Feigning Toughness on Terrorism
Ultimately, Pinochet's decision on how to dispose of the troublesome Letelier-Moffitt case will be a political, not a legal, judgment.
On May 14, Israel Borquez, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Chile, denied an official US request for the extradition of the three secret police officers accused of ordering the 1976 murders of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt. The Borquez decision was immediately denounced by the State Department and the US attorney's office. Announcing its intention to appeal the decision, the Carter administration used the occasion of the Borquez decision to reaffirm its commitment to combat international terrorism and cited its attempts to extradite the Chilean officials as an indication of the seriousness of this commitment.
It is now obvious that the Carter administration has retreated from the demand the the Chilean government extradite Gen. Manuel Contreras, Col. Pedro Espinoza and Capt. Armando Fernandez, all former leading agents of DINA, the secret police network assembled by the military government of Chile in 1973, for trial in Washington. While the Borquez decision remains under appeal, the Carter administration has not only abandoned any real efforts to force the Pinochet dictatorship to comply with the extradition request, it has actively attempted to stifle such efforts by members of Congress and the families of the victims.
Shortly after the Borquez decision, US Ambassador to Chile George W. Landau told me that one message had been conveyed to the Chileans: That extradition provided the only satisfactory solution to the Letelier-Moffitt case. The ambassador assured me and counsel that the appeal process would be completed in July and that if the Borquez decision was not reversed, the US would begin considering sanctions, including urging US private banks to suspend new loans to the Chilean government. During his brief recall from Chile, the ambassador also persuaded Rep. Tom Harkins, D-Iowa, and other members of Congress to delay submitting legislation aimed at forcing the extraditions until the US had exhausted the appeal process.
Any confidence that had been created by this tough public stance on the part of the State Department was quickly shattered. On July 2, Rep. Henry Reuss, chairman of the House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs received a letter from Douglas J. Bennet Jr., assistant secretary of state for congressional relations, who reiterated that the State Department was pursuing the extradition of Contreras et al vigorously. Then Bennet added Should the situation arise in which those we believe to be terrorists are again free in Chile, we would have to give serious attention to the appropriate policy response from the United States government. Bennet added that: We believe such attempts to suspend unilaterally private US bank lending to any country would be detrimental to long-term US foreign economic policy and commercial transactions...
This new statement of administration policy to Congress was followed on July 7, even before the appeal of the Borquez decision had begun, by a Washington Post report from Santiago that the US had notified the Chilean Foreign Ministry that a Chilean military trial of Contreras and the others would be an acceptable solution to the case.
This is not a picture of a government seriously pursuing a group of terrorists for a vicious double murder in this nation's capital. By informing the Chileans that something less than extradition is acceptable the administration has invited the Chileans to turn down the appeal. When the State Department misinformed members of Congress and the relatives of the deceased on the nature of the message conveyed to the Chilean authorities, the administration bought time for the Chileans while relinquishing the only weapon, the threat of tough economic and diplomatic sanctions, which could have realistically produced Chilean cooperation in the extradition request.
What is extraordinary is that the administration has swallowed the myth of the independence and autonomy of the Chilean legal system. Chief Justice Borquez was appointed by Pinochet and is known to consult with the dictator before ruling on sensitive political cases. Thus, the Chilean courts have never handed down verdicts against DINA agents for crimes committed against Chileans. In a ghoulish procedure, eight members of the Carabineros, the national police, recently paid fines of 3,000 pesos (less than $100) after admitting their culpability for burrying 15 Chileans alive in a lime kiln in Lonquen.
The naive innocence of the Carter administration is well established, but does the administration really believe that the Chilean dictator will prosecute the former head of his secret police and close confidant for two terrorist murders probably conceived in consultation with the dictator himself?
Ultimately, Pinochet's decision on how to dispose of the troublesome Letelier-Moffitt case will be a political, not a legal, judgment. Pinochet has undoubtedly weighed the consequences of letting Contreras go free and possibly facing stiff sanctions from the United States versus how much Contreras can damage him politically by leaking the dictator's personal and political secrets to his opponents, like ousted junta member Gen. Gustavo Leigh. Already, Contreras has instituted legal proceedings against Foreign Minister Hernan Cubillos who is thought to favor putting Contreras in jail in return for a full restoration of US-Chilean relations.
The present Carter policy gives Pinochet the best of both worlds. Pinochet faces no meaningful sanctions if he refuses to extradite Contreras and by letting Contreras off the hook, he protects himself from a Contreras backlash. If the Carter administration was indeed serious about securing the extraditions of Contreras et al, it would recognize the bind in which Pinochet finds himself and among other things, exploit the divisions in the Chilean Cabinet to force him to hand over Contreras.
At the very least, President Carter's advisers ought to stop misleading members of Congress and the relatives of the deceased by claiming that they are trying to solve two international terrorist murders when in fact they are helping Pinochet cover them up.
Copyright 1979 The Washington Star