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Chile Declassified

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Operation Condor

About the Author

Peter Kornbluh
Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, and co-author (with William M....

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The documents on Pinochet and DINA will be among the first that Spanish investigative magistrate Judge Baltasar Garzón is likely to review as he prepares to file extradition briefs in London at the end of August. Garzón will also focus on declassified records that reveal what the United States knew about Operation Condor--a sinister cabal of Southern Cone intelligence services, led by Chile, that collaborated on tracking, kidnapping and assassinating opponents of the military regimes.

For more than twenty years, the only known US document on Condor was an FBI cable, sent from Buenos Aires on September 28, 1976, seven days after the Washington, DC, car-bomb murder of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies, Ronni Moffitt. Now it is clear that US intelligence generated numerous reports and alerts on Condor--referred to in the documents as a "counterterrorism organization."

Chile, which created the operation in 1974, was Condor One; Ecuador, the last country to be incorporated into the organization, in 1978, was Condor 7. Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia filled out the membership, according to the documents. The seven intelligence services used a special communications system, known as CONDORTEL, to facilitate intelligence sharing and operations. A Condor center was created in Buenos Aires, and agents were trained in Santiago. According to CIA sources, at one point Condor had a European operations plan, "to be centered in France," where many Chilean exiles lived. French intelligence, according to another CIA cable, "was aware of the existence and some objectives of Operation Condor."

So was US intelligence. In the weeks prior to the Letelier-Moffitt murder, we know now, the CIA issued a series of reports on Condor operations that identified the possibility of "government planned and directed assassinations within and outside the territory of Condor members." Instead of going public in denouncing such planned acts of terrorism--which might have deterred the Washington bombing--Secretary Kissinger's office decided to issue a secret "roger channel" cable in August 1976 to US embassies in Santiago, Buenos Aires and Montevideo. US ambassadors were to meet with "appropriate officials," including heads of state, and tell them that while Washington understood their security concerns assassination would "further exacerbate public world criticism of governments involved" and "create a most serious moral and political problem." In the case of Chile, the cable recommended that the CIA station chief--whose name is deleted--make a "parallel approach," presumably to DINA chieftain Contreras.

It is not known what meetings took place as a result of the cable or what was discussed, but Condor operations escalated rather than abated. Four days after Letelier and Moffitt were murdered, on September 25, 1976, by Chilean secret police assassins, Argentine and Uruguayan Condor teams collaborated in a sweep in Buenos Aires against OPR-33, a Uruguayan leftist group. That week, the head of Argentina's State Secretariat for Information traveled to Santiago to "consult with his Chilean counterparts on Operation Condor," according to a declassified DIA report. And in December, the CIA reported, representatives of all Condor countries gathered in Buenos Aires for three days to "review past activities and discuss future plans," particularly "coordinated psychological warfare operations directed against leftist and radical groups."

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