Documents Link Chile's Pinochet to Letelier Murder

17 November 2005

Documents Link Chile's Pinochet to Letelier Murder
Vernon Loeb
The Washington Post, 14 November 2000

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, asked the government of neighboring Paraguay to issue phony passports in 1976 for two operatives who subsequently participated in the assassination of a Chilean opposition leader in Washington, according to US government documents released yesterday. The declassified State Department cables for the first time directly link Pinochet to the plot to assassinate Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean diplomat who was killed along with an American colleague, Ronni Moffitt, in a car bombing at Sheridan Circle on Sept. 11, 1976.

Justice Department prosecutors have been gathering evidence aimed at indicting Pinochet for the notorious bombing. Samuel J. Buffone, an attorney representing the Letelier and Moffitt families, said the cables provide "compelling evidence of General Pinochet's direct involvement" and should provide "a significant step toward the possibility of an indictment." The cables were among 16,000 formerly secret documents released yesterday by the State Department, CIA, FBI, Pentagon and Justice Department in the fourth and final round of a government-wide effort to declassify as much information as possible about political violence and human rights abuses in Chile from 1968 to 1991. President Clinton ordered the review following Pinochet's arrest in London two years ago. The aging ex-dictator has since returned to Chile, where he has been stripped of immunity and now faces prosecution for killings and abductions during his 17-year rule.

The documents shed little new light on CIA activities surrounding the 1973 coup that toppled socialist President Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet's military junta to power. A Senate select committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) concluded in 1975 that the agency was not directly involved in the coup. But the documents provide a wealth of new information related to the assassination of Letelier, an opposition politician who had served in Allende's cabinet and was working in Washington to galvanize international opposition to Pinochet's regime. State Department cables report that Pinochet personally called Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner in the summer of 1976 and asked that "cover" passports be issued under phony names to Michael V. Townley and Armando Fernandez Larios, Chilean military intelligence operatives who ultimately pleaded guilty to involvement in the plot and went to prison in the United States. The documents show that State Department officials realized almost immediately that the visas they had stamped in the men's passports had been falsely obtained. Those visas were quickly canceled, but Townley and Fernandez Larios still managed to enter the United States in August 1976 using false names on Chilean passports. The documents show that the State Department also discovered this, and notified the FBI. But the US government failed to investigate what the two operatives were doing at the Chilean embassy in Washington and missed a chance to short-circuit the assassination, according to Peter Kornbluh, an expert on Chile at the nonprofit National Security Archive. Speaking to reporters at the National Press Club following the documents' release, Kornbluh pointed to other cables showing that the CIA had briefed the State Department months before Letelier's assassination on "Operation Condor," a Chilean intelligence program for assassinating opponents of the regime. After the briefing, the State Department directed the US ambassador in Santiago, David Popper, to meet with Pinochet and express concern about Operation Condor. Popper was also told to instruct the CIA's station chief to express similar objections to Manuel Contreras, head of Chilean military intelligence, the documents show. But Popper refused to raise the subject with Pinochet, saying in a cable to Washington that the general "might well take as an insult any inference that he was connected with such assassination plots."

The CIA also failed to raise Operation Condor with Contreras until after the Letelier assassination. Contreras ultimately was convicted and imprisoned in Chile for involvement in the car bombing. Kornbluh said a CIA memorandum released yesterday states that in 1991, the agency destroyed a security file on Contreras - a file that Kornbluh said may have detailed Contreras' activities as a paid CIA asset. CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield denied that allegation, saying the destroyed file was a routine security document, not an operational file.

The documents released yesterday also show that the name and address in Santiago of Frank Teruggi were in US intelligence files a year before the coup. Teruggi, an American journalist, was tortured and killed as a suspected subversive within days of the 1973 coup. Kornbluh said the documents "beg the question" of whether US intelligence officers gave Teruggi's name to the Chileans before the coup, in effect fingering the American as a leftist. The CIA and State Department have long denied any involvement in Teruggi's murder.

Kornbluh and Thomas Blanton, the executive director of the National Security Archive, hailed yesterday's release of documents as a model for the handling of US government documents on political repression in foreign countries. "It's a spectacular, phenomenal, historic release," Blanton told reporters. "We're closer than we've ever been to the absolute truth in this matter." A total of 150 volumes were made public yesterday, including 90 from the State Department, 30 from the Pentagon and 16 from the CIA. The CIA released a total of 1,550 documents, many from its clandestine Directorate of Operations, including 750 that CIA Director George J. Tenet had withheld in August because of concern that they would reveal methods still in use by the CIA. But Blanton and Kornbluh faulted the CIA for heavily censoring some documents and withholding others that formed the basis of a recent report to Congress on covert activities in Chile. "We still have the problem of CIA censorship of history. This is an important document on covert operations more than 30 years ago," Kornbluh said, showing reporters a heavily edited cable, "and it is still being kept secret." Mansfield, the CIA spokesman, responded that the "redactions were done to protect intelligence sources and methods, which we are obligated to do under the law. The fact is, a very significant amount of information was released."

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post