The ghosts of bombings past

New files about an assassination in Washington, D.C.

Published December 3, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It was one of those rare, tingling moments in the intelligence business when a hot tip affecting the highest levels of governments was whispered across a table. An FBI agent was meeting confidentially in Buenos Aires with his source, a well-placed Argentine military officer.

"Write down these words," the officer told him: "Operation Condor."

It was Sept. 28, 1976. A few days earlier a powerful car bomb had gone off in a spectacular Washington, D.C., terrorist attack, killing Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean diplomat who was organizing a government-in-exile against the Chilean military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which had taken power in a U.S.-backed coup three years earlier. The blast had erupted in the heart of Washington's Embassy Row, as if somebody was trying to make a point.

FBI agent Carter Cornick raced to the scene, where the smoking, twisted wreckage was encircled by fire trucks and ambulances. He identified himself to Michael Moffitt, a charred survivor of the blast. Moffitt's wife, Ronni, who was Letelier's secretary, was dying on the sidewalk from shrapnel in her neck.

"It was DINA! DINA did it," Moffitt screamed at the FBI man. What was Moffitt yelling about? the FBI agent wondered. Who was Dina?

DINA, he soon learned, was not a woman. It was the acronym for the Chilean secret police, the National Intelligence Directorate. To Moffitt, or anyone else with the slightest knowledge of the Pinochet regime's record of torture and killings since 1973, there could be only one culprit in the murder that had taken the lives of Letelier and his wife: DINA, the thugish Chilean gestapo with the motto "By Reason or By Force."

A few days later, Cornick learned more about DINA: According to the FBI's man in Argentina, DINA was at the head of something called Operation Condor, a worldwide operation that combined the intelligence services of a half-dozen Latin American military regimes in a worldwide subterranean Murder, Inc., headquartered in Santiago. Condor's mission: Hunt down and assassinate enemies of the regimes.

Orlando Letelier was just one of Condor's targets, it would turn out. And now, like ghosts calling out from the mists of history, the names of DINA and Condor are coming back to haunt Pinochet, the former Chilean military strongman awaiting his fate at the hands of the British and Spanish governments.

Bending to international pressure, the U.S. government has begun to declassify its own documents on Chile and turn them over to the Spaniards. These may come back to haunt U.S. officials as well.

At the heart of the matter is Condor.

FBI agent Robert Sherrer, now deceased, filed his startling report from
Argentina on Operation Condor on Sept. 28, 1976. He described it as a joint effort by Chile, Argentina and Uruguay to stamp
out leftist opposition in exile. His cable noted that the "most secret phase
of 'Operation Condor' involves the formation of special teams from member
countries who are to travel anywhere in the world to nonmember countries to
carry out sanctions up to assassination." It was "not beyond the realm of possibility" that the Letelier hit was part
of Condor, the cable added.

Exiles had been hunted down in Italy and Spain, among other countries, in an overseas extension of the terror Pinochet had unleashed at home, torturing and "disappearing" thousands of leftists, socialists, communists or merely young foreigners attracted to Chile by the socialist government of Salvador
Allende, which Pinochet had toppled. One was Charles Horman, a 31-year-old filmmaker, writer and human-rights activist, whose murder during the 1973 coup was dramatized in the Jack Lemmon-Sissy Spacek film "Missing." Hundreds of people were disappearing in Chile in the aftermath of the coup, as the U.S. well knew. One State Department memorandum to Henry Kissinger
dated Nov. 16, 1973, said, "An internal, confidential report prepared for the
junta puts the number of executions for the period Sept. 11-30 at 320," or
more than three times the publicly acknowledged figure. The memo said Chile's
leaders justified the executions as legal under martial law. "Also present is a
puritanical, crusading spirit," it added. "A number of those executed seem
to have been petty criminals."

In its foreign assassinations, DINA often contracted with right-wing anti-Castro Cuban exiles from New Jersey and Florida. For the Letelier mission,
DINA selected a special agent, Michael Townley, the American-born son of a
Ford Motor Company executive in Chile, to recruit the Cubans.

Pinochet was firmly in control of the operations, his secret police chief
would testify in court years later.

The State Department knew Townley was coming to Washington on some kind of
unspecified mission, as it turned out. Relations between Washington and
Santiago were cordial: President Nixon and his national security
advisor, Kissinger, had helped put Pinochet in power. In 1976 Kissinger
was secretary of state, while future President George Bush was head of the Central
Intelligence Agency. The CIA's deputy director was Vernon Walters, a
multilingual Army officer and outspoken supporter of the Chilean military.

The Chileans notified the CIA that Townley was coming, even sending along a
photograph, a traditional courtesy among friendly intelligence services.

On the night of Sept. 20, 1976, Townley strapped the bomb under Letelier's car in the Maryland suburbs. The next morning the Cubans set it off by remote control as Letelier drove along Washington's famed Embassy Row.

As Carter Cornick and other FBI agents scrambled for leads in the aftermath
of the bombing, they were surprised to
pick up a newspaper and read a statement by Kissinger that the White
House had "ruled out" the Pinochet regime as a suspect in the Letelier murder.

The FBI had done no such thing. But it -- like everyone else in the
government -- knew how to read between the lines of an official statement,
especially when it came from someone as powerful as Kissinger. Investigative
leads dried up. The picture of Townley remained buried in CIA and State
Department files until -- years later --it was found and leaked by the FBI during the Jimmy Carter administration.

Townley was then handed over to the FBI by Chile, turned state's evidence and ratted out his three Cuban conspirators, whose convictions were subsequently overturned. Townley skated into the witness protection program, where he's lived free under a new name ever since.

The same Cuban exiles, as well as more of their right-wing brethren, are
thought to have participated in the murders of other Chilean exiles abroad,
including on Spanish soil, where Pinochet is being sought to answer murder
charges. Citizens of Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands were also
murdered and tortured by Pinochet's security forces in Chile.

"The administration is conducting a review of documents in its possession
that may shed light on human rights abuses during the Pinochet era," State
Department spokesman James Rubin said Tuesday. "We will declassify and make
public as much information as possible, consistent with U.S. laws and the
national security and law-enforcement interests of the United States."

A retired officer from the CIA, whose record of deception and evasion in
Chile is unparalleled, called the Pinochet papers "a can of worms."

Nobody could argue with that.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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