On September 28, 1973, seventeen days after the bloody coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power, two Chilean military officers approached the US Embassy with a request: The new regime required "advisor assistance from a person qualified in establishing a detention center for detainees which they anticipate will be retained over a relatively long period of time."
In a secret cable to Washington, Ambassador Nathaniel Davis noted that detailing a US adviser to assist the protracted imprisonment of civilians--more than 13,500 people had been detained for the crime of supporting the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende--"provides obvious political problems." However, he recommended, the State Department might "consider feasibility of material assistance in form of tents, blankets, etc. which need not be publicly and specifically earmarked for prisoners."
This cable was among some 5,800 US documents, many of them recording Washington's casual attitude toward the repression after the coup, declassified by the Clinton Administration on June 30 in response to pressure from Congress, Pinochet's victims and human rights groups. Totaling over 20,000 pages, the release, "Human Rights in Chile--Tranche One," is the first of several on the long-hidden history of the United States and Chile.
The documents, the work of the special "Chile Declassification Project," constitute the first US government policy statement--however indirect--on Pinochet's fate. Detained last October in London, the 83-year-old former dictator remains under house arrest pending hearings on extradition to Spain. Pressed to abandon its "neutral" posture on Pinochet's prosecution for crimes against humanity, the Administration has decided, says one White House aide, to "declassify what we can so that we can say we did our share" [see Kornbluh, "Prisoner Pinochet," December 21, 1998].
Pinochet, God and DINA
In an unusual move, the Administration released the documents simultaneously in Washington and Santiago. While the documents are conspicuously lacking in information about the US role in helping Pinochet take and consolidate power, they are rich in detail about the inner workings of his bloody regime. Chileans, long misled by Pinochet's propaganda, will learn the secret history of their own country between 1973 and 1978. Their more immediate value, however, will be to empower Chile's human rights movement and provide concrete evidence for legal proceedings that are beginning to be brought in Santiago against former officials in the Pinochet regime.
The declassified State Department, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency reports name names, places and events. One DIA analysis, titled "Covert Countersubversive Activities in Chile," reveals for example that the bombing of two houses in Santiago during the first week of November 1977 was the work of Chile's Army, Navy and Air Force intelligence services, not of the left, as the regime claimed at the time. The use of bombs, the DIA source explained, was "a conscious decision by the service intelligence chiefs that the best way to deal with the safe house problem is by blowing them up, if possible, with the terrorists present. Arrests and prosecutions would 'take months'; an explosion would produce speedy results."
Another intelligence report, dated November 20, 1975, describes a meeting between the heads of the Chilean military intelligence services--all named--to address "illegal detentions" by the Air Force, Navy and military police. At the time, according to the CIA, Pinochet had issued "a secret decree" ordering that only the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA) was supposed to engage in detaining and interrogating political prisoners. DINA was responsible for many of the kidnappings, torture and disappearances inside Chile, as well as acts of international terrorism in Argentina, Italy and the United States. The US documents, which include a comprehensive "organizational diagram," reveal the structure, operations and abuses of DINA in more detail than was previously known. More important, CIA and DIA intelligence reports demonstrate that these atrocities continued because Pinochet alone protected this sinister force from being shut down or restructured by other members of the junta.
Document after document records near unanimous criticism of DINA chieftain Col. Manuel Contreras and DINA's unaccountable power--from inside the regime itself. "The apprehensions of many senior Chilean military authorities regarding the possibility of DINA becoming a modern-day Gestapo may very well be coming to fruition," the US military attaché informed the Pentagon in April 1975. There were three sources of power in Chile, according to one Chilean official: "Pinochet, God and DINA."
Moreover, US intelligence explicitly placed Pinochet at the top of the chain of command overseeing DINA's bloody operations. A May 1977 CIA "Regional and Political Analysis" report, for example, contained a detailed section on "Chile: Violations of Human Rights." The report stated that DINA was "behind the recent increase in torture, illegal detentions, and unexplained 'disappearances,'" and identified Manuel Contreras as a "close confidant of Pinochet: Contreras answers directly to the President, and it is unlikely that he would act without the knowledge and approval of his superior." Indeed, Pinochet was briefed every morning at 7:30 on "the coming events and status of existing DINA activities," a "very senior DINA official" informed the US military attaché in Santiago. According to a DIA intelligence report dated July 10, 1975, the source stated that "the President issues instructions to DINA; is aware of its activities; and in fact heads it." [Emphasis added.]