Documents Shed Light on Assassination of Chilean in US
A month before the assassination of Letelier and Moffitt in 1976, the US government ordered its envoys in Latin America to try to avert a plot to murder leftist opponents of the region's governments.
A month before the assassination of a Chilean diplomat and an American colleague in downtown Washington in 1976, the United States government ordered its envoys in Latin America to try to avert a plot to murder leftist opponents of the region's governments, documents released today show. But the American ambassador in Chile, David Popper, refused to convey what Washington had learned of the plot or even the government's concerns to the leader of Chile's military junta, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, saying he did not want to offend the general by associating him with the plot, known as Operation Condor, the documents show. "He might well take as an insult any inference that he was connected with such assassination plots," Mr. Popper said in a cable to Washington.
General Pinochet's secret police chief, Gen. Manuel Contreras, was later convicted in Chile of ordering what was, up to that time, the worst act of foreign-sponsored terrorism on American soil: the bombing on Sept. 21, 1976, of the car in which Orlando Letelier, a former confidant of the deposed Chilean president, Salvador Allende, was traveling to his job at a Washington research institute along with two colleagues. He and Ronni K. Moffitt were killed; her husband, Michael Moffitt, survived the blast.
While there is no evidence that an American warning to General Pinochet or General Contreras would have thwarted the attack on Embassy Row here, critics of the American government's role in Chile during the 1970's said today that it represented, at a minimum, a lost opportunity. "An extraordinary tragedy," said Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a private clearinghouse for declassified documents. "Such a meeting might well have prevented that act of assassination from taking place."
The information came to light today as the Clinton administration released more than 16,000 documents on America's relationship with Chile from the years before the 1973 military coup in which the junta deposed President Allende to 1991, after the country's transition to democracy. It was the final release in a declassification project ordered in February 1999 by President Clinton. The documents, including more than 450 on covert operations that the Central Intelligence Agency earlier sought to withhold, support those who argue that General Pinochet was complicit in the assassination conspiracy, Mr. Kornbluh said.
While critics of United States policy in the region have long said that the Letelier murder could not have been carried out without General Pinochet's knowledge, the documents released today include a State Department cable showing that he called President Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay asking him for "an urgent favor." The favor was that Paraguay issue passports to two agents of the Chilean secret police, according to the State Department document, which was marked "secret" and apparently written in the summer of 1976. The government of Paraguay complied, but the American Embassy there barred the agents from traveling to the United States, asserting that they had lied about their plans and their reason for going to the United States. The two later entered using Chilean passports. Those two men, Michael Townley and Armando Fernández, were convicted years later for their role in arranging the car bombing.
General Pinochet returned to Chile this year after being held under house arrest in Britain at the request of a Spanish judge who wanted him tried under an international torture treaty. But the general was released after he was ruled to be too ill to stand trial.
The newly declassified documents also show that General Pinochet's intelligence chief, General Contreras, tried to fend off demands for his extradition to the United States after he was indicted here for the Letelier murder with threats that he could implicate American officials in the killings. The documents provide no proof that General Contreras could produce such evidence. In 1991, the documents show, the CIA destroyed its file on General Contreras, who had been a paid informant for the agency. Mark Mansfield, the agency's spokesman, said the documents "speak for themselves." But he urged people to "view them and the events they describe within their proper historical context [...] CIA activities were conducted within the framework of US foreign policy at the time," he said, "and covert actions were undertaken at the direction of the White House and interagency policy coordinating committees."
The outlines of Washington's role in Chile are known, including the Nixon administration's support of groups plotting to prevent Mr. Allende from assuming the presidency after his election in 1970, and its subsequent efforts to destabilize his socialist government. In 1975 the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that from 1963 to 1973, the CIA spent more than $8 million on disinformation campaigns, propaganda and financial aid to groups plotting a coup. And this September, a CIA report to Congress acknowledged that the agency had a relationship with General Contreras from 1974 to 1977, and that he received a one-time payment of an undisclosed sum in 1975. A senior administration official said the new documents "reveal the evolution of US policy quite well."
The documents released today show American officials moving from open enthusiasm for the coup that toppled the Allende government and brought General Pinochet to power, to reservations about his junta's human rights abuses, to support for the democratic opposition that unseated the general. Minutes of high-level meetings released today show that President Nixon feared that the election of Mr. Allende could set off a drift toward Communism in South America. And he appeared determined to undermine the Allende government. "We are going to cold turkey them on the economy," Mr. Nixon said, suggesting that the United States would flood world markets with copper to force down the price of Chile's main resource. His advisers warned that such dumping would be illegal.
After General Pinochet's coup, the junta arrested vast numbers of people they suspected of being leftists — Chileans and foreigners living in Chile. Imprisoned in soccer stadiums, they were interrogated. Many were tortured and some 3,000 were killed, according to a investigation in 1990 by the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. The documents reveal that one of the Americans killed at a stadium in Santiago, Frank Teruggi, had been labeled a subversive by the CIA Mr. Mansfield said the agency had "no prior knowledge" of the circumstances leading to Mr. Teruggi's death.
Documents declassified by the Clinton administration have shown that American officials were aware of plans for assassinations in foreign capitals nearly two months before Mr. Letelier's killing. In late August 1976, Philip Habib, then under secretary of state for political affairs, ordered United States ambassadors throughout Latin America to voice American disapproval. But more than a week after the Letelier assassination, Mr. Popper, the American ambassador in Chile, cabled the State Department to reject approaching General Pinochet. Instead, he suggested that an intelligence official convey Washington's concerns to General Contreras. Mr. Popper declined to comment on his actions then. "It was a long time ago," said Mr. Popper, who is 88. "I'm a very old man."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times