Chile Declassified: Newly Released Documents Reveal Close US Ties to the Pinochet Regime

16 August 1999
Peter Kornbluh

While recently declassified documents are conspicuously lacking in information about the US role in helping Pinochet take and consolidate power, they are rich in detail about the inner workings of his bloody regime.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

On September 28, 1973, seventeen days after the bloody coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power, two Chilean military officers approached the US Embassy with a request: The new regime required advisor assistance from a person qualified in establishing a detention center for detainees which they anticipate will be retained over a relatively long period of time.

In a secret cable to Washington, Ambassador Nathaniel Davis noted that detailing a US adviser to assist the protracted imprisonment of civilians - more than 13,500 people had been detained for the crime of supporting the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende - provides obvious political problems. However, he recommended, the State Department might consider feasibility of material assistance in form of tents, blankets, etc. which need not be publicly and specifically earmarked for prisoners.

This cable was among some 5,800 US documents, many of them recording Washington's casual attitude toward the repression after the coup, declassified by the Clinton Administration on June 30 in response to pressure from Congress, Pinochet's victims and human rights groups. Totaling over 20,000 pages, the release, Human Rights in Chile-Tranche One, is the first of several on the long-hidden history of the United States and Chile.

The documents, the work of the special CHILE DECLASSIFICATION PROJECT, constitute the first US government policy statement - however indirect - on Pinochet's fate. Detained last October in London, the 83-year-old former dictator remains under house arrest pending hearings on extradition to Spain. Pressed to abandon its neutral posture on Pinochet's prosecution for crimes against humanity, the Administration has decided, says one White House aide, to declassify what we can so that we can say we did our share [see Kornbluh, Prisoner Pinochet, December 21, 1998].

Pinochet, God and DINA

In an unusual move, the Administration released the documents simultaneously in Washington and Santiago. While the documents are conspicuously lacking in information about the US role in helping Pinochet take and consolidate power, they are rich in detail about the inner workings of his bloody regime. Chileans, long misled by Pinochet's propaganda, will learn the secret history of their own country between 1973 and 1978. Their more immediate value, however, will be to empower Chile's human rights movement and provide concrete evidence for legal proceedings that are beginning to be brought in Santiago against former officials in the Pinochet regime.

The declassified State Department, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency reports name names, places and events. One CIA analysis, titled Covert Countersubversive Activities in Chile, reveals for example that the bombing of two houses in Santiago during the first week of November 1977 was the work of Chile's Army, Navy and Air Force intelligence services, not of the left, as the regime claimed at the time. The use of bombs, the DIA source explained, was a conscious decision by the service intelligence chiefs that the best way to deal with the safe house problem is by blowing them up, if possible, with the terrorists present. Arrests and prosecutions would 'take months'; an explosion would produce speedy results.

Another intelligence report, dated November 20, 1975, describes a meeting between the heads of the Chilean military intelligence services - all named - to address illegal detentions by the Air Force, Navy and military police. At the time, according to the CIA, Pinochet had issued a secret decree ordering that only the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA) was supposed to engage in detaining and interrogating political prisoners. DINA was responsible for many of the kidnappings, torture and disappearances inside Chile, as well as acts of international terrorism in Argentina, Italy and the United States. The US documents, which include a comprehensive organizational diagram, reveal the structure, operations and abuses of DINA in more detail than was previously known. More important, CIA and DIA intelligence reports demonstrate that these atrocities continued because Pinochet alone protected this sinister force from being shut down or restructured by other members of the junta.

Document after document records near unanimous criticism of DINA chieftain Col. Manuel Contreras and DINA's unaccountable power - from inside the regime itself. The apprehensions of many senior Chilean military authorities regarding the possibility of DINA becoming a modern-day Gestapo may very well be coming to fruition, the US military attaché informed the Pentagon in April 1975. There were three sources of power in Chile, according to one Chilean official: Pinochet, God and DINA.

Moreover, US intelligence explicitly placed Pinochet at the top of the chain of command overseeing DINA's bloody operations. A May 1977 CIA Regional and Political Analysis report, for example, contained a detailed section on Chile: Violations of Human Rights The report stated that DINA was behind the recent increase in torture, illegal detentions, and unexplained 'disappearances', and identified Manuel Contreras as 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. Indeed, Pinochet was briefed every morning at 7:30 on the coming events and status of existing DINA activities, a very senior DINA official informed the US military attaché in Santiago. According to a DIA intelligence report dated July 10, 1975, the source stated that the President issues instructions to DINA; is aware of its activities; and in fact heads it. [Emphasis added.]

Operation Condor

The documents on Pinochet and DINA will be among the first that Spanish investigative magistrate Judge Baltasar Garzón is likely to review as he prepares to file extradition briefs in London at the end of August. Garzón will also focus on declassified records that reveal what the United States knew about Operation Condor - a sinister cabal of Southern Cone intelligence services, led by Chile, that collaborated on tracking, kidnapping and assassinating opponents of the military regimes.

For more than twenty years, the only known US document on Condor was an FBI cable, sent from Buenos Aires on September 28, 1976, seven days after the Washington, DC, car-bomb murder of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies, Ronni Moffitt. Now it is clear that US intelligence generated numerous reports and alerts on Condor - referred to in the documents as a counterterrorism organization.

Chile, which created the operation in 1974, was Condor One; Ecuador, the last country to be incorporated into the organization, in 1978, was Condor 7. Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia filled out the membership, according to the documents. The seven intelligence services used a special communications system, known as CONDORTEL, to facilitate intelligence sharing and operations. A Condor center was created in Buenos Aires, and agents were trained in Santiago. According to CIA sources, at one point Condor had a European operations plan, to be centered in France, where many Chilean exiles lived. French intelligence, according to another CIA cable, was aware of the existence and some objectives of Operation Condor.

So was US intelligence. In the weeks prior to the Letelier-Moffitt murder, we know now, the CIA issued a series of reports on Condor operations that identified the possibility of government planned and directed assassinations within and outside the territory of Condor members. Instead of going public in denouncing such planned acts of terrorism - which might have deterred the Washington bombing - Secretary Kissinger's office decided to issue a secret roger channel cable in August 1976 to US embassies in Santiago, Buenos Aires and Montevideo. US ambassadors were to meet with appropriate officials, including heads of state, and tell them that while Washington understood their security concerns assassination would further exacerbate public world criticism of governments involved and create a most serious moral and political problem. In the case of Chile, the cable recommended that the CIA station chief - whose name is deleted - make a parallel approach, presumably to DINA chieftain Contreras.

It is not known what meetings took place as a result of the cable or what was discussed, but Condor operations escalated rather than abated. Four days after Letelier and Moffitt were murdered, on September 25, 1976, by Chilean secret police assassins, Argentine and Uruguayan Condor teams collaborated in a sweep in Buenos Aires against OPR-33, a Uruguayan leftist group. That week, the head of Argentina's State Secretariat for Information traveled to Santiago to consult with his Chilean counterparts on Operation Condor, according to a declassified DIA report. And in December, the CIA reported, representatives of all Condor countries gathered in Buenos Aires for three days to review past activities and discuss future plans, particularly coordinated psychological warfare operations directed against leftist and radical groups.

Still Secrets of State

The Condor documents raise more questions than they answer. If the US ambassador made a démarche to the Chilean regime on assassination plots before the Letelier-Moffitt murder, where is the memorandum of conversation recording that meeting? If the CIA station chief conferred with Contreras on Condor, is there documentation on what they discussed? Why weren't the intelligence reports that prompted the State Department to issue its alert on Condor declassified now?

These are among hundreds of documents that are conspicuously missing from the June 30 release. Key records on such important cases as the Letelier-Moffitt assassination and the execution of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi (two US citizens arrested and killed following the coup), as well as CIA operational files on its liaison relations with DINA and internal policy memorandums about covert operations after the coup, continue to be withheld - leaving huge gaps in the documentation and the whiff of a historical cover-up.

In the Letelier-Moffitt case, all documents implicating Pinochet were located, reviewed and then deliberately pulled by the Justice Department. The CIA, for example, cited one report in the original list of documents to be included in the release: Pinochet intercession w/Sup Crt to Prevent Extradition of officials re Letelier - which presumably documents obstruction of US efforts to extradite Contreras - but noted FBI Requests Withhold. In a June 28 letter to Michael Moffitt, the sole survivor of the bombing, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh explained that a limited number of documents that are relevant to your wife's murder have been withheld... because their release would be detrimental to the ongoing investigation and criminal case in connection with the carbombing.

The decision to withhold the documents provides the first substantive indication that the Justice Department is actively pursuing evidence that Pinochet was ultimately responsible for this heinous crime.

Other documents, however, remain secret without explanation. Among them are two possibly key cables - a State Department request to the CIA station in Santiago for information on contacts with the Chilean military in the days following the coup, and the CIA's response.

These cables may hold the answer to why Horman and Teruggi were singled out and executed, the two men's families believe. Indeed, not a single document that illuminates the close operational relations between the CIA station and the Chilean regime and its intelligence apparatus was released. Nor were hundreds of internal memorandums from Langley headquarters that record policy decisions to assist the new regime covertly with equipment, training and logistics.

Future Declassification

US officials insist that many more documents will be released in the future and that the bureaucratic battles with the keepers of the secrets over the most sensitive documents will be fought before the final declassification. Documents covering US-Chile relations from 1968 to 1973 - a period which includes massive US intervention against the presidency of Salvador Allende - are being reviewed for release in the fall. Thousands of other records from 1979 through the end of the dictatorship will be considered for declassification next year.

To its credit, the Clinton Administration has pushed and prodded the secrecy system into actually divulging some significant classified records. But whether that will lead to an honest and complete disclosure of the US role in Chile remains to be seen. The White House will have to overcome a recalcitrant CIA - the agency with the most to offer but also the most to hide - in order to truly shed light on this dark history.

Nevertheless, the CHILE DECLASSIFICATION PROJECT is a tacit admission that the United States can only rectify its shameful role in Chile's past by making the secret evidence available for use in the present. In the minds of the world at large, we are closely associated with this junta, ergo with fascists and torturers, one State Department official noted in a July 1975 memo protesting Kissinger's pro-Pinochet policy. By declassifying the full record on Chile, the US government can show the world that it is finally, if belatedly, disassociating itself from Pinochet's crimes.

Copyright 1999 The Nation