suspense." Only four of the eleven drugs prescribed to Pinochet were mentioned in the British report, their side-effects completely overlooked. [5]


Other recent news reports have observed Pinochet in rather fine health. On August 30, Pinochet was seen eating at a posh restaurant in the Viña Del Mar. He told reporters, "my health and my spirits are good." This was just hours after Pinochet's lawyers filed a petition in a Chilean court arguing that Pinochet's ill health made it impossible for him to be personally interrogated by Judge Juan Guzman. Pinochet has also recently been seen looking perfectly fit at military ceremonies and shopping excursions. According to another report, Pinochet's recent public appearances are part of PR strategy intended to improve his image and to remind Chileans of his "achievements." As Chilean human rights lawyer Hugo Gutierrez points out, "Both [Pinochet] and I know that he's not crazy and that it's a matter of him wanting to maintain his dignity. And this, of course, means that he is lucid, because a crazy person doesn't care about his pride." [6]


Let's drop the theatrics! It is time for this fascist murderer to stand trial for his numerous and terrible crimes. Were the Nuremberg principles to apply here, then a noose rightly awaits Pinochet's neck. Nazi war criminals like Klaus Barbie, Paul Tovier and Maurice Papon in France were old men when they were put on trial and sentenced to prison. Josef Schwammberger was convicted in May 1992 at age 80 for atrocities committed during WWII. Schwammberger appeared to be suffering from dementia, Parkinson's or both, and while he did not deny the charges against him, he claimed to not have any recollection of the war.


While we're at it, at least a couple of Americans should be brought to the dock as well: Henry Kissinger and George Bush the Elder.


US Files on Chile Declassified


Over the past two years, the Clinton Administration had released thousands of previously classified documents relating to US policy towards Chile; particularly the role various agencies played in fomenting the coup that ousted Allende, US awareness of the extent of human rights abuses under the Pinochet regime, and US intelligence ties to Pinochet's secret service (DINA/CNI). The release of the documents was prompted by the request of Spanish prosecutors of Pinochet and by some members of Congress.


Also important is a 21-page CIA report to the Congress regarding its covert activities in Chile during the 1970s, released on September 18, 2000. ("CIA Activities in Chile," henceforth the Hinchey Report)


While Pinochet's crimes are many, the focus here is on the terrorist assassinations of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier and his American assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, on Embassy Row in Washington, DC, in 1976. While the heavily redacted documents confirm many things critics of US policy towards Chile already knew, the more recent cache released on November 13, 2000 includes new material about the assassination.


What is particularly relevant to an American audience about this case is the role George Bush Sr., father of our judicially installed president, played in the affair. Bush was head of the CIA at the time of the Letelier-Moffitt murders, and there's plenty of evidence that the CIA attempted to cover up the fact that the orders for the hit came from the highest echelon of the Chilean junta, i.e. Pinochet himself. Recently declassified evidence shows that the CIA and other US agencies were aware that suspicious DINA agents were operating on US soil, had advanced notice that Letelier was a likely target and did nothing to warn him or to thwart the assassination.


As for Henry Kissinger . . . East Timor, Indonesia, Indochina, Angola, Chile, Israel-Palestine, the Kurds in Iran and Iraq . . .it just goes without saying that Hank has many skeletons in the closet and should be brought to justice.


Murder on Embassy Row


On the morning of September 21, 1976, Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean foreign minister and the Allende government's ambassador to the US, seated himself in his blue Chevrolet Chevelle and embarked on the routine journey from his home in Bethseda, Maryland to the office of the Institute for Policy Studies in DC, where he was then directing its Transnational Institute. Letelier was accompanied by his friends and IPS associates, Ronnie Moffitt, 25, and her husband Michael Moffitt. Ronnie and Michael had just married four months earlier. As Letelier's car entered Sheridan Circle, less than a mile from the White House, a hit team following them in another vehicle detonated a remote-controlled bomb placed underneath Letelier's car. The bottom half of Letelier's body was blown off in the explosion. He died prior to his arrival at nearby George Washington Hospital. Ronnie Moffitt died at the hospital within an hour of the blast. Michael Moffitt survived. The incident was the most heinous act of terrorism to hit DC in the modern period.


Convicted for the assassination in US trials spanning 1978-1990 were DINA agent Michael Vernon Townley, born in the US, Chilean Army Captain Armando Fernandez, and two anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Townley built the bomb that killed Letelier and Moffitt, while the Cubans he enlisted detonated it. The Cubans had prior histories of terrorist activities, often under the employ of the CIA. [7] Townley had plea-bargained for a reduced sentence and protection from prosecution for other crimes he was involved in abroad. He served five years of his ten-year sentence, and was released into the US witness protection program with a new identity. Townley now resides somewhere in the US.


In 1993, Chilean courts, using the evidence obtained by US prosecutors, convicted the former head of DINA, Manuel Contreras, and DINA's operations director, Pedro Espinoza, for masterminding the assassination plot. They are currently imprisoned in a Chilean country club jail for military personnel convicted for human rights abuses during the Pinochet era.


The US trials were intentionally designed to avoid implication of Pinochet in the assassination. Key evidence regarding Townley's relevant exploits in other DINA terror operations were excluded from the start, per an agreement between US prosecutors and the Chilean government to secure his extradition from Chile. A transparently silly facade was erected to portray Contreras as a rogue head of the DINA, acting without Pinochet's knowledge or approval. [8]


Flight of the Condor


The assassination of Letelier was one part of a larger international terror operation known as Operation Condor. Condor, named after the large Andean bird of prey, was a cross-border operation involving the intelligence services of Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. The aim of Operation Condor was to track down, monitor, detain and eliminate political dissidents (mostly leftists) of member countries.


The principal architects of Condor were General Pinochet and Colonel Manuel Contreras. The program was formally inaugurated in October 1975, when Contreras convened a meeting in Santiago, Chile of the leading heads of the military intelligence services of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. An accord was crafted formalizing the already existing coordination efforts of member countries. [9]


This transnational terrorist operation, steeped in pathological anti-communism, had deeper roots dating back to the end of World War II. In 1962, the Kennedy Administration made the fateful decision to shift the mission of the Latin American militaries from defense against external threats to internal security. One result was the institutionalization and professionalization of the death squad apparatus that took root in Latin America. Kennedy was an enthusiast of counterinsurgency methods of the most violent sort to deal with radical and/or nationalist movements that posed a threat to US imperial interests in the region. [10] It was in places like the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), then located in Panama, and other military bases in the US where links between Latin American military commanders and dictators were forged.


In 1968, the head of the US Southern Command, General Robert W. Porter stated:


In order to facilitate the coordinated employment of internal security forces within and among Latin American countries, we are . . . endeavoring to foster interservice and regional cooperation by assisting in the organization of integrated command and control centers; the establishment of common operating procedures; and the conduct of joint and combined training exercises. [11]


By the early-1970s, the seeds planted by the CIA and US military intelligence in this effort were beginning to bear fruit. It had long been the goal of the US that there be coordinated efforts by the countries in the region to combat "communist subversion," broadly construed. Condor was the logical child of this US endeavor.


As Argentine journalist Stella Calloni observed, this counterinsurgency campaign went far beyond combating guerrillas. It was a "holy war against the left, which . . . included anyone challenging the status quo, armed or not. Thus, nuns, professors, students, workers, artists and performers, journalists, even democratic opposition politicians" came to be viewed as threats to the body politic.


The program, which continued into the early 1990s, claimed many lives. As military dictatorships spread across Latin America in the '60s and '70s, there was no place for dissidents in Latin America to find a safe haven from murderous repression, as "longstanding traditions of sanctuary for political exiles fell by the wayside." Latin America became the site of "frantic cross-flows of refugees." In February 1990, the Argentine Commission of Human Rights estimated that 50,000 people were killed, 30,000 disappeared, and hundreds-of-thousands imprisoned as a result of the repression in the Southern Cone. They also estimate that the repression generated some four million refugees, most of whom sought refuge in neighboring countries. [12]


US/UK commentators waste much time focusing on the question of when the US became aware of Condor and how it reacted, ignoring the deeper roots outlined above. When the US became aware of this specific international terror operation is beside the point. Of course the US knew of Condor from the start, just as it knew about Condor's predecessors given that it had for decades been directly involved in shaping the missions of the region's military and intelligence agencies.


CIA Helps Create Modern-Day Gestapo


Pinochet had delegated to Contreras the task of centralizing Chile's intelligence agencies. Thus was born the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), later called the National Information Commission (CNI), in November 1973. While Contreras was the head of DINA (until 1977), Pinochet had full knowledge of and exercised full control over DINA/CNI operations.


According to a recently declassified CIA Regional and Political Analysis, May 1977, Contreras was a "close confidant of Pinochet: Contreras answers directly to the President, and it is unlikely that he would act without the knowledge and approval of his superior."


A senior DINA official informed the US military attache in Santiago that Pinochet was briefed every morning at 7:30 am on "the coming events and status of existing DINA activities." A US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report of July 10, 1975 states that this source told them "the President issues instructions to DINA; is aware of its activities; and in fact heads it." According to another DIA report, April 15, 1975, since Pinochet issued the decree setting up the DINA "as the national intelligence arm of the government, Colonel Contreras has reported exclusively to, and received orders only from, President Pinochet." [13]


The CIA played a crucial role in the formation of the DINA. The CIA station chief in Chile at the time was Ray Warren. According to Saul Landau and John Dinges, Warren had worked with Contreras prior to the 1973 coup. When Warren learned that Contreras was chosen to organize DINA, he "promised CIA help in supervising the planning and organization of the new intelligence structure and in training its principal officers." In just six months, Contreras built DINA into a state within a state. A former DINA agent said, "I thought [Contreras] was some kind of genius to have built up such a large, complicated apparatus in such a short time - then I found out how much help he got from the CIA in organizing it." [14]


A key revelation of the Hinchey Report is the admission that Contreras was a CIA asset from 1974 to 1977, and that the Agency on one occasion (1975) paid Contreras an undisclosed sum of cash for his services. "The US Government policy community approved CIA's contact with Contreras given his position as chief of the [DINA]," despite the fact the Agency had reported "that Contreras was the principal obstacle to a reasonable human rights policy within the Junta. . . ."


Contreras had traveled to the US to meet with CIA Deputy Director General Vernon Walters in August 1975, and their relationship was generally very warm.


DINA's horrifying human rights record was certainly known to the US. A DIA report of February 2, 1974 states:


[A] major problem of the DINA is its system of interrogation. Sources said their techniques are straight out of the Spanish Inquisition and often leave the person interrogated with visible bodily damage.


An April 10, 1975 DIA report observes:


The apprehension of many senior Chilean military authorities regarding the possibility of DINA becoming a modern-day Gestapo may very well be coming to fruition. . . . Junta members are apparently unable to influence President Pinochet's decisions concerning DINA activities in any way. [15]


Condor Rising


Public suspicions of a coordinated terror operation directed against the Left arose in 1976 because of numerous lurid reports of human rights abuses in the Southern Cone, coupled with three high-profile assassination attempts, two of them successful, of prominent Chilean exiles.


On September 30, 1974, General Carlos Prats, former Chilean Defense Minister under Allende, and his wife were murdered by a car bomb in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentine authorities refused to investigate the case. It "was the first major foreign assignment for the DINA and Contreras," approved by Pinochet. [16] Michael Townley was Prats' assassin.


In October of 1975, Bernardo Leighton, Allende's vice president and leader of the Chilean Christian Democrats, survived an assassination attempt in Rome. Investigations by Italian authorities linked the failed murder attempt to an international network involving Southern Cone security agencies linked to Italian neofascists. [17] Townley was also a key figure in the case.


The third and most spectacular hit was of Letelier-Moffitt, right in the heart of the United States. [18]


According to the Hinchey Report,


Within a year after the [1973] coup, the CIA and other US Government agencies were aware of bilateral cooperation among regional intelligence services to track the activities of and, in at least a few cases, kill political opponents. This was the precursor to Operation Condor . . . established in 1975.


Target Letelier


While in exile, Letelier was a leading figure in the growing international anti-junta movement that was proving to be a great nuisance to Pinochet. Letelier's efforts were instrumental in getting the UN Commission on Human Rights to condemn Chile. More significantly, Letelier was threatening the Pinochet regime's lifeline to Washington. Key US Senators like Edward Kennedy, Tom Harkin and Frank Church were giving Letelier's call for a complete cutoff of US military aid to Chile a sympathetic hearing. Congressional criticism of Pinochet's abysmal human rights record was mounting, though Ford Administration policy circles, spearheaded by Secretary of State Kissinger, remained dedicated to backing their man. Three months before Letelier's assassination, Kissinger and Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs William Rogers traveled to the Chilean capitol to attend a gathering of the Organization of American States (OAS). They used the opportunity to meet privately with Pinochet.


During this confidential meeting on June 8, the minutes of which were recently declassified, Pinochet complained about the efforts of human rights groups in the US to obtain a cutoff of US military support for Chile. Pinochet twice singled out Orlando Letelier.


Hank to Pino: How We Love Thee


Kissinger told Pinochet: "In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here. I think that the previous government was headed toward Communism. We wish your government well."


Kissinger characterized American human rights campaigns against the junta as "domestic problems," assuring Pinochet that he and Ford were opposed to sanctions such as the amendment proposed by Senator Kennedy to ban arms to governments that engage in gross violations of human rights.


The problem for Kissinger was that he was trying to maintain a cool public distance from Pinochet. An OAS report to the Santiago meeting was critical of Chile's ongoing record of mass arrests, torture and disappearances. Kissinger was scheduled to address the meeting where the issue of human rights couldn't be ignored.


Kissinger informed Pinochet of the speech he was to deliver and how it should be understood:


I will treat human rights in general terms and human rights in a world context . . . I will say that the human rights issue has impaired relations between the US and Chile. This is partly the result of Congressional actions. I will add that I hope you will shortly remove those obstacles.


I will also call attention to the Cuba report [on the human rights situation there] and to the hypocrisy of some who call attention to human rights as a means of intervening in governments.


Kissinger emphasized to Pinochet that his comments were intended to blunt greater damage to Chile from the American human rights community. "I can do no less without producing a reaction in the US which would lead to legislative restrictions. The speech is not aimed at Chile."


Kissinger then told Pinochet:


My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world, and your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government which was going Communist. But we have a practical problem we have to take into account, without bringing about pressures incompatible with your dignity, and at the same time which does not lead to US laws which will undermine our relationship.


Kissinger concluded his visit by praising the dictator for actually improving the human rights situation in Chile: "We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende. Otherwise Chile would have followed Cuba. Then there would have been no human rights." [19]


CIA Warned Suspicious DINA Agents Coming to US


On July 26, 1976, the US Ambassador to Paraguay, George Landau, received a request from an aid to Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner that visas be issued to two Chilean DINA agents who were to travel to the United States on false Paraguayan passports. The names on the passports were Alejandro Romeral and Juan Williams, aliases for Captain Armando Fernandez and Michael Townley respectively. Landau was told that these agents were on an intelligence mission to the US to investigate Chilean businesses alleged to be fronts for exiled opponents of the Pinochet regime. The Paraguayan official, Colonel Pappalardo, informed Landau that the agents were scheduled to meet with CIA Deputy Director General Vernon Walters. A recently declassified State Department cable from September 1976 confirms that Pinochet had phoned Stroessner with the "urgent favor" that two DINA agents be issued Paraguayan passports. [20]


Landau issued the visas, but thought the request was highly unusual; standard protocol would be that such a request goes to the CIA station in the host country (Paraguay), to be cleared by CIA hq in Langley, Virginia. Landau took the precaution of photocopying the two passports and forwarded them to the CIA and State Department. He shot off a long and urgent cable on July 28 to Walters, via the State Department, about this incident. Walters was on vacation and in the process of retiring from the CIA when Landau's cable arrived at Langley. Per protocol, CIA Director George Bush Sr. would be the person to receive the cable, which was acknowledged a couple days later. The cable also reached the desk of Henry Kissinger.


Despite the urgency of this suspicious matter, Deputy Assistant Walters did not respond to Landau after a week of discussions with Bush. On August 4, Walters cabled Landau in Paraguay, telling him the Paraguayan request for the visas was "highly irregular," and a "strange way of doing business." Walters also said he was "not aware" of any appointment with DINA agents or any DINA mission, and that CIA did not desire to have any contact with the Chileans.


Upon receiving the cable, Landau immediately canceled the visas, told the INS to post lookouts for the two Chileans to prevent their entry into the US, and told Pappalardo to get the Chileans to hand over the passports to the US Embassy in Paraguay so they could be physically cancelled. [21] Obviously Landau's actions suggested urgent concern, however he has refused to discuss the matter beyond the testimony he provided in the official court case.


Despite Landau's actions, two DINA agents using Chilean passports with the names Romeral and Williams obtained US A-2 visas (certifying that the holder was on official government business) from the US Consulate in Santiago, and entered the US without difficulty on August 22. Authorities at Miami International Airport detected their arrival and duly informed the State Department.


The DINA agents then alerted the CIA to their presence in the US by having the Chilean embassy contact General Walters' office at Langley to request a meeting. The meeting never happened.


These two agents were not the assassins Townley and Fernandez, but their mission was probably a cover to "test the water to see if the CIA would act to prevent or control a covert operation in Washington. After informing the CIA of the agents' presence and seeing that nothing happened," DINA chief Contreras gave the green light for the actual hit. On September 9, Townley entered the US using an official Chilean passport with a diplomatic visa.


A plausible explanation for the two Romeral-Williams missions was that Contreras was engaging in a form of "greymail." As Dinges and Landau explain, "Contreras attempted by the [first] mission in Paraguay to implicate the CIA in the operation to kill Letelier without necessarily telling the CIA the real purpose of the mission to Washington. He believed that having had suspicion cast upon it of collaboration in the mission, the CIA would make sure that any subsequent investigation would go nowhere." "Greymail" had been used successfully by some "persons with CIA connections accused of crimes to discourage prosecution by warning that the crime itself was committed as part of a CIA operation or that the prosecution of the crime would bring CIA secrets to light." [22]


In any event, two suspicious DINA agents were in the US capitol with CIA and State Department knowledge.


That the State Department and the CIA were aware of the potential for an assassination in the US is clear. An August 16, 1976 State Department cable to various American embassies in the Southern Cone stated: "You are aware of a series of reports on 'Operation Condor.' The coordination of security and intelligence information is probably understandable. However, government planned and directed assassinations within and outside the territory of Condor members has most serious implications which we must face squarely and rapidly." The reports cited by the cable were from CIA.


The cable instructed embassy personal to meet with "appropriate officials" of Condor member states and explain that while the US considered intelligence cooperation "with regard to subversive activities" to be "useful," concern should be expressed about "rumors" of "plans for the assassinations of subversives - politicians and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad." Ambassadors were told to say: "While we cannot substantiate the assassination rumors, we feel impelled to bring to your attention our deep concern. If these rumors were to have any shred of truth, they would create a most serious moral and political problem." [23]


State Department documents also reveal that in August 1976, US Ambassador to Chile David Popper refused a State Department request that the issue of international assassinations under Operation Condor be raised with Pinochet. Popper responded by expressing his fear that Pinochet "might well take as an insult any inference that he was connected with such an assassination plot." [24]


One month later, the assassination of Letelier and Moffitt came to pass. The State Department under Kissinger and the CIA had ample reason to suspect Letelier was a potential Condor target, yet did nothing to warn him or to prevent the murder. As former Newsweek journalist Robert Parry observed, "The CIA has never explained what action it took, if any, after receiving Landau's warning. A natural follow-up would have been to contact DINA and ask what was afoot or whether a message about the [DINA agent's mission] had been misdirected. The [Hinchey] report made no mention of these aspects of the case." [25]


Orders Came Straight From the Top


As alluded to earlier, the Hinchey Report revealed that the CIA's relationship with Contreras continued a full year after the Letelier-Moffitt assassination, despite the fact the Agency was aware he was a possible suspect.


By October 1976 there was sufficient information that the CIA decided to approach Contreras on the matter. . . . CIA's first intelligence report containing [the allegation the Chilean government ordered the murder] was dated October 6, 1976. During October 1976, the Department of Justice and the CIA worked out how the CIA would support the foreign intelligence (FI) aspect of the legal investigation. At the time, Contreras' possible role in the Letelier assassination became an issue.


The report also discloses that in the time between the assassination of Letelier and Contreras' resignation from the army in 1978, "CIA gathered specific, detailed intelligence reporting concerning Contreras' involvement in ordering the Letelier assassination," though it does not elaborate exactly when such information was obtained. "While some of the material has been released, some remains classified and another portion has been withheld at the request of the Department of Justice, which continues to pursue the investigation."


As for Pinochet's role, a recently declassified CIA analysis of May 1978, "Chile: Implications of the Letelier Case," concludes that:


Clouding the outlook for Pinochet is the possibility that former intelligence chief General Manuel Contreras will be linked directly to the crime. Public disclosure of Contreras' guilt - either through his own admission or court testimony - would be almost certain to implicate Pinochet and irreparably damage his credibility within the military. None of our government's critics and few of its supporters would be willing to swallow claims that Contreras acted without presidential concurrence. [26]


In a recent petition to a Chilean court for early parole, Contreras declared:


I always complied with and conformed to the orders that the president of the Republic gave me. Only he as superior authority of the DINA had the power to order the missions that were executed and always in my capacity as delegate of the President, I carried out strictly what was ordered. [27]


Bush/CIA Cover-Up


After the assassination, Bush publicly declared that the CIA would cooperate fully with federal investigators to help bring the perpetrators to justice. In fact he did the opposite.


To recount, the CIA had the following evidence:


1) The cable, handled by Bush, from Ambassador Landau to Vernon Walters regarding the Paraguayan passport incident, along with copies of the passports of agents Romeral and Williams.


2) That Bush and Walters conferred about what action to take for a week.


3) That the CIA received a call in late August 1976, establishing the presence of agents Romeral and Williams in Washington DC.


4) That the Agency issued reports about the existence of Operation Condor and its campaign of eliminating junta opponents abroad in the months prior to the Letelier assassination.


5) Suspicions that Contreras was behind the assassination.


6) That Contreras was a CIA asset.


7) That the right-wing Cubans involved in the murder had histories of terrorist activities and connections with the CIA.


8) That the CIA was fully aware of how DINA was structured and operated (having helped create it) and that it was unlikely that Contreras acted without the approval and knowledge of Pinochet.


Instead of passing this information on to investigators, Bush and the CIA advocated a ridiculous theory hatched by the Chilean government, which claimed that Letelier's assassination was not the work of the obvious culprit, namely the Chilean government, but was instead the work of Chilean leftist extremists seeking to make a martyr out of Letelier, thus heaping discredit upon the junta. Indeed the martyr theory spin was duly picked up by the US media and reported widely. [28]


The New York Times on October 12, 1976 reported:


[Ford Administration] intelligence officials said it appeared the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency had virtually ruled out the idea that Mr. Letelier was killed by agents of the Chilean military junta. . . . [They] said they understood DINA was firmly under the control of the government of General Augusto Pinochet and that killing Mr. Letelier could not have served the junta's purposes.


The Washington Post on November 1, 1976 carried a report leaked personally from Bush:


CIA officials say...they believe that operatives of the present Chilean military junta did not take part in Letelier's killing. According to informed sources, CIA Director Bush expressed this view in a conversation last week with Secretary of State Kissinger, the sources said. What evidence the CIA has obtained to support this initial conclusion was not disclosed.


The CIA also leaked an analysis to Newsweek , that asserted


The Chilean secret police were not involved [in the assassination]. The agency reached its decision because the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts and because the murder, coming while Chilean rulers were wooing US support, could only damage the Santiago regime. (October 11, 1976).


Meanwhile, on September 28, 1976, a week after the assassination, Special FBI Agent Robert Scherrer sent the following cable to FBI headquarters from Buenos Aires:


Subject: Operation Condor, possible relation to Letelier assassination.


Operation Condor is the code name for the collection, exchange and storage of intelligence concerning leftists, communists and Marxists which was recently established between the cooperating services in South America in order to eliminate Marxist terrorists and their activities in the area. . . . Chile is the center of Operation Condor. . . . A third and more secret phase of Operation Condor involves the formation of special teams from member countries to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions, [including] assassination, against terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations from Operation Condor member countries. For example, should a terrorist or a supporter of a terrorist organization from a member country be located in a European country, a special team from Operation Condor would be dispatched to locate and survey the target. When the location and surveillance operation has terminated, a second team from Operation Condor would be dispatched to carry out the actual sanction against the target. Special teams would be issued false documentation from member countries of Operation Condor. [29]


Scherrer concluded that the Letelier hit "may have been carried out as a third phase of Operation Condor." Scherrer would become instrumental in the FBI's breaking of the case two years later. According to the New York Times, just before his death from multiple sclerosis in 1995, Scherrer "recorded a statement saying he personally believed Pinochet authorized the killings." [30]


What Was Bush and Kissinger's Role?


Neither Bush the Elder nor Kissinger has been called upon to answer questions about their role in the Letelier affair. An extremely charitable assessment is that Bush and the CIA exercised extreme incompetence by allowing a murder to take place under their nose when they had ample warning a hit was likely to occur.


I and many others consider this to be highly implausible. The evidence clearly suggests that Bush and Kissinger are, in legal parlance, accessories after the fact. That is they knew that DINA was involved in the assassination, yet tried to thwart investigators from reaching this conclusion by withholding key evidence in their possession, while sending them off on a wild goose chase for phantom leftist extremists. US relations with a rabid anticommunist like Pinochet was crucial to the folks of the National Security apparatus, and any implication that the junta masterminded the hit could bring its unwelcome downfall.


Many key documents remain withheld, and the reality is probably far more ugly than what is now known. A more sinister assessment is that Bush and/or Kissinger sanctioned DINA's hit on Letelier in Washington DC. While not implausible, given what is known, the available evidence does not confirm this. Sarah Anderson and Saul Landau observe: "Given the working relationship between Chile's secret police and the CIA, Bush may have assumed that Pinochet wouldn't embarrass the American with a high-profile assassination a mile from the White House." Nevertheless, once the hit took place the CIA worked to cover it up.


Manuel Contreras tried to blackmail both Chilean and US officials into participating in a cover-up of the assassination. A CIA report of June 23, 1978 states that Contreras admitted his culpability, but "threatened to claim that he was acting on orders from Pinochet in the event he were prosecuted." "Contreras claimed that he had safely secreted documentation to support his claim. The blackmail threat worked. . . thus the cover-up began. Pinochet, acting through a legal advisor. . . has manipulated the Supreme Court judges and now is satisfied that the court will reject the extradition of any Chileans indicted."


An interesting State Department cable of February 10, 1989 reports:


In what appears to have been an attempt by Contreras to send a message to the USG [deleted] in four apparently separate contacts. . . Contreras and the 'gringos' arrived at an 'understanding' whereby neither side would reveal information damaging to Contreras, President Pinochet, then U.S. Presidential candidate Bush, and then U.S. Ambassador Barnes. In the context of damaging information was included the Letelier case [deleted]. [31]


It's hardly surprising that while Pinochet was under house arrest in London, among the most vocal figures calling for his release were Kissinger and Bush. "I would be very happy if Pinochet was allowed home," said Kissinger. "This episode has gone on long enough and all my sympathies are with him."


In a letter to British Chancellor Lord Lamont, Bush called the accusations against Pinochet "a travesty of justice," and declared that Pinochet should be returned to Chile "as soon as possible." It's fair to assume the two are afraid that if Pinochet were made to stand trial some unsavory beans are likely to be spilled. [32]


The Limits of the Liberal Bleeding-Heart


I would be remiss in failing to note how the liberal Carter Administration ("Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy") dealt with Pinochet's government in the aftermath of the assassination. The harsh reality of Carter's non-existent pro-human rights policy has been covered in depth elsewhere. [33] While it's fine for US client states to torture and murder its people within their borders, it's a bit much when they do it right inside the Master's quarters. Some displeasure has to be expressed, a little punishment meted out.


On November 30, the Carter administration trumpeted a number of "sanctions" against Chile for its actions in the Letelier case. However, Chile wasn't being punished because it failed to extradite the indicted Chileans to the US, but because the indicted were "officials of that government" and that for nearly two years, the regime "made no serious effort to investigate or prosecute these crimes on its own." Carter called the assassination an "egregious act of terrorism," while blasting the junta for condoning the act. The statement, however, stopped short of assigning responsibility for the murder to the regime despite all evidence.


The condemnation was merely PR. As noted earlier, the agreement between the US and Chile to extradite Townley was crafted so as not to implicate the junta. The political context of the assassination and other DINA operations were off-limits. As US Attorney Eugene Propper, the lead prosecutor in the case, stated in 1978: "People who are attributing political motivations to the indictment are wrong. There's nothing political about this. It's a straight murder case, a case of blowing someone's legs off."


As for DINA chief Manuel Contreras, the US merely petitioned that he be extradited to the Chilean courts. The notion that Contreras would be subjected to a serious trial in a court system that had never ruled against the military regime, and whose alleged independence was internationally condemned as fictional, was absurd in the extreme. Meanwhile, the Carter Administration bought into the farce that the DINA assassins and Contreras were somehow separate from the regime.


The Carter sanctions included suspension of US Export-Import Bank financing for US companies doing business with or in Chile, termination of the foreign military sales "pipeline," and an order that the US Mission to Chile be reduced. Reporting from Santiago, the Washington Post said the sanctions amounted to "little more than a slap on the wrist" that "bolstered rather than weakened" the junta.


As Landau and Dinges point out, "Three months after the reprisals were announced not one embassy official had been withdrawn, and Chilean officials were congratulating themselves on having faced down the United States 'bluff'."


Relations were back to cordial from 1980 on, as US politicians and commentators lauded the Chilean "economic miracle."


While large-scale arrests, disappearances and murders declined around this time, torture was still rampant, and new DINA/CNI decrees issued by Pinochet to violently crackdown on growing labor militancy met with silence from the US Ambassador to Chile, George Landau (previously Ambassador to Paraguay). [34]


According to a Latin America Regional Reports Southern Cone study, "there is little evidence that the [Carter] sanctions ever had much bite anyway." Regarding the Ex-Im Bank sanctions, "two weeks after Carter had made his announcement, the U.S. Embassy in Santiago published its annual report on the Chilean economy, which specifically sought to encourage US investment." US exports to Chile rose by two-thirds during the Ex-Im ban, an improvement that a US Embassy report called a "medium-run target." Meanwhile, US banks lent over $1 billion to Chilean institutions, and large US firms undertook huge investment programs. [35]


Bring Them to Justice


People in the US should demand that the new Bush Administration and the Department of Justice release all the files on the Letelier case, as well as other files pertaining to the chicanery of various US agencies in Chile during the run-up to the coup and the Pinochet era. FULL disclosure, not half-assed and mostly blacked-out documents. Demand that the US fully cooperate with international judicial efforts to bring Pinochet and his cohorts to justice, even if this implicates US leaders. Lobby the UN to make available the 600,000 files on Pinochet and Operation Condor it collected from Paraguay where they were unearthed in 1992.


Finally, extradite Pinochet to the US to stand trial for his role in the murder of Letelier and Moffitt, and bring Henry Kissinger and George Bush Sr. to the dock!


Condor's Legacy


In a larger context, decades of American efforts to create a regional network to combat "subversion" (read: challenges to US economic exploitation of Latin America), culminated in Operation Condor. Condor, therefore, was no aberration, but a consequence of long standing US imperial policies that played a significant role in terrorizing and pacifying the population, thus paving the way for the current situation in which the vast majority of people in Latin America slide further into an abyss of staggering misery and poverty, while sectors of power and privilege in the US make bank.


It is exactly under such circumstances that new radical movements challenging American domination are born, and these are exactly the type of movements Condor was designed to annihilate. The legacy of Operation Condor is hardly a past chapter, as US complicity in the human rights catastrophe in Colombia today escalates with each dramatic infusion of US military aid, coordination and direct involvement. It was awful in Clinton time and it certainly won't improve under Bush II's tenure without a serious fight.


One way to halt these grisly proceedings is to send the message that there can be no impunity for those leaders who participate in institutionalized murder both past and certainly present. Given American power, it is especially incumbent upon people in the US to vociferously hold their leaders accountable for such crimes against humanity because it's not going to happen from outside. As Tito Tricot, Chilean sociologist and a torture victim of Pinochet's regime, sums it:


“You either have justice or you don't, anything else is just a euphemism for immunity and impunity. The government and the military want to find a way out of the human rights issue, they want to put an end to this problem. But this is not a problem for the thousands of victims of the repression, it is simply the desire for justice to be done; it is not a problem, but a moral obligation.”



Sunil Sharma is the editor of Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: editor@dissidentvoice.org.  Research assistance from Lauren Mills.





1) Hugh O'Shaughnessy, "Secret UK Deal Freed Pinochet," The Observer (UK), January 7, 2001.


2) Ernest Saunders is the ex-head of Guinness, convicted in the late-'80s for stock fraud in the UK. He was released from prison on compassionate grounds after a respected physician diagnosed him as having Alzheimer's Disease. After his release, Saunders made a "miraculous" and medically unprecedented recovery from the disease.


3) The Observer, March 9, 2000.


4) "Chile Prepares to Take Up Pinochet Cases," The Times (London), March 9, 2000.


5) "Pinochet's Mind is Healthy, Say Chilean Doctors," The Independent (UK), May 10, 2000.


6) "La Acusacion Culpa a Pinochet de Intentar Dilatar el Proceso," El Pais, September 1, 2000; "Pinochet Emerges from Seclusion," BBC, August 24, 2000; "Chile's Pinochet Appears in Public," Associated Press, August 24, 2000.


7) For detailed background on the participants, see Dinges, John and Saul Landau. Assassination on Embassy Row (McGraw-Hill, 1980), and Branch, Taylor and Eugene M. Propper, Labyrinth (Viking, 1982).


8) Dinges and Landau, Chapter 12.


9) O'Shaughnessy, Hugh. Pinochet: The Politics of Torture (New York University Press, 2000), pp103-106. Stella Calloni, "The Horror Archives of Operation Condor," Covert Action Quarterly, Fall 1994.


10) McClintock, Michael. Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counter-terrorism, 1940-1990 (Pantheon, 1992).


11) Black, Jan K. United States Penetration of Brazil (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1977), p.211.


12) Calloni, op. cit.


13) Peter Kornbluh, "Chile Declassified," The Nation, August 9/16, 1999.


14) Dinges, John and Saul Landau, pp.126-127.


15) Cited in Lucy Komisar, "Documented Complicity," The Progressive, September 1999.


16) O' Shaughnessy, Pinochet, pp.87-88.


17) Branch and Propper, Labyrinth, pp.305-327. Propper was the lead prosecuting attorney in the Letelier case. For more details about links between Italian neofascists and the Latin American military and intelligence agencies, see Linklater, Magnus, Isabel Hilton, and Neal Ascherson. The Nazi Legacy (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984). On Italy, see Arthur E. Rowse, "Gladio: The Secret U.S. War to Subvert Italian Democracy," Covert Action Quarterly, Summer 1994.


18) O'Shaughnessy, Pinochet, pp.85-106.


19) Minutes quoted in Lucy Komisar, "Kissinger Covered Up Chile Torture," The Sunday Observer (UK), February 28, 1999, and Peter Kornbluh, "Kissinger and Pinochet," The Nation, March 29, 1999. Also, Sarah Anderson and Saul Landau, "What's Behind the Bush-Pinochet Friendship?", Miami Herald, June 1, 1999.


20) Christopher Marquis and Diana Jean Schema, "Documents Shed Light on Assassination of Chilean in US," New York Times, November 14, 2000. Vernon Loeb, "Documents Link Chile's Pinochet to Letelier Murder," Washington Post, November 14, 2000.


21) Dinges and Landau, Chapter 11 and Epilogue. Robert Parry, "Clouds Over George Bush," The Consortium, December 29, 1998, www.consortiumnews.com. 


22) Dinges and Landau, Chapter 11 and Epilogue.


23) Komisar, "Documented Complicity," and Kornbluh, "Chile Declassified," op cit.


24) Vernon Loeb, "Documents Link Chile's Pinochet to Letelier Murder," Washington Post, November 14, 2000.


25) Robert Parry, George H.W. Bush, the CIA, and a Case of State Terrorism," The Consortium, September 23, 2000.


26) A copy can be viewed on the website of the DC-based National Security Archive: www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive 


27) El Pais, February 24, 1998.


28) See Note 25. Dinges and Landau, pp.243-244. Branch and Propper, pp.72-75.


29) Dinges and Landau, pp.238-239.


30) New York Times, "US Tried to Assist Pinochet Regime to Trace Eventual Victim," February 10 1999.


31) Pinochet Watch #30, Institute for Policy Studies, December 2, 2000.


32) Kissinger cited in IF Magazine, May 1999. James Landale, "Bush Backs Pinochet Freedom Campaign," The Times (London), April 12, 1999.


33) On Carter policies toward Indonesia and East Timor, see Taylor, John G. East Timor: The Price of Freedom (Zed Books, 1999), pp. 169 and 175; Chomsky, Noam. Towards A New Cold War (Pantheon, 1982), Chapter 13. On El Salvador, McClintock, Michael. The American Connection Volume 1: State Terror and Popular Resistance in El Salvador (Zed Books, 1985), Chapter 15. On Latin America, see note 10; Petras, James F. Latin America: Bankers, Generals, and the Struggle for Social Justice (Rowman & Littlefield, 1986), Chapter 7.


34) Dinges and Landau, pp. 381-382 and 391-392.


35) Cited in Chomsky, op cit. pp.7-8.




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