Letelier Probe Threatens Pinochet Rule

25 April 1978

Pinochet's governmental carpet is stained, but the stench is from human blood.

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In These Times

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

General Pinochet's days are numbered, a high State department official confided to Isabel Letelier, widow of Orlando Letelier, as recent new developments became known in the investigation of his assassination. Ironically, the official continued, your husband's murder has become the instrument which all of Pinochet's enemies have begun to use to rid themselves of the bloody tyrant. Letelier, former Chilean Ambassador to the US, and Ronni Karpen Moffitt died on Sept. 21, 1976, when a bomb exploded in the car being driven by Letelier on his way to the Institute for Policy Studies, where both worked. Letelier directed the Transnational Institute, IPS's international program. Michael Moffitt, Ronni's husband, who was riding in the back seat, miraculously survived the explosion. Mrs. Letelier, after her conversation with the State department official, confirmed from her contacts in Chile that Pinochet's image has reached an all-time low. When he appears on television now, said a Chilean journalist in Washington, he resembles a puppy who has just made wee wee on the rug.

Townley arrested

Indeed, Pinochet's governmental carpet is stained, but the stench is from human blood. The FBI and the Assistant US Attorney in charge of the case have solid circumstantial evidence that DINA, Chile's recently dissolved secret police, hired Cuban exiles to murder Letelier. Add that the trail of the order to assassinate leads directly to Pinochet's own door. By the terms of the decree that founded DINA and that was signed by Pinochet himself - the organization is answerable directly only to himself. Michael Vernon Townley, a US citizen who has lived most of his life in Chile, was arrested there and turned over to US officials. As of April 12 he was being held in the Washington DC area without bail as a material witness to the crime. Townley served as the equivalent of a CIA case officer in the murder plot: The CIA organized DINA in its own image. He met with Cuban exiles on several occasions, purchased a remote control detonator in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and oversaw the entire assassination plot. This included contacting leaders of Brigade 2506, the organization of the Bay of Pigs veterans who had awarded Pinochet their first Freedom Award in 1975, and activists from the MNO, an ideologically fascist group of exile terrorists. They placed Letelier under surveillance and attached a C-4 plastic explosive to the I-beam of his Chevrolet with Townley's remote control operated detonator. Plans were then made to escape and backup procedures laid out. Part of the planning involved an American connection, a former CIA official who worked secretly with DINA officials. The American adviser worked as a consultant and helped activate a cover plan to throw police off the track and to disinform the public by planting false and misleading stories in the press. These stories stemmed from copies of selected documents from Letelier's briefcase, which survived the explosion and were copied by the American. They were then distributed, along with explanations for certain texts, to chosen members of the press and ultimately to anyone who would read them. Their appearance in Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Star, and many right-wing syndicated columns and periodicals had the clear intent of smearing Letelier, thus victimizing the victim. The investigation bogged down while false leads were pursued as the CIA withheld or planted false information with investigative bodies. FBI Special Agent Carter Cornick and US Assistant Attorney Eugene Propper, however, persevered and overcame the obstacles placed in their paths by erstwhile colleagues in the Bureau and the intelligence community.

Pressure from US

They placed their evidence before representatives of the State department and asked the department to deliver a 'Letters rogatory' motion designed to investigate suspected criminals abroad at the highest levels of government. Then the US decided to pursue the killers in Chile. The decision made by the Carter administration to follow the killers had two objectives: one, to show that foreign secret police - even of friendly powers - could not commit murders in Washington, and, two, to remove an ugly pimple, Pinochet, on Chile's face. So Propper filed the 'Letters rogatory' with the State department. The procedure involved the submission by the US Ambassador in Chile of a series of questions to individuals there, which were then delivered by the Chilean Foreign Minister to the Chilean court system. The letters had to indicate that there was sufficient proof to warrant such an inquiry, a complicated legal decision if not accompanied by diplomatic pressures in line with this. US Ambassador to Chile George Landau soon began hinting to the Chilean government that if their cooperation did not ensue he was likely to be recalled and that the possibility of severing diplomatic relations could not be ruled out.

Chilean press reasserts itself

Once the trail led US authorities to Chilean soil, a series of old happenings alerted opposition forces from all sectors that Pinochet's clutch on Chile's power structure had begun to loosen. Inside the US State department similar analyses were formulated. The move opened the door for the Chilean press, muzzled for over four years, to begin to reassert itself, and it began to conduct its own investigation of the case revealing new material and asking embarrassing questions of Pinochet. It established, for instance, that the same man responsible for issuing an official Chilean passport to Townley and a DINA cohort and then requesting A-2 visas that permitted them multiple entry into the US, had died in mysterious circumstances.

In October 1977 the official, Guillermo Osorio, was first reported to have died of a heart attack. After a month, the body underwent an autopsy, revealing t hat a gaping gunshot wound on the forehead had caused Osorio's heart to fail. The official version was changed to suicide. Not long after that incident, Pinochet, knowing of US moves to investigate DINA officials, called for a plebiscite without the consent of at least two of the other members of the four-man ruling junta. Gen. Gustavo Leigh of the air force made public his strong disagreement with the move, calling it stupid, and the Chilean press had a field day reporting the first public dispute between members of the ruling clique. The plebiscite, which was conducted in such a way as to ensure support for himself, subjected Pinochet to worldwide ridicule. Soon after news of the 'Letters Rogatory' procedure reached them, Chilean officials denied that the names mentioned therein existed. Then the photos of the two DINA agents were leaked to the US press. El Mercurio, Chile's leading daily and the principal press weapon against Allende, ran the photos. Pinochet said neither photo belonged to members of the Chilean armed forces. Soon thereafter El Mercurio provided the real names for the aliases that accompanied the 'Letters rogatory' request. Armando Fernandez Larios, one of the persons identified, was a captain in the Chilean army. Pinochet went on television and explained that the newspaper copies of the photo had too little detail for him to make a positive identification. More wee wee on the carpet, said the Chilean journalist.

DINA chief resigns

The Chilean press then demanded clarification. Who in the Chilean Foreign ministry had requested official passports and US visas for two men traveling under false names? Juan Williams Rose and Alejandro Romeral Jara were in reality Townley and infantry captain Captain Fernandez Larios. The name Juan Williams struck a strange chord since a Chilean naval hero by that name conquered in 1843 the Straits of Magellan on Sept. 21, the day chosen for the murder of Orlando Letelier. US Assistant Attorney Propper flew to Chile with FBI Special Agent Carter Cornick on March 19. High State department officials made known to the press their understanding that the Chilean government had committed at the very least a seriousserious impropriety and that strong evidence supported allegations made by Mrs. Letelier, Mr. Moffitt, and the Institute for Policy Studies that from the outset Pinochet and his DINA were deeply involved in the murders. The DINA Director General Manuel Connrek Contreras then resigned voluntarily and has since refused to concede any interviews. Unconfirmed reports state that Contreras has been placed under house arrest. The Osorio suicide was reported if not by the coroner at least by the press. Townley and Fernandez were produced for interrogation by a Chilean court when Proper and Cornick made a second trip to Chile, and after more threats were made by the US State department about the possible implications of less than full cooperation on the murder investigation.

In the US administration a secret debate over US-Chile policy has been given increased momentum by the Letelier investigation. Forces still loyal to former Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs Terence Todman argue that the US should praise Pinochet for his recent positive responses to US prodding on human rights, and instead of working against him with the Letelier-Moffitt case, should reward him for releasing some political prisoners. Newer and more liberal groups respond that Pinochet is a disgrace and that he is known throughout the world by all respected bodies as our disgrace. They contend that any moves to oust him that might further liberalization would be welcome and that the Letelier-Moffitt case must be solved if only for US respect and dignity. The anti-Pinochet forces are prevailing since the issuance of the 'Letters rogatory' and the revelation that DINA was implicated in the murders, thus automatically linking Pinochet to the killings.

Power struggle

Meanwhile the power struggle within Chile had also heated up. Gen. Leigh made a swift secret visit to Pentagon chums last week and reportedly held secret meetings with former Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei. The Chilean oligarchy, itself represented by the Edwards family and its newspaper El Mercurio, have increased government accountability. Pinochet with his back to the wall makes new concessions with every new revelation. The state of siege after four years was suddenly decreed to be only a state of emergency. Exiled critics such as Christian Democratic leader Jaime Castillo Velasco are being allowed to return to the country. Pinochet has claimed that he has now released into exile most political prisoners. The curfew has been dropped completely and elections that Pinochet swore would not come for at least ten years are now promised for early next year. He has even begun to agree with his critic Gen. Leigh that a return to institutional rule has become necessary. Pinochet has become as consistent as an oscillator, said a Washington-based reporter for a Chilean magazine, and the Letelier-Moffitt murders that he apparently ordered have become the instrument for his undoing. Bloody poetry.

Copyright 1978 In These Times