Review: Assassination on Embassy Row

21 July 1980

A review of the book Assassination on Embassy Row, published by Newsweek on 21 July 1980.

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TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Two weeks before his 28th birthday, Michael Townley stepped over the line that separates those who read spy thrillers from those who participate in them', and telephoned the Miami station of the Central Intelligence Agency to offer his services. Townley's father, a Ford Motor Co. plant manager in Chile, had imbued his son with a ferocious anticommunism', and now in 1970 Michael was returning to Santiago to fight against the socialist regime of President Salvador Allende. The CIA apparently rejected Townley's offer, but the young American was not deterred. In Santiago, Townley eventually found his niche in DINA, Chile's brutal version of the CIA, which was organized with the American agency's help after right-wing generals overthrew Allende in 1973. In 1976, at DINA's command, Townley installed the car bomb that exploded in Washington's Sheridan Circle, killing Orlando Letelier, who had been Allende's charismatic Foreign Minister, and Ronni Moffitt, a 25-year-old American assistant.

Whether the CIA had advance knowledge of this killing - the agency did know of a secret Chilean mission to Washington - is one of the few important questions John Dinges and Saul Landau are unable to answer definitively in their remarkable account. Brilliant investigators, Dinges and Landau have produced a polemic against South American Fascists and American acquiescence in their activities, but it is written with restraint. It is also a superb spy thriller that describes Townley's transformation from a diffident American into an international terrorist as well as the remarably well-coordinated international network of free-lance right-wing mercenaries and the superb detective work by American investigators that finally led to Townley's arrest.

Bombs and Bullets

According to Dinges and Landau, Letelier's killing was not an isolated incident: they present strong evidence of a systematic campaign by the Pinochet regime to silence with bombs and bullets every articulate opponent living abroad. General Carlos Prats, a constitutionalist' living in Buenos Aires, was assassinated in September 1974. Bernardo Leighton, a former Christian Democratic Chilean Vice President, dropped out of exile politics after narrowly escaping death in Rome in 1975.

At home, DINA agents were even more active. Soon after Allende's death, the number of weekly arrests of political dissidents reached almost 250, and Santiago observers began to notice a chilling change in methods'. Suddenly, uniformed soldiers were replaced by agents wearing civilian clothes who arrived after curfew and refused to identify themselves. They blindfolded their victims and threw them into the canvas-topped beds of pickup trucks without license plates. Often a young woman took part in the arrests with a team of four or five men'. In a sports stadium concerted into a concentration camp, the popular leftist folk singer Victor Jara refused to stop singing after guards broke his hands and wrists before beating him to death - in full view of thousands of fellow prisoners.

With convincing documentation, the authors reveal that the Justice Department secretly agreed, in return for Townley's expulsion from Chile to the United States, not to probe or publicize DINA's other activities. This book goes a longh way toward undoing that agreement. It also provides a subtle understanding of the limits of justice in America and Chile alike. In return for Townley, DINA was given immunity from official publicity in the United States. By promising Townley a minimum prison sentence of only three and a half years, Justice got his testimony and the convictions of three of his Cuban-exile co-conspirators. But the man the authors believe was personally ordered by Pinochet to carry out Letelier's murder, Juan Manuel Contreras, lost little more than his title as DINA's chief. Dinges and Landau conclude that while the Carter Administration exerted enormous pressure to ensure Townley's expulsion, it never fought hard for Contreras' extradition. In the end, the stability of the Pinochet regime was judged more sacred to United States interests than the prosecution of terrorism on the part of that regime'. Pinochet, they believe, got away with murder'.

Copyright 1980 Newsweek