George H.W. Bush, the CIA and a Case of State-Sponsored Terrorism

Forty-two years ago, a car-bomb exploded in Washington killing Chile’s ex-Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, an act of state terrorism that the CIA and its director George H.W. Bush tried to cover up, Robert Parry reported on Sept. 23, 2000.

By Robert Parry
Special to Consortium News 

In early fall of 1976, after a Chilean government assassin had killed a Chilean dissident and an American woman with a car bomb in Washington, D.C., George H.W. Bush’s CIA leaked a false report clearing Chile’s military dictatorship and pointing the FBI in the wrong direction.

The bogus CIA assessment, spread through Newsweek magazine and other U.S. media outlets, was planted despite CIA’s now admitted awareness at the time that Chile was participating in Operation Condor, a cross-border campaign targeting political dissidents, and the CIA’s own suspicions that the Chilean junta was behind the terrorist bombing in Washington.

In a 21-page report to Congress on Sept. 18, 2000, the CIA officially acknowledged for the first time that the mastermind of the terrorist attack, Chilean intelligence chief Manuel Contreras, was a paid asset of the CIA.

The CIA report was issued almost 24 years to the day after the murders of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and American co-worker Ronni Moffitt, who died on Sept. 21, 1976, when a remote-controlled bomb ripped apart Letelier’s car as they drove down Massachusetts Avenue, a stately section of Washington known as Embassy Row.

In the report, the CIA also acknowledged publicly for the first time that it consulted Contreras in October 1976 about the Letelier assassination. The report added that the CIA was aware of the alleged Chilean government role in the murders and included that suspicion in an internal cable the same month.

CIA’s first intelligence report containing this allegation was dated 6 October 1976,” a little more than two weeks after the bombing, the CIA disclosed.

Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier, murdered when right-wing terrorists blew up his car in Washington on Sept. 21, 1976. (Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, the CIA – then under CIA Director George H.W. Bush – leaked for public consumption an assessment clearing the Chilean government’s feared intelligence service, DINA, which was then run by Contreras.

Relying on the word of Bush’s CIA, Newsweek reported that “the Chilean secret police were not involved” in the Letelier assassination. “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.” [Newsweek, Oct. 11, 1976]

Bush, who later became the 41st president of the United States (and is the father of the 43rd president), has never explained his role in putting out the false cover story that diverted attention away from the real terrorists. Nor has Bush explained what he knew about the Chilean intelligence operation in the weeks before Letelier and Moffitt were killed.

Dodging Disclosure

As a Newsweek correspondent in 1988, a dozen years after the Letelier bombing, when the elder Bush was running for president, I prepared a detailed story about Bush’s handling of the Letelier case.

The draft story included the first account from U.S. intelligence sources that Contreras was a CIA asset in the mid-1970s. I also learned that the CIA had consulted Contreras about the Letelier assassination, information that the CIA then would not confirm.

The sources told me that the CIA sent its Santiago station chief, Wiley Gilstrap, to talk with Contreras after the bombing. Gilstrap then cabled back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Contreras’s assurances that the Chilean government was not involved. Contreras told Gilstrap that the most likely killers were communists who wanted to make a martyr out of Letelier.

My story draft also described how Bush’s CIA had been forewarned in 1976 about DINA’s secret plans to send agents, including the assassin Michael Townley, into the United States on false passports.

Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in a meeting at the White House on Feb. 12, 1981. (Reagan Library)

Upon learning of this strange mission, the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, George Landau, cabled Bush about Chile’s claim that Townley and another agent were traveling to CIA headquarters for a meeting with Bush’s deputy, Vernon Walters. Landau also forwarded copies of the false passports to the CIA.

Walters cabled back that he was unaware of any scheduled appointment with these Chilean agents. Landau immediately canceled the visas, but Townley simply altered his plans and continued on his way to the United States. After arriving, he enlisted some right-wing Cuban-Americans in the Letelier plot and went to Washington to plant the bomb under Letelier’s car.

The CIA has never explained what action it took, if any, after receiving Landau’s warning. A natural follow-up would have been to contact DINA and ask what was afoot or whether a message about the trip had been misdirected. The CIA report in 2000 made no mention of these aspects of the case.

After the assassination, Bush promised the CIA’s full cooperation in tracking down the Letelier-Moffitt killers. But instead the CIA took contrary actions, such as planting the false exoneration and withholding evidence that would have implicated the Chilean junta.

Nothing the agency gave us helped us to break this case,” said federal prosecutor Eugene Propper in a 1988 interview for the story I was drafting for Newsweek. The CIA never volunteered Ambassador Landau’s cable about the suspicious DINA mission nor copies of the fake passports that included a photo of Townley, the chief assassin. Nor did Bush’s CIA divulge its knowledge of the existence of Operation Condor.

FBI agents in Washington and Latin America broke the case two years later. They discovered Operation Condor on their own and tracked the assassination back to Townley and his accomplices in the United States.

In 1988, as then-Vice President Bush was citing his CIA work as an important part of his government experience, I submitted questions to him asking about his actions in the days before and after the Letelier bombing. Bush’s chief of staff, Craig Fuller, wrote back, saying Bush “will have no comment on the specific issues raised in your letter.”

As it turned out, the Bush campaign had little to fear from my discoveries. When I submitted my story draft – with its exclusive account of Contreras’s role as a CIA asset – Newsweek’s editors refused to run the story. Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas told me that Editor Maynard Parker even had accused me of being “out to get Bush.”

The CIA’s Admission

Twenty-four years after the Letelier assassination and 12 years after Newsweek killed the first account of the Contreras-CIA relationship, the CIA admitted that it had paid Contreras as an intelligence asset and consulted with him about the Letelier assassination.

Still, in the sketchy report in 2000, the spy agency sought to portray itself as more victim than accomplice. According to the report, the CIA was internally critical of Contreras’s human rights abuses and skeptical about his credibility. The CIA said its skepticism predates the spy agency’s contact with him about the Letelier-Moffitt murders.

The relationship, while correct, was not cordial and smooth, particularly as evidence of Contreras’ role in human rights abuses emerged,” the CIA reported. “In December 1974, the CIA concluded that Contreras was not going to improve his human rights performance. …

By April 1975, intelligence reporting showed that Contreras was the principal obstacle to a reasonable human rights policy within the Junta, but an interagency committee [within the Ford administration] directed the CIA to continue its relationship with Contreras.”

The CIA report added that “a one-time payment was given to Contreras” in 1975, a time frame when the CIA was first hearing about Operation Condor, a cross-border program run by South America’s military dictatorships to hunt down dissidents living in other countries.

CIA sought from Contreras information regarding evidence that emerged in 1975 of a formal Southern Cone cooperative intelligence effort – ‘Operation Condor’ – building on informal cooperation in tracking and, in at least a few cases, killing political opponents. By October 1976, there was sufficient information that the CIA decided to approach Contreras on the matter. Contreras confirmed Condor’s existence as an intelligence-sharing network but denied that it had a role in extra-judicial killings.”

Also, in October 1976, the CIA said it “worked out” how it would assist the FBI in its investigation of the Letelier assassination, which had occurred the previous month. The spy agency’s report offered no details of what it did, however. The report added only that Contreras was already a murder suspect by fall 1976.

At that time, Contreras’ possible role in the Letelier assassination became an issue,” the CIA’s report said. “By the end of 1976, contacts with Contreras were very infrequent.”

Even though the CIA came to recognize the likelihood that DINA was behind the Letelier assassination, there never was any indication that Bush’s CIA sought to correct the false impression created by its leaks to the news media asserting DINA’s innocence.

Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush with CIA Director William Casey at the White House on Feb. 11, 1981. (Reagan Library)

After Bush left the CIA with Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977, the spy agency distanced itself from Contreras, the new report said. “During 1977, CIA met with Contreras about half a dozen times; three of those contacts were to request information on the Letelier assassination,” the CIA report said.

On 3 November 1977, Contreras was transferred to a function unrelated to intelligence so the CIA severed all contact with him,” the report added. “After a short struggle to retain power, Contreras resigned from the Army in 1978. In the interim, CIA gathered specific, detailed intelligence reporting concerning Contreras’ involvement in ordering the Letelier assassination.”

Remaining Mysteries

Though the CIA report in 2000 contained the first official admission of a relationship with Contreras, it shed no light on the actions of Bush and his deputy, Walters, in the days before and after the Letelier assassination. It also offered no explanation why Bush’s CIA planted false information in the American press clearing Chile’s military dictatorship.

While providing the 21-page summary on its relationship with Chile’s military dictatorship, the CIA refused to release documents from a quarter century earlier on the grounds that the disclosures might jeopardize the CIA’s “sources and methods.” The refusal came in the face of President Bill Clinton’s specific order to release as much information as possible.

Perhaps the CIA was playing for time. With CIA headquarters officially named the George Bush Center for Intelligence and with veterans of the Reagan-Bush years still dominating the CIA’s hierarchy, the spy agency might have hoped that the election of Texas Gov. George W. Bush would free it from demands to open up records to the American people.

For his part, former President George H.W. Bush declared his intent to take a more active role in campaigning for his son’s election. In Florida on Sept. 22, 2000, Bush said he was “absolutely convinced” that if his son is elected president, “we will restore the respect, honor and decency that the White House deserves.”

The late investigative reporter Robert Parry, the founding editor of Consortium News, broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. His last book, America’s Stolen Narrative, can be obtained in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

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34 comments for “George H.W. Bush, the CIA and a Case of State-Sponsored Terrorism

  1. Mild - ly Facetious
    December 3, 2018 at 21:49

    The CIA report added that “a one-time payment was given to Contreras” in 1975, a time frame when the CIA was first hearing about Operation Condor, a cross-border program run by South America’s military dictatorships to hunt down dissidents living in other countries. — Robert Parry …

    SMALL POTATOES vis-a-vis the CIA’s smuggled introduction of Cocaine into the American underground economy ( as explained by the murdered Michael C. Ruppert as explained in his DEATH-Theatened book, “Crossing the Rubicon” – – a must read for all who hunger and thirst for Truth as opposed to the nationalistic television “news” – that/which fogs / controls the Mental Apparatus of the Majority of everyday American citizens deeply involved in and within their collective Every Day Lives. …

    The pagination of life in America / american lives / is as promulgation by decree, — by which Cherokee, and Other Native American Cultures / were Moved and Removed by Police force / by Political “American” exceptionalist /”rule-of-law”

    – that Ordained (LEGAL) Authority over The Native Peoples belonged to The Pale White Man.
    … . just as it was in the early west, when Europeans were hurried into “the new world” of american Free Land in the western territories where your FREE Remington Rifle was the path to Ownership – of – Land to Any and All whom/which/who had Nothing To Lose by following wagon trains into Free Land – Free Farm / free Acreage provided on an First Come First Served Government Agreement. …

    (be careful whose butt u lick” … 9 an advise from a swamp surviver).

  2. December 2, 2018 at 18:22

    I’m thinking William Blum puts Operation Condor as a CIA program. The disappeared intellectuals of Argentina and an orphanage program were possibly part of Operation Condor. I’ve heard of one person who fled from Chile into continental forests and jungles and didn’t come out for twelve years. Perhaps I’m wrong about these dates. It seems like it was 1973 when President Allende was assassinated and Pinochet became US puppet dictator. Same era; Operation Condor, Kissinger, Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Casey, what a crew.

  3. Gannymede
    December 2, 2018 at 12:46

    Oh come on….was GHWB formerly in the CIA or not? We have the memo as proof! Why was GHWB the only person on the planet that “doesn’t remember where he was when JFK was assassinated? I guess we have yet to really discover planet Earth and its true history in our exploration of the solar system…putting good men on Earth is the next space challenge.

  4. T
    December 2, 2018 at 12:20

    Re fulsome encomiums on the death of Bush Sr. by “statesmen/women”, “leaders”, “publicists”, etc:

    Does anyone know if there is an emoticon that expresses a wish to puke all over the newspaper?

    And if not, would some graphically-skilled person please invent one.

    • December 3, 2018 at 12:18

      My sentiments exactly.

  5. December 2, 2018 at 08:55


  6. henry balfour
    December 1, 2018 at 19:32

    The news broke on New Zealand television news last night; my immediate feeling was one of celebration. The Bush family is deeply, grotesquely, venal – Harriman being the early example. The 43 Bush proved to be a plasticized doll freely twisted by the gang of dual-loyalists in the neo-con hive. There was nothing good about 43. There was compounding evil in 41. Let these bones be buried in a septic system. Let them lie in the ordure. It is the least we can do for the legacy these criminal (41) and cretinous (43) have left on the world. America has lost one of it’s puppets. Send many more after him.

    • christina r garcia
      December 2, 2018 at 21:56

      call me when the David and Charles Koch are toast. And when A lice Walmart whatever her last name is , croaks. and Betsy De vos, Erik Prince. Maybe then we can have a discussion

  7. Lance Jobson
    December 1, 2018 at 19:05

    AND what about Bush spotted in Dallas at the school book depository on Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated? This former Skull & Bonesman had more skeletons in his dark secret closet than a whole bushel of fascist criminals, or Mafia crime bosses.

    • christina r garcia
      December 2, 2018 at 22:10

      true, what you claim. I know this for a fact, I was born on nov 20 1963 in Milwaukee wi and my mom told me she saw everything happen in real time while she was in hospital . She totally saw everything but because she was/is a german immigrant married to military USA ARMY guy , she cant talk. Back in 1963, hospitals had phenomenal communications with other hospitals. Who you gonna believe, me telling the truth, or your own version of history?

      • christina r garcia
        December 2, 2018 at 22:13

        and by the way I made up hospital communications in 1963. The rest is true. see how gullible you are

  8. Lois Gagnon
    December 1, 2018 at 18:37

    Problem with comments again. Showing 1 comment when it turns out there are many. Is it possible to fix this continuous glitch?

    • Anne Jaclard
      December 2, 2018 at 01:09

      Agree. It slows down the debate severely and blocks dialogue. Since we CN readers forced them to change back to the old font, perhaps they’ll listen, no? Perhaps this should be brought to the attention of Moon Of Alabama again….

    • December 3, 2018 at 12:22

      The comment section is an insult to its readers and the late great Robert Parry.

  9. Anne Jaclard
    December 1, 2018 at 18:26

    During the 2016 election, I regularly remarked that Hillary Clinton was not, despite her claims, the “most qualified” US president in US history. That claim, instead, belonged to George H.W. Bush, with his history as the spook in charge of “the company,” Senator, Vice President and ambassador.

    “Qualified,” however, is anything but a compliment. It means that he had committed all the tests of US imperial/corporate service to Empire needed to steer the ship, up to and including immoral acts such as his involvement with the murder on Embassy Row.

    The Transnational Insitute has an archive on the case here ( Needless to say, the extra-judicial right-wing private intelligence networks active both in the US and UK, and unveiled to the world in the Iran-Contra hearings, were involved in the gristly acts of Operation Condor.

    • Miranda M Keefe
      December 1, 2018 at 19:59

      He was a U.S. Representative, but never a Senator. His father, Prescott, was a Senator.

      • Anne Jaclard
        December 2, 2018 at 01:10

        Ah, inter-generational hereditary elitism. Even better!

  10. Lois Gagnon
    December 1, 2018 at 17:39

    Is there any doubt Henry Kissinger was up to his eyeballs in this nasty business? He was the one who convinced Nixon to instigate the military coup in Chile to begin with.

    It’s beyond comprehension how much blood this nasty US empire has on its hands.

  11. Wolf
    December 1, 2018 at 16:06

    Have you no decency? He’s dead, now. Leave the dead, be. It does no one, any good, to drag him through the mud.

    • Lois Gagnon
      December 1, 2018 at 17:44

      I don’t agree. I’m so tired of the sycophant press white washing the history of our worst war pigs and criminals. It only serves to allow the continuation of the crimes of empire.

      It’s gotten so bad that exposing the truth about state crimes has become criminalized. It needs to stop.

    • henry balfour
      December 1, 2018 at 19:36

      Decency ? What has this concept to do with any member of the Bush family ? To the dead we owe only the truth, and the truth about these various Bush pigs is that they contributed to the cancer than has brought a once-great country to it’s death bed. Vis consili, expers mole ruit sua

    • December 2, 2018 at 22:04

      Your’e right Wolf, he’s dead. Now he will fend with his Creator. In the meantime, patriots will keep factual history front & center.

  12. December 1, 2018 at 16:01

    South America and terrorism had the Intelligence agencies hands all over it just as they supported terrorists in the middle east when it suited their interests !

    • Anne Jaclard
      December 1, 2018 at 18:33

      And these actions concentrated into Europe also. GLADIO operations were put in place by the CIA and presumably controlled by the head of that organisation while he was in charge (1967-1977)

      1976-1977 saw the planned killing of Italian Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro supposedly by left wing groups but in reality perhaps carried out by the CIA (

      Other actions to implicate the left falsely in terrorism were also carried out.

      • December 2, 2018 at 01:39

        Anne Jaclard – thank you for the Operation GLADIO reminder. The GLADIO program – considered on it’s own – totally discredits the entirety of Western “democratic” governments, NATO and the Western intelligence services. Professor Ganser’s book on GLADIO is critical to understanding the false flag events of today and how they are used to manipulate public perception and thought – just as GLADIO was used earlier.

  13. December 1, 2018 at 13:38

    I’ve always found it to be the most perfect of ironic scenarios that the Iran/Contra drug running criminal operation involved two future U.S. presidents simultaneously – George as former head of the CIA and now V.P. and Bill Clinton as small time Arkansas governor. Although George had long since proved his worth and loyalty to the deep state forces that run the nation, this was Billy boys chance to show he had what it takes. By shutting down multiple Arkansas State police investigations into the drugs for money/guns operation at the Mena, Arkansas airport Bill was able to pave his own road to the White House right after George left office. What delicious irony regarding our land of the free and home of the brave. What a comment about just what constitutes – “the right stuff” – necessary to be president of our land.

    • olle reimers
      December 2, 2018 at 02:50

      Almost even more remarkable that four presidents-to-be were involved in the Kennedy assassination Three (Johnson, Nixon and GWH at the scene and one (Ford) covering up for the other three.

  14. Mild - ly Facetious
    December 1, 2018 at 13:29

    George H.W. Bush, the CIA and The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy

    Chapter 5, The Assassination of John Kennedy

    Sewer Shot in JFK Assassination –

    “The Umbrella System: Prelude to an Assassination”,

    False Mystery: The JFK Assassination: A False Mystery

  15. Mild - ly Facetious
    December 1, 2018 at 13:06

    Chapter 5, The Assassination of John Kennedy

    Sewer Shot in JFK Assassination –
    “The Umbrella System: Prelude to an Assassination”,

    False Mystery: The JFK Assassination: A False Mystery

  16. michael
    December 1, 2018 at 09:05

    The MSM villifies Putin for his time as a midlevel KGB agent, yet we have a President who actually headed the CIA and helped his son become President. Pick your oligarchs.
    While Allen Dulles supported NAZIs (as did Poppy Bush’s daddy Prescott Bush), headed assassinations worldwide and likely had them spill over into America (the CIA invented the derisive phrase “conspiracy theory”), it was all done for “national security” (not sadism). By Bush’s time as CIA Director the methodologies had improved, the assassinations were not so crude and obvious, protected by “plausible deniability”, and the focus had shifted to financial strangling of targets, countries and their leaders, with ever increasing austerity (as with sanctions and IMF loans today).

  17. Calgacus
    December 1, 2018 at 08:41

    “Fifty-eight years ago, a car-bomb exploded” – 1976 was 42 years ago, not 58. Either that, or that was a really long nap I just got up from after going bowling with those dwarves.

  18. Mishko
    December 1, 2018 at 06:48

    Like the scenario of Scarface?

  19. Kathy
    December 1, 2018 at 04:23

    Thanks for this important piece. But this article gives the impression Operation Condor was rin exclusively by South American dictatorships. It was not; McSherry’s book Predatory States documents the depth of U.S. involvement in this nastiness. I’m pretty sure the CIA were part of it.

    • Fred Mrozek
      December 1, 2018 at 15:27

      Michael Vernon Townley from Wiki: Michael Vernon Townley (born December 5, 1942) is a former agent of the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional[1] currently living under terms of the US federal witness protection program. An operative of the Chilean secret police, Townley confessed, was convicted, and served 62 months in prison in the United States for the 1976 Washington, D.C., assassination of Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the United States.[2] As part of his plea bargain, Townley received immunity from further prosecution; he was not extradited to Argentina to stand trial for the 1974 assassination of Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife.[2]

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