The Letter the Council on Foreign Relations Refused to Publish (Re: L'Affaire Pinochet)

Roundup: Talking About History

On June 5, 2004 the NYT reported: "The chief Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, the nation's pre-eminent foreign policy club, has quit as a protest, accusing the council of stifling debate on American intervention in Chile during the 1970's as a result of pressure from former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger." The expert, Kenneth Maxwell, says he resigned after the Council refused to publish his response to a letter criticizing his review of Peter Kornbluh's The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. Kornbluh says he was also prevented from responding in print. Below is the letter Kornbluh asked the Council to publish.

Maxwell's main claim was that the the United States government could have prevented the carbombing of Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. in 1976. The assassination was ordered by Pinochet's repressive government as part of a vigorous campaign to stamp out dissent.

The first account of the controversy was published by the Nation on June 3, 2004. On June 10 the National Security Archive published declassified documents that support Maxwell's claim that the U.S. knew in advance of attempts to kill dissidents and could have interceded to stop it.

To the Editor:

The refusal by Foreign Affairs to print Kenneth Maxwell's response to William D. Rogers letter ("Crisis Prevention," March/April 2004 issue) is not only unjust to Maxwell but, more importantly, to the truth regarding an egregious act of international terrorism that took place on the streets of Washington D.C. As the authors of two books that document what Henry Kissinger's office knew and what it did and didn't do about the network of Southern Cone secret police operatives known as Operation Condor, we believe that the Rogers letter should not be allowed to stand uncorrected.

The focus of the Rogers letter is on the September 21, 1976, car-bombing on Massachusetts Avenue, carried out by agents of Gen. Pinochet's DINA, that took the life of former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his American colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Rogers dismisses Maxwell's assertion that "this was a tragedy that might have been prevented" and scoffs: "by whom, one might ask?"

The answer is that it could have been prevented by Secretary of State Kissinger's office and by the CIA, both of which had advance intelligence on Operation Condor assassination plots. The declassified CIA and State Department records are absolutely clear on this point. The CIA obtained concrete intelligence in early June 1976-months before the Letelier-Moffitt assassination took place, that Southern Cone military intelligence officials were coordinating their repression against perceived enemies in Latin America and abroad, and that their operations included international assassinations. The documents show that on July 30, 1976, a CIA briefer told Assistant Secretary Harry Shlaudeman about "disturbing developments" in the "operational attitudes" of an organization codenamed Operation Condor.

The intelligence reports cited by Shlaudeman did not indicate the Condor plans involved the United States. But we now know that such reports existed: both the CIA and the State Department received reports from the U.S. Embassy in Paraguay that two Chilean agents, using false passports and false identities had requested visas to travel from Asuncion to Washington D.C. in late July. In addition, the CIA has acknowledged in a letter that it learned of a threat by Uruguay to kill U.S. Congressman Edward Koch in reprisal for his legislative efforts to cut off military aid to that country. The threat, made by an officer now known to have been a Condor operative, was also received in late July, around the same time the CIA was developing its intelligence conclusions about Condor.

The declassified record shows that Secretary of Kissinger was briefed on Condor and its "murder operations" on August 5, 1976, in a 14-page report from Shlaudeman. "Internationally, the Latin generals look like our guys," Shlaudeman cautioned. "We are especially identified with Chile. It cannot do us any good."

Shlaudeman and his two deputies, William Luers and Hewson Ryan, recommended action. Over the course of three weeks, they drafted a cautiously worded demarche, approved by Kissinger, in which he instructed the U.S. ambassadors in the Southern Cone countries to meet with the respective heads of state about Condor. He instructed them to express "our deep concern" about "rumors" of "plans for the assassination of subversives, politicians and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad."

This cable was dated August 23, 1976-four full weeks prior to the bombing that killed Letelier and Moffitt. In effect, Kissinger's warning placed the Condor regimes on notice that the United States had detected their assassination plans and wanted them stopped. It is reasonable to conclude that if the demarche had been delivered to Chile, the Pinochet regime would have aborted the assassination mission that was already underway.

In his first letter published in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Rogers asserts that "Kissinger's warning was delivered in robust fashion to the Argentine president-there are cables to prove it…and probably to Pinochet's underlings in Santiago." That is incorrect. In fact, there are no such cables.

In the all important case of the Pinochet regime, which sponsored the plot to kill Letelier, we have a cable dated August 24 from U.S. Ambassador Popper advising against talking to Pinochet because he "might well take as an insult any inference that he was connected with such assassination plots." Popper requested approval for an alternative plan: to send the CIA station chief to talk to the head of the Chilean secret police. Although there is an August 30 document indicating that Shlaudeman favored Popper's approach, Popper received no reply, at least not until after the assassination. This lack of reply is confirmed by available documents and by interviews with those involved. One official, Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas Boyatt said he has a distinct memory that no reply was received.

Boyatt had no explanation for this failure of communication: "This says Shlaudeman has decided by August 30 not to go to Pinochet. So what's the big secret? Why couldn't we be put into action [the next day]. And I don't know the answer to that….But going to [DINA chief] Contreras [the next day] would have made a difference, I think. Or at least it might have."

In the case of Argentina, there are two memoranda [Document 10 and Document 11] chronicling a conversation that occurred on September 21, between Ambassador Robert Hill and General Jorge Videla. These cables indicate a general discussion of human rights took place but make no mention of Condor or of the serious U.S. concerns about reports of international assassination plans. How could it be that the ambassador ignored specific instructions from Secretary of State Kissinger?

The answer seems to lie in a secret cable sent by Shlaudeman from Costa Rica to his deputy in D.C. William Luers, on September 20-the day before the Hill/Videla meeting and the car bombing. The one-paragraph cable is titled "Operation Condor" and is marked for relevance to Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Shlaudeman states: "You can simply instruct the Ambassadors to take no further action, noting that there have been no reports in some weeks indicating an intention to activate the Condor scheme."

Maxwell suggests that the timing of this cable, sent only eighteen hours before Letelier's car was blown up in downtown Washington, was "a cruel coincidence." No one argues that the cable indicates complicity by any U.S. official in Letelier's death; Rogers' inference to that effect is absurd and a red herring. The point is not that the assassination might have been prevented at that late hour. The importance of the cable is that it is documented evidence that an initiative to counter terrorism had been aborted before it was ever carried out. Thirteen days after the assassination Shlaudeman belatedly sent his approval to Ambassador Popper's suggestion that the CIA station chief present the Condor demarche directly to DINA's Contreras instead of to Pinochet. We believe that this cable raises the question of whether those involved may have been attempting to cover up their failure to act on the Condor threat prior to the assassination.

The paper trail is clear: the State Department and the CIA had enough intelligence to take concrete steps to thwart Condor assassination planning. Those steps were initiated but never implemented. Shlaudeman's deputy, Hewson Ryan, would later acknowledge in an oral history interview that the State Department was "remiss" in its handling of the case. "We knew fairly early on that the governments of the Southern Cone countries were planning, or at least talking about, some assassinations abroad in the summer of 1976. … Whether if we had gone in, we might have prevented this, I don't know," he stated in reference to the Letelier-Moffitt bombing. "But we didn't."

At a time when our nation is once again examining whether there was enough intelligence to detect and deter the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is imperative that this earlier act of terrorism be understood for the lessons it holds, rather than distorted by commission or omission. To do anything less would be to dishonor two people whose deaths might have been prevented.

Peter Kornbluh
Author-The Pinochet File

John Dinges
Author-The Condor Years

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