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MORE LOST HISTORY, REVISITED:
Bush Shields Dad on Chile Terrorism
Chilean investigators say the Bush administration is undercutting their case against former dictator Augusto Pinochet for his alleged role in the terrorist assassination of a political rival on the streets of Washington three decades ago, a crime that then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush appears to have tolerated and then helped cover-up.Chilean investigators say the Bush administration is undercutting their case against former dictator Augusto Pinochet for his alleged role in the terrorist assassination of a political rival on the streets of Washington three decades ago, a crime that then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush appears to have tolerated and then helped cover-up.
Now, George W. Bush has picked up the mantle from his father for protecting the 90-year-old Pinochet from ever facing justice for the murder of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and an American co-worker, Ronni Moffitt, who were killed by a car bomb on Sept. 21, 1976, as Letelier drove down Massachusetts Avenue.
Six years ago, near the end of the Clinton administration, an FBI team reviewed new evidence that had become available in the case and recommended the indictment of Pinochet. But the final decision was left to the incoming Bush administration, which has failed to act while also withholding relevant documents from Chilean investigators.
By frustrating the Chilean investigation, the Bush administration also is protecting former President George H.W. Bush against possibly being implicated in this act of terrorism, conceivably as an accessory after the fact for diverting suspicion away from Pinochet.
The Letelier-Moffitt murder is considered the worst act of state-sponsored terrorism in the history of Washington, D.C. At minimum, George H.W. Bush’s CIA operated with extraordinary incompetence and negligence in failing to act on explicit warnings about the assassination plot.
Thirty-Year TaleThe case dates back to 1976 when the elder George Bush was running the CIA and right-wing military dictatorships – many with close CIA ties – were striking out at political adversaries through a cross-border assassination project known as Operation Condor.
At the time, one of the most eloquent voices making the case against Pinochet’s regime was Orlando Letelier, who was living in exile and operating out of a liberal think tank in Washington, the Institute for Policy Studies.
Earlier in their government careers, when Letelier was briefly defense minister in the leftist government of Salvador Allende, Pinochet had been Letelier’s subordinate. In 1973, after Pinochet took power in a military coup that killed Allende, Pinochet imprisoned Letelier at a desolate concentration camp on Dawson Island off Chile’s south Pacific coast. International pressure won Letelier release a year later.
By 1976, however, Pinochet was chafing under Letelier’s criticism of the regime’s human rights record. Letelier was doubly infuriating to Pinochet because Letelier was regarded as a man of intellect and charm, even impressing CIA officers who observed him as “a personable, socially pleasant man” and “a reasonable, mature democrat,” according to CIA biographical sketches.
Pinochet fumed to U.S. officials, including to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, that Letelier was spreading lies and causing trouble with the U.S. Congress. Soon, Pinochet was plotting with Manuel Contreras, chief of Chile’s feared DINA secret service, on how to silence Letelier for good.
By summer 1976, Bush’s CIA was hearing a lot about Operation Condor from South American sources who had attended a second organizational conference of Southern Cone intelligence services.
These CIA sources reported that the military regimes were preparing “to engage in ‘executive action’ outside the territory of member countries.” In intelligence circles, “executive action” is a euphemism for assassination.
On July 30, 1976, a CIA official briefed State Department officials about these “disturbing developments in [Condor’s] operational attitudes.” The information was passed to Kissinger in a “secret” report on August 3, 1976.
The 14-page report from Assistant Secretary of State Harry Shlaudeman said the military regimes were “joining forces to eradicate ‘subversion,’ a word which increasingly translates into non-violent dissent from the left and center left.” [See Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File.]
Targeting LetelierWhile information about the larger Condor strategy was spreading through the upper levels of the Ford administration, Pinochet and Contreras were putting in motion an audacious plan to eliminate Orlando Letelier in his safe haven in Washington, D.C.
In July 1976, two DINA operatives – Michael Townley and Armando Fernandez Larios – went to Paraguay where DINA had arranged for them to get false passports and visas for a trip to the United States.
Townley and Larios were using the false names Juan Williams and Alejandro Romeral and a cover story claiming they were investigating suspected leftists working for Chile’s state copper company in New York.
Townley and Fernandez said their project had been cleared with the CIA’s station chief in Santiago. A senior Paraguayan official, Conrado Pappalardo, urged U.S. Ambassador George Landau to cooperate, citing a direct appeal from Pinochet in support of the mission. Supposedly, the Paraguayan government claimed, the two Chileans were to meet with Bush’s CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters.
An alarmed Landau recognized that the visa request was highly unusual, since such operations were normally coordinated with the CIA station in the host country and were cleared with CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Though granting the visas, Landau took the precaution of sending an urgent cable to Walters and photostatic copies of the fake passports to the CIA. Landau said he received an urgent cable back signed by CIA Director Bush, reporting that Walters, who was in the process of retiring, was out of town.
When Walters returned a few days later, he cabled Landau that he had “nothing to do with this” mission. Landau immediately canceled the visas.
Landau also alerted senior State Department officials. In one cable, Landau said the “Paraguayan caper” had “troublesome aspects” and recommended that the two Chileans be barred from entering the United States.
“If there is still time, and if there is a possibility of turning off this harebrained scheme,” assistant secretary Shlaudeman wrote in reply, “you are authorized to go back [to Paraguayan officials] to urge that the Chileans be persuaded not – repeat not – to travel.”
But the Ford administration dithered over delivering a formal demarche demanding that Pinochet’s government cease and desist in its cross-border assassinations. Though a plan for warning Santiago was developed, the State Department could not agree how to carry it out without offending the prickly Pinochet.
Bush’s CIAIt also remains unclear what – if anything – Bush’s CIA did after learning about the “Paraguayan caper.”
Normal protocol would have required senior CIA officials to ask their Chilean counterparts about the supposed trip to Langley. However, even with the declassification of more records in recent years, that question has never been fully answered.
The CIA also demonstrated little curiosity over the Aug. 22, 1976, arrival of two other Chilean operatives using Juan Williams and Alejandro Romeral, the phony names that were intended to hide the identity of the two operatives in the earlier plot.
When these two different operatives arrived in Washington, they made a point of having the Chilean Embassy notify Walters’s office at CIA.
“It is quite beyond belief that the CIA is so lax in its counterespionage functions that it would simply have ignored a clandestine operation by a foreign intelligence service in Washington, D.C., or elsewhere in the United States,” wrote John Dinges and Saul Landau in their 1980 book, Assassination on Embassy Row. “It is equally implausible that Bush, Walters, Landau and other officials were unaware of the chain of international assassinations that had been attributed to DINA.”
Apparently, DINA dispatched the second pair of operatives, using the phony names, to show that the initial contacts for visas in Paraguay were not threatening. In other words, the Chilean government had the replacement team of Williams and Romeral go through the motions of a trip to Washington with the intent to visit Walters to dispel any American suspicions or to spread confusion among suspicious U.S. officials.
But it’s still unclear whether Bush’s CIA contacted Pinochet’s government about its mysterious behavior and, if not, why not.
The Bomb PlotAs for the Letelier assassination, DINA was soon plotting another way to carry out the killing.
In late August 1976, DINA dispatched a preliminary team of one man and one woman to do surveillance on Letelier as he moved around Washington. Then, Townley was sent under a different alias to carry out the murder.
After arriving in New York on Sept. 9, Townley connected with Cuban National Movement leader Guillermo Novo in Union City, N.J., and then headed to Washington. Townley assembled a remote-controlled bomb that used pieces bought at Radio Shack and Sears.
On Sept. 18, joined by Cuban extremists Virgilio Paz and Dionisio Suarez, Townley went to Letelier home in Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington. The assassination team attached the bomb underneath Letelier’s Chevrolet Chevelle.
Three days later, on the morning of Sept. 21, Paz and Suarez followed Letelier as he drove to work with two associates, Ronni Moffitt and her husband Michael.
As the Chevelle proceeded down Massachusetts Avenue, through an area known as Embassy Row because many of the city’s embassies line the street, the assassins detonated the bomb.
The blast ripped off Letelier’s legs and punctured a hole in Ronni Moffitt’s jugular vein. She drowned in her own blood at the scene; Letelier died after being taken to George Washington University Hospital. Michael Moffitt survived.
At the time, the attack represented the worst act of international terrorism on U.S. soil and remains the most notorious terror attack sponsored by a foreign government inside the United States.
Adding to the potential for scandal, the terrorism had been carried out by a regime that was an ostensible ally of the United States, one that had gained power with the help of the Nixon administration and the CIA.
Though initially treated in the press as a murder mystery, the facts behind the Letelier bombing threatened to unleash a major political scandal at just the wrong time for President Gerald Ford’s election campaign.
Bush at RiskGeorge H.W. Bush’s reputation was also at risk. As authors Dinges and Landau noted in Assassination on Embassy Row, “the CIA reaction was peculiar” after the cable from Ambassador Landau arrived disclosing a covert Chilean intelligence operation and asking Deputy Director Walters if he had a meeting scheduled with the DINA agents.
“Landau expected Walters to take quick action in the event that the Chilean mission did not have CIA clearance. Yet a week passed during which the assassination team could well have had time to carry out their original plan to go directly from Paraguay to Washington to kill Letelier. Walters and Bush conferred during that week about the matter.”
“One thing is clear,” Dinges and Landau wrote, “DINA chief Manuel Contreras would have called off the assassination mission if the CIA or State Department had expressed their displeasure to the Chilean government. An intelligence officer familiar with the case said that any warning would have been sufficient to cause the assassination to be scuttled. Whatever Walters and Bush did – if anything – the DINA mission proceeded.”
Within hours of the bombing, Letelier’s associates accused the Pinochet regime, citing its hatred of Letelier and its record for brutality. The Chilean government, however, heatedly denied any responsibility.
That night, at a dinner at the Jordanian Embassy, Sen. James Abourezk, a South Dakota Democrat, spotted Bush and approached the CIA director. Abourezk said he was a friend of Letelier’s and beseeched Bush to use the CIA “to find the bastards who killed him.”
Abourezk said Bush responded: “I’ll see what I can do. We are not without assets in Chile.” [See Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]
A problem, however, was that one of the CIA’s best-placed assets – DINA chief Manuel Contreras – would turn out to be the mastermind of the assassination.
Wiley Gilstrap, the CIA’s Santiago station chief, did approach Contreras with questions about the Letelier bombing and wired back to Langley Contreras’s assurance that the Chilean government wasn’t involved.
Following the strategy of public misdirection already used in hundreds of “disappearances,” Contreras pointed the finger at the Chilean Left. Contreras suggested that leftists had killed Letelier to turn him into a martyr.
Evidence of LyingThe Ford administration, of course, had plenty of evidence that Contreras was lying.
Like a quarter century later, when the U.S. government immediately recognized al-Qaeda’s hand in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington because U.S. officials knew about Osama bin Laden’s intentions, there were signs everywhere in September 1976 that DINA had been plotting some kind of attack inside the United States.
If anything, the Letelier assassination should have been even easier to solve since the Pinochet government had flashed its intention to mount a suspicious operation inside the United States by involving the U.S. Embassy in Paraguay and the deputy director of the CIA. Bush’s CIA even had in its files a photograph of the leader of the terrorist squad, Michael Townley.
“The CIA had substantive evidence to show that Contreras was lying,” research Peter Kornbluh wrote in The Pinochet File. “The Agency had concrete knowledge that DINA had murdered other political opponents abroad, using the same modus operandi as the Letelier case. The Agency had substantive intelligence on Condor, and Chile’s involvement in planning murders of political opponents in Europe.”
Rather than fulfilling his promise to Abourezk to “see what I can do,” Bush ignored leads that would have taken him into a confrontation with Pinochet.
Any publicity might have opened up the Ford administration to another round of political damage for coddling a terrorist regime. The CIA either didn’t put the pieces together or chose to avoid the obvious conclusions that the evidence presented.
Indeed, the CIA didn’t seem to want any information that might implicate the Pinochet regime. On Oct. 6, a CIA informant in Chile went to the CIA station in Santiago and relayed an account of Pinochet denouncing Letelier.
The informant said the dictator had called Letelier’s criticism of the government “unacceptable.” The source “believes that the Chilean Government is directly involved in Letelier’s death and feels that investigation into the incident will so indicate,” the CIA field report said.
But Bush’s CIA chose to accept Contreras’s denials and even began leaking information that pointed away from the real killers.
Newsweek’s Periscope reported in the magazine’s Oct. 11, 1976, issue that “the Chilean secret police were not involved. .... The [Central Intelligence] agency reached its decision because the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts and because the murder, coming while Chile’s rulers were wooing U.S. support, could only damage the Santiago regime.” Similar stories ran in other newspapers.
Breaking the CaseDespite the lack of help from Washington, the FBI’s legal attaché in Buenos Aires, Robert Scherrer, began putting the puzzle together only a week after the Letelier bombing.
Relying on a source in the Argentine military, Scherrer reported to his superiors that the assassination was likely the work of Operation Condor, the assassination project organized by the Chilean government.
“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the recent assassination of Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C., may have been carried out as a third phase of Operation Condor,” Scherrer wrote, referring to acts of assassination.
On Nov. 1, 1976, the day before the presidential election, the Washington Post became another vehicle for trumpeting Pinochet’s innocence.
“Operatives of the present Chilean military Junta did not take part in Letelier’s killing,” the Post wrote, citing CIA officials. “CIA Director Bush expressed this view in a conversation late last week with Secretary of State Kissinger.”
Despite these false claims of innocence about Pinochet and his regime, Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Ford to win the presidency on Nov. 2.
Over the next two years, federal investigators would crack the case, successfully bringing charges against Townley and several other conspirators. But prosecutor Eugene Propper told me that the CIA didn’t volunteer the crucial information about the Paraguayan gambit or supply the photo of the chief assassin, Townley.
“Nothing the agency gave us helped us break this case,” Propper said.
Regarding the Letelier murder, neither Bush nor Walters was ever pressed to provide a full explanation of their activities.
When I submitted questions to Bush in 1988 – while he was Vice President and I was a Newsweek correspondent preparing a story on his year as CIA director – Bush’s chief of staff Craig Fuller responded, saying “the Vice President generally does not comment on issues related to the time he was at the Central Intelligence Agency and he will have no comment on the specific issues raised in your letter.”
Newsweek editors subsequently decided not to publish any story about Bush’s year at the CIA though he was then running for President and citing his CIA experience as an important element of his resumé. Walters also rebuffed interview requests on the Letelier topic prior to his death on Feb. 10, 2002, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
In 1995, after the Pinochet dictatorship had ended, DINA chief Contreras was convicted in Chile for the Letelier assassination and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Contreras began implicating Pinochet in the Letelier murder and other acts of terrorism, saying Pinochet knew and approved all of Contreras’s actions.
As for Pinochet, Bush didn’t appear to hold a grudge against this foreign leader who had sponsored a terrorist attack under the nose of the U.S. government at a time when Bush was chief of U.S. intelligence.
In 1998, when Pinochet was detained in Great Britain on an extradition request from Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who was pursuing Pinochet for his role in killing Spanish citizens, one of the world leaders who rallied to Pinochet’s defense was George H.W. Bush, then the former President of the United States.
Bush called the case against Pinochet “a travesty of justice” and urged that Pinochet be sent home to Chile “as soon as possible,” a position ultimately endorsed by the British courts.
Now, eight years later, the baton of the Letelier-Moffitt-murder cover-up has passed to a new Bush generation, with George W. Bush now protecting Pinochet from prosecution and sparing the Bush Family possible exposure as hypocrites on terrorism.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.' This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
Copyright © 2006 The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.
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This story was published on September 22, 2006.