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.
“Every day it is
clearer that Pinochet ordered my brother’s death,” human rights lawyer
Fabiola Letelier told the New York Times. “But for a proper and complete
investigation to take place we need access to the appropriate records
and evidence.” [NYT, Sept. 21, 2006]
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.
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.
The 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
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
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
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.]
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.
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.
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.
It also remains
unclear what – if anything – Bush’s CIA did after learning about the
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.”
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 Plot
As for the Letelier
assassination, DINA was soon plotting another way to carry out the
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
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.
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 Risk
George 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.
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.
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
Evidence of Lying
administration, of course, had plenty of evidence that Contreras was
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.”
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
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.
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
Breaking the Case
Despite 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
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
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
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
“Nothing the agency
gave us helped us break this case,” Propper said.
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.”
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.'