Review: Assassination on Embassy Row

10 July 1980
Article

A review of the book Assassination on Embassty Row, published by The New York Times on 10 July 1980.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Few readers don't know of the crime - how on September 21, 1976, a remote-controlled bomb went off in a car moving along Washington's Embassy Row and killed its driver, former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his seatmate, a young woman named Ronni Moffitt. Nor are there many who arent't at least vaguely aware of the lengthy investigation that followed, of the recalcitrance of the Chilean Government in helping to bring the killers to bay, and of the eventual trial and conviction of Michael Vernon Townley, a professional assassin, along with a covey of right-wing Cuban terrorists. But how many people are familiar with the full details of the astonishing and complex story that John Dinges and Saul Landau unfold so dramatically in their 'Assassination on Embassy Row'? Not a great number, I'll warrant.

What seems a little puzzling at first is why the authors begin their account from the viewpoint of the assassins, thereby shiftting the suspense from the outcome of the investigation to the question of whether the assassins will succeed (when we already know that they did). Not that this dilutes the drama markedly. Even when we know a story's outcome, its suspense somehow returns when it's transposed into print. (Hence the tension of Frederick Forsythe's The Day of the Jackal' even when we know that Charles de Gaulle will not be assassinated.)

And there's a fascination in the trivialness of Letelier's killers - the fact that they kept meeting in places like McDonalds and Roy Rogers restaurants, or that one of the Cubans felt pressured to hurry because he was about to begin a new job back in New Jersey, or that Townley, the mastermind, actually modeled himself after Mr. Forsythe's Jackal. Still, one would think that if the identity of the assassins had been raised by at least a few notches.

But Mr. Dinges, a former correspondent in Chile for Time magazine and the Washington Post, and Mr. Landau, a colleague of the two victims at Washington's Institute for Policy Studies, have a purpose in structuring their story the way they have. By identifying the killers at once they are free to tell the story in its largest possible context. They are able to recount the brief history of Salvador Allende Gossens' socialist government, in which Orlando Letelier played such a prominent role. They were able to describe the military coup engineered by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte - with the apparent undercover support of the United States - which left Allende dead and Letelier in exile. And they are able to detail the career of General Pinochet's close associate, Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Contreras, who ran Chile's terroristic Department of National Intelligence and, according to the authors, assigned a departmental agent, Michael Townley, to the task of eliminating Letelier.

To be sure, the events leading up to the assassination grow a little cumbersome in the telling. There appears to be a bit too much detail concerning a clumsy abortive attempt to furnish the Chilean participants in the assassination with Paraguayan visas to the United States. And the concluding legal trial of the accused comes as something of an anticlimax, especially given our prior knowledge that a substantial portion of the book is based on Michael Townley's testimony as the star witness who had already bargained a plea.

But if these are narrative gambles, then they have their payoff. For the authors' final concern is not so much with drama as it is with raising certain questions about the role of the United States in the deaths of Letelier and Moffitt. Did the United States Government have sufficient foreknowledge to have prevented the murders?' the authors ask in the conclusion. Was the real purpose of the so-called Paraguayan visa fiasco to signal the Central Intelligence Agency that the murder attempt was in the works and thus to implicate the agency in the eventual outcome? Was the ultimate effect of all the Government's legal maneuvering to narrow the focus of culpability to the men who carried out the assassination, and thus to protect the Pinochet regime and permit its leaders to get away with murder'?

The authors leave little doubt that their answers to these and other questions are affirmative. So what begins in the guise of a crime-thriller ends up as an indictment of American foreign policy in Latin America. And from being merely entertained we are led by degrees to question our consciences, and to re-examine our fundamental political assumptions.

Copyright 1980 New York Times