US Wants to Question Pinochet About Bombing

7 November 1998
Frank Davies

High-level US officials are discussing a possible extradition request to bring Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean strongman now held in London, to the United States to face questions the terrorist attack that killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

High-level US officials are discussing a possible extradition request to bring Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean strongman now held in London, to the United States to face questions about a terrorist attack that killed two people in this city 22 years ago.

And the former prosecutor who investigated that car bombing, which killed a Chilean exile leader and a US citizen, said in an interview Friday that he's convinced Pinochet was involved 'in an act of state-sponsored terror.' The recent discussions have included Justice Department, State Department and National Security Council officials, Justice spokesman John Russell said Friday. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder has been briefed on the issue, Russell said. Russell emphasized that no decision has been made about an extradition request, and Pinochet currently faces no charges in the United States. A spokesman for the National Security Council, P.J. Crowley, said Friday that he would not comment on any discussions about Pinochet. 'Justice and the FBI continue to investigate this case and we support wherever the facts will lead us,' Crowley said.

A Spanish judge is currently seeking to extradite Pinochet, 82, from Britain to face charges of genocide, ordering the death or disappearance of about 3,000 people - including Spanish nationals and individuals from other countries. Other European nations are also seeking his extradition on similar charges. So far, Pinochet has won a round in British courts to block that extradition. Judges ruled that Pinochet was immune from prosecution because he was head of state from 1973 to 1990, at the time the crimes occurred. Britain's highest court is now weighing an appeal while Pinochet remains in a London hospital.

Bombing killed Pinochet foe

The crime that has sparked renewed interest among US officials is the 1976 car bombing on Embassy Row that killed Orlando Letelier, an outspoken foe of Pinochet living in exile, and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, a 25-year-old analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank. That attack shocked Washington, galvanized the FBI and federal prosecutors and led to the conviction in Chile, after 19 years and much resistance, of Pinochet's right-hand man and intelligence chief, Gen. Manuel Contreras, who masterminded the attack. The bombing was carried out by Michael Townley, a US-born Chilean agent; two anti-Castro Cubans, Virgilio Paz Romero and Dionisio Suarez, and Chilean army Capt. Armando Fernandez. All four were convicted in US courts. Townley served five years in prison, then joined the witness protection program after providing evidence.

Convinced of involvement

Lawrence Barcella, the former assistant US attorney who investigated the assassination, is convinced of Pinochet's involvement, especially after evidence that has developed in recent years. 'It's inconceivable to me that Pinochet did not know,' Barcella told The Herald. He noted that Contreras, after years of denials, stated in an affidavit from prison that Pinochet gave 'explicit orders' for all intelligence operations. Barcella's efforts to extradite Contreras for the Letelier-Moffitt murders were blocked by Chilean courts. But after a celebrated trial in Chile, Contreras was convicted and sentenced in 1995. After originally balking, Contreras began serving a seven-year sentence five months later. Last year, he filed an affidavit seeking early release. 'Only [Pinochet] as supreme authority of DINA [the intelligence service] had the power to order the missions that were executed',' Contreras wrote. 'Always in my capacity as delegate of the president, I carried out strictly what was ordered'.

Other assassinations

Barcella said the FBI learned about several assassinations - some carried out, some planned - in other countries, ordered by Pinochet's operatives. Chilean opponents of Pinochet were also killed or wounded in Buenos Aires and Rome. Last year, Barcella testified in Spain in the investigation that led to Pinochet's arrest in London. The Spanish judge handling the case, Baltasar Garzón, has focused much of his investigation on Operation Condor, an effort by security forces in Chile and other Latin American countries to target - and sometimes kill - their foes. 'Our job wasn't to investigate Operation Condor, but we learned a lot about it,' Barcella said. 'Based on what has come out in recent years, I'm more convinced about Pinochet's involvement' in the Letelier case and other murders. The Letelier car bombing 'has always been a hot-button case' with the Justice Department, said Barcella, now in private practice in Washington. 'I'd be disappointed if they were not taking a hard
look at it. After all, it's the only act of state-sponsored terrorism to claim lives in the nation's capital,' he added. That would give any US request for extradition added weight, he said, because it would not be encumbered by less-settled concepts of law like genocide or crimes in other countries.

According to a weekly law journal in Washington, Corporate Crime Reporter, US officials are also looking into Pinochet's role in the deaths of two Americans, Charles Edmund Horman Lazar and Frank Teruggi, killed in Chile immediately after
the bloody 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power. Russell at the Justice Department would not confirm if that case is under review. The arrest of Pinochet on Oct. 16 has energized many human rights groups in Washington, where the murders of Letelier and Moffitt have made this more than a debate about abstract concepts of international law. 'People feel empowered by what happened - Pinochet has not been a free man now for several weeks,' said Sarah Henderson, who is an analyst - like Moffitt was - at the Institute for Policy Studies. At a recent rally at the site of the assassination on Sheridan Circle, hundreds of people left white carnations at a small memorial for Letelier and Moffitt. Watching the large turnout was a quiet white-haired man, Murray Karpen, who was hard at work in his New Jersey deli 22 years ago when he got the call that his daughter, Ronni Moffitt, had been killed. 'When I heard that Pinochet was arrested, my first thought was, "There is a God,"' Karpen said.

Copyright 1998 The Miami Herald