October 5, 1999
Bush & the Condor Mystery
By Robert Parry
Newly released U.S. government documents reveal that George Bush's CIA knew more about Chile's role in an international assassination ring, code-named Condor, than Bush and the agency disclosed to FBI agents investigating a Condor terrorist bombing in Washington, D.C., in 1976.
On June 30, the Clinton administration released several documents about Operation Condor in response to demands from American researchers and requests from Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who is seeking to extradite Chile's former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and put him on trial for crimes against humanity.
The new documents suggest that the CIA and its then-director, George Bush, withheld information that could have helped the FBI in its investigation of a terrorist car-bombing in Washington that killed Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier and American co-worker Ronni Moffitt on Sept. 21, 1976.
The records show U.S. intelligence was well aware that Pinochet's government in Chile had organized seven South American military dictatorships into Operation Condor, a cross-border assassination ring to hunt down leftists. But instead of sharing that information with federal criminal investigators, Bush's CIA withheld it -- and even diverted suspicion away from Pinochet's junta.
According to the new documents, the CIA was aware that the seven Condor nations were plotting international assassinations in the weeks before the Letelier-Moffitt car-bombing. The CIA issued a series of internal reports about Condor activities and cited the possibility of "government planned and directed assassinations within and outside the territory of Condor members."
That knowledge prompted meetings between Condor-nation leaders and U.S. ambassadors who advised that cross-border assassinations could "exacerbate public world criticism."
Bush's CIA was to make a "parallel approach" to Chile's intelligence service, DINA, but the results were not disclosed. [For details on the new documents, see Peter Kornbluh's "Chile Declassified" article in The Nation, Aug. 9/16, 1999.]
The Clinton administration refused to release information about what was said at those U.S.-Condor meetings on the grounds that the 23-year-old Letelier-Moffitt murder case is still active.
That decision likely means that the actions of the CIA and the extent of Bush's personal involvement in Operation Condor will remain secret for the foreseeable future.
Bush's role on the periphery of this double homicide has been known -- but not clarified -- for more than two decades.
Prior to the Letelier-Moffitt bombing, the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay alerted Bush that two DINA agents were seeking to penetrate the United States with visas using false names.
Supposedly, the agents were headed to CIA headquarters for meetings.
Bush referred the matter to his deputy, Gen. Vernon Walters, who disavowed knowledge of any planned meetings. The visas were canceled, but one of the DINA agents, Michael Townley, simply altered his plans and entered the United States anyway.
Working with anti-Castro Cubans, Townley then traveled to Washington, planted a bomb under Letelier's car and exploded it as the car traveled down Embassy Row, one of the most tightly guarded areas of Washington. The bomb killed Letelier, a persistent critic of the Pinochet government, along with Moffitt who was riding to work with him.
That night, Sen. James Abourezk, a Letelier friend, found himself sitting near Bush at a state dinner at the Jordanian Embassy. Distraught about the murders, Abourezk asked the CIA director to commit the spy agency in the effort "to find the bastards who killed" Letelier. Bush vowed to help and added, obliquely, "we are not without assets in Chile."
But Bush's CIA offered little assistance to the murder investigation, despite the CIA's knowledge of the mysterious DINA mission and of Condor's assassination plans. "Nothing the agency gave us helped us break this case," said federal prosecutor Eugene Propper. The first evidence about Operation Condor came not from the CIA but from FBI agents in South America.
Rather than assist the probe, Bush's CIA appears to have gone to some lengths to help DINA divert attention away from the real assassins. The CIA leaked an analysis to Newsweek that "the Chilean secret police were not involved [in the Letelier-Moffitt car-bombing]. The agency reached its decision because the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts and because the murder, coming while Chilean rulers were wooing U.S. support, could only damage the Santiago regime." [Newsweek, Oct. 11, 1976]
Despite the CIA's analysis, federal prosecutors eventually established that DINA had carried out the murders. After complex negotiations, Townley was extradited to the United States and served a prison term for his role in the killings.
Despite suspicions that Pinochet masterminded the terrorist attack, the U.S. government made no known effort to bring the dictator to justice.
Last fall, when Pinochet went to England for back surgery, however, Spanish judge Garzon persuaded British authorities to arrest the aging general. Since then, Pinochet has battled requests for his extradition to Spain and has enlisted the support of influential world leaders.
One of the advocates for Pinochet's freedom has been George Bush, the former CIA director and later president. In his letter to the British government, Bush called the case against the former dictator "a travesty of justice" and urged that Pinochet be sent home to Chile "as soon as possible."