by Lucy Komisar
American Reporter Correspondent
New York, N.Y.
July 8, 2002
CIA KNEW OF LATIN TERROR PLAN, MEMO SHOWS
WASHINGTON -- In the days after the 1976 assassination in Washington of two opponents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Central Intelligence Agency learned that a conspiracy to murder leftist political opponents around the world by six Latin American governments was planning a Paris operation. The State Department memorandum says the security services of those countries knew that the United States was aware of their plans.
These were the days of the infamous Operation Condor, led by Chile and including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. All were military dictatorships supported by Washington. Hundreds died.
If Washington knew about a specific operation, rather than Operation Condor's general outlines, it has more comprehensive information about the network's activities than it has made public. That evidence is wanted in Europe and Latin America by victims' families and by judges investigating charges of murder and crimes against humanity.
The memo also adds to the questions about U.S. policy in support of Pinochet and his fellow despots. The cable to Deputy Secretary of State Philip Habib, the No. 2 person in former President Gerald Ford's State Department, would have gone to his boss, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Habib is dead. Kissinger refuses to give testimony to the foreign courts.
The document was obtained in May in answer to a 1995 Freedom of Information Act request. The State Department reviewer who vetted the paper revealed the "Paris" section, which had been blacked out in an earlier public release - possibly because my request specifically asked for records relating to my assertion that in "1976 or 1977, the CIA found out about Condor plans in Europe and advised police of France and Portugal where assassinations were planned."
The cable to Habib from Harry Shlaudeman, then head of the State Department's Latin America bureau, is dated just four days after the Sept. 21 Washington assassination by Chilean agents of Chilean socialist leader Orlando Letelier and American researcher Ronni Moffitt.
Letelier was foreign minister and ambassador to Washington under elected President Salvador Allende, who died in the U.S.-supported 1973 coup led by Gen. Pinochet. Moffitt, who worked with Letelier at a Washington think tank, was in the car. It was the Condor network's best-known assassination; the pursuit of the killers drove U.S. Chile policy once Jimmy Carter replaced Ford in the White House in 1977.
Entitled "Operation Condor," the declassified part of the memo refers to the assassinations: "My CIA counterpart tells me that all the reports we have on this subject have been disseminated to the FBI. The Agency has also responded to requests from the Bureau for traces on several possible Chilean suspects."
The newly revealed sentence: "My friend also told me that the security services in the Condor countries now know that we know about the proposed Paris operation."
It's no surprise the CIA knew. Chilean Col. Manuel Contreras, who organized the Condor terror network, had organized the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), the Chilean secret police, two months after the 1973 coup. CIA station chief Stuart Burton, who arrived in Santiago in May 1974, established a tight liaison.
"I don't believe the CIA set up DINA; but they were in a close relationship," said John Tipton, the U.S. embassy political officer at the time. Tipton cabled information about human rights abuses to Washington. He also co-authored a report through a special "dissent channel," set up after the Vietnam War to allow State Department employees to pass on to higher officials information that may disagree with the assessments of their own bosses. "Burton and Contreras used to go on Sunday picnics together with their families," said Tipton. "That permeated the whole CIA station."
In August 1975, Contreras met in Washington with then-CIA deputy director Vernon A. Walters. No documents have been declassified that might indicate Walters urged or approved the plan to set up Operation Condor. It is notable, however, that until then co-operation among the security services of the Latin dictators had been informal. A month after the meeting with Walters, Contreras asked Pinochet for money for "neutralization of the [Chilean] government junta's principal adversaries abroad," in a memo reportedly obtained by Italian courts.
Condor's victims were typically leaders of political groups, trade unions, and student and community organizations who fled seeking safety abroad.
On Sept. 30, 1976, the U.S. embassy in Argentina told the State Department that Condor had organized "a special team" to target subjects in Europe, "specifically in France and Portugal."
The only known case of the Pinochet regime targeting a political refugee in France in 1976 was a plot against Carlos Altamirano, exiled Chilean Socialist Party President. "There were two attempts ... one in Paris, the other in Madrid," recalled Altamirano in a telephone interview from Santiago. French intelligence discovered the attempts at a time when he was staying in the house of the secretary of Socialist Party President François Mitterrand, Altamirano said. "They told Mitterrand and he told his secretary. I just became more vigilant"
It was only after the Washington assassinations showed that Condor terrorists would strike even on American soil that the CIA decided the network had become a rogue operation capable of creating problems in the United States. That's why it advised foreign police when it discovered the assassination plans for France and Portugal.
A U.S. public statement about the Paris plot would have been a warning to prospective victims who had sought safety in exile, as well as a tough message to the state sponsors of the killers. But no warning came. It would have raised unwanted questions about U.S. support for the six repressive regimes.
The U.S. imposed minor penalties on the men who killed Letelier and Moffitt. However, courts in other countries are more serious about bringing the Condor killers - and their bosses - to justice.
Henry Kissinger and U.S. officials with access to the documents need to tell America, France and the rest of the world now about the "Paris operation." The U.S. should provide the information to judges in France, Spain and elsewhere who have asked for documents relating to political murders of their nationals in the 1970s and l980s. And Kissinger should reveal what the U.S. told the Condor governments after learning they knew Washington knew about their murder plans.
Lucy Komisar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a New York journalist who investigates international crime, terrorism and corruption.