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Pulling Back the Veil on Condor | The Nation

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Pulling Back the Veil on Condor

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For three years, from 1975 through 1977, the countries in what is known as the Southern Cone of South America underwent a human rights crime wave unprecedented before or since in the region. Military regimes in place for more than a decade in Brazil and Paraguay were joined by like-minded military rulers who had overthrown civilian regimes in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Perhaps the most closely guarded secret was a system of international cooperation known as Operation Condor, an intelligence organization in which multinational teams tracked down and assassinated dissidents outside their home countries. At least 13,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps in the six countries participating in Condor.

About the Author

John Dinges
John Dinges has been writing for many years on Latin America. His latest book is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and...

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After three foreign correspondents are decertified, is Cuba sending a message to the international press corps?

Two senior citizens of the
cold war are chatting amiably over small cups of thick, sweet Cuban
coffee in a Havana hotel. Bob Reynolds, tall and erect in his
mid-70s, made clandestine trips to Havana for the CIA in the early
years of the Cuban Revolution. And in Miami, as CIA station chief, he
was in charge of recruiting thousands of tough young Castro-haters
and turning them into a fighting force to invade Cuba. Comandante
Ramiro Valdes, shorter, a few years younger than Reynolds, has a gray
goatee reminiscent of Trotsky and an iron handshake. One of the most
feared and respected men in Cuba, he was at Castro's side at all the
major events of the revolution and became chief of state security
after the 1959 victory.

Their encounter, counterspy and
spy, was one of many head-turning vignettes at a historic meeting
here in Havana, March 22-25, in which Americans and Cubans from
all sides reconstructed and relived the April 17, 1961, Bay of Pigs
invasion. On the Cuban side for three days of intense discussions
were Fidel Castro and sixty of his top military leaders; the US
delegation included five Cuban veterans of the CIA-trained 2506
Brigade, which carried out the invasion, and White House advisers
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin.

"We talked as
professional to professional," Reynolds said of his first-ever
meeting with Valdes. "I congratulated him on the effectiveness of
their system." Valdes had only a few months to organize islandwide
security before the Bay of Pigs invasion. He rejected the notion that
it was a draconian secret police system that doomed the effort. "I
told [Reynolds] it was the total support of the people for the
revolution," said Valdes.

Valdes disclosed that his
security network quickly rounded up 20,000 suspected dissidents in
the hours after the invasion began, squelching the US expectation
that the invasion would set off mass rebellion and sabotage on the
island. Valdes also revealed that Cuba had no intelligence from
inside the 2506 Brigade itself. The Cubans knew from secondary
sources and partly from US press accounts that an invasion was
imminent but did not know the date or landing site. Security on the
island, however, was so tight that according to Samuel Halpern, the
other CIA official at the meeting, the CIA found it virtually
impossible to plant agents anywhere but in rural areas. Halpern was
the CIA's point man on Operation Mongoose--the Kennedy Administration
special project against Castro that included intelligence collection,
sabotage and assassination missions inside Cuba.

Castro sat
across from Halpern and Reynolds, showing no sign of lingering
hostility to the Americans and Cubans who had plotted his overthrow,
even his death. On the contrary, the atmosphere was jovial,
respectful. Castro--who missed not one minute of the presentations
and himself talked in long half-hour and hour stretches--remarked at
one point that it was more than respectful, it was friendly. At a
final banquet, Castro used the word "family" to describe the
conference participants and the frank, intimate exchanges. Once,
José Ramon Fernandez, the Cuban battlefield general at the Bay
of Pigs, called the anti-Castro troops mercenarios, and Fidel
pointedly corrected him. "They're brigadistas," he
said.

During a break, Castro rushed over for a private
conversation with CIA official Reynolds after an exchange in which
the Cuban side had been adamantly skeptical about Reynolds's denial
that the CIA saboteurs had blown up a ship unloading weapons in
Havana harbor in 1960. He shook hands and put his hands on Reynolds's
shoulders, saying, "I don't want you to think we are trying to settle
old scores."

The five members of the 2506 Brigade
delegation were also frequently engrossed in deep conversation with
Cuban officials, although Castro himself seemed to make a point of
keeping them at arm's length. One brigade member, Roberto Carballo,
who runs a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, has a long record of anti-Castro
activities, including being named in newly declassified US documents
as a suspect in terrorist activities in the 1970s.

The
strongest disagreements at the meeting were among the members of the
US delegation over the actions of President Kennedy and his
Administration. Kennedy adviser Schlesinger presented a picture of
Kennedy as trapped--inheriting an ill-conceived invasion plan from
the previous Administration. There was the implication that CIA
officials sold Kennedy a bill of goods: Schlesinger said Kennedy
consistently refused to approve the direct use of US soldiers, but
the CIA strategy seemed premised on the conviction that Kennedy would
change his mind in the heat of battle and send in the Marines rather
than allow the invasion to go down to ignominious
defeat.

There was no disagreement on the US side that the
invasion was ill conceived. Brigade member Alfredo Duran said the
United States not only failed to invade but also abandoned the troops
on the beach when it was clear that the invasion had failed. Duran
said privately later that some of the brigade soldiers were so angry
they fired their weapons at the US Navyships waiting
offshore.

CIA official Halpern vigorously rebutted
Schlesinger's scenario. The Kennedys were not so innocent, he
insisted. He described a time shortly after the failed invasion when
Richard Bissell Jr. was called to a meeting with Robert and John Kennedy. "Get rid of
Castro, the Castro regime," Bissell said he was told. Halpern recounted, "I said what does
'get rid of' mean? And [Richard Bissell] said, 'Use your imagination.'"
The result, Operation Mongoose, proposed thirty-two different
measures, including assassination, to get rid of the
regime.

The National Security Archive, a sponsor of the
conference, presented a declassified document that refuted the idea
that the CIA led Kennedy to believe that all would not be lost if the
invasion failed, because the anti-Castro forces could melt into the
mountains and continue guerrilla warfare. The document described a
meeting in which a CIA official told Kennedy explicitly that in the
event of a failure, the only alternative was to evacuate the invasion
force.

Perhaps the most bitter exchange came from brigade
member Luis Tornes, who said he became convinced that the United
States intentionally sent the soldiers to their death in the hope
that world opinion would blame Castro for mass murder. But Castro
didn't cooperate, and instead took the surviving invaders prisoner
and gave them medical treatment. About 120 of the 1,400 troops were
killed in battle. Cuba eventually released all the prisoners after
long negotiations.

For Castro and his men, Playa Giron (as they prefer to call the battle) was an unalloyed David and Goliath victory. But in the United States the battle is still construed as just another episode in a dictator's undemocratic
survival. It is like much else in the tortured conflict between the
United States and Cuba. History and common sense point to ending a
standoff that has outlasted nine US Presidents and become an
increasingly absurd post-cold war footnote. As they did at the
meeting, Castro and his men couldn't proclaim more clearly their
desire for respect from, if not friendship with, the United States.
But it won't happen--not as long as the US Presidents who control the
writing of that final chapter remain tangled in a trap of their own
making, as was Kennedy when he launched the invasion forty years ago.

Now, the discovery of secret-police documents in Paraguay and other recently declassified documents in the United States is pulling back the veil from Operation Condor. The new information paints a picture of up-to-the-minute knowledge of Condor operations by US officials, including detailed intelligence just before Chile sent a team to Washington, DC, where they killed a prominent opposition leader with a car bomb on Embassy Row. Other documents provide a feasible scenario for the origins of Operation Condor and point to the intriguing early involvement of an FBI agent. This is my reconstruction of what happened:

In May 1975, Paraguayan police arrested two men, Jorge Fuentes Alarcón and Amilcar Santucho, who represented what they considered a major new guerrilla threat, a united underground organization of armed groups from several countries, called the Revolutionary Coordinating Junta, or JCR.

The arrests were seen as an intelligence bonanza, according to Paraguayan and US documents. Last year the Justice Department declassified a letter, dated June 6, 1975, from an FBI agent, Robert Scherrer, to a Chilean police official. Scherrer, who had taken great interest in the arrest of the two revolutionaries, describes the results of "interrogations" of the two men.

"[Fuentes] admitted that he is a member of the Coordinating Junta and was acting as a courier for said group," Scherrer wrote. Santucho, his traveling companion, was the brother of Argentina's most famous guerrilla leader, Roberto Santucho. Scherrer, whose job included intelligence liaison with the Southern Cone countries, told his Chilean counterpart that the FBI would follow up by investigating two people living in the United States, in New York and Dallas, whose names were discovered in Fuentes's address book (one of them was identified by Scherrer as Fuentes's sister). There can be little doubt that Scherrer was aware that the "interrogation" in Paraguay meant brutal torture--in fact, he discussed the Paraguayans' use of torture in a 1979 interview with me in which he also described Fuentes's arrest.

When the Paraguayans were finished interrogating Fuentes, they turned him over to Chile's secret police, the DINA. Two days later, DINA chief Manuel Contreras wrote an ebullient thank-you note, dated September 25, 1975, to his Paraguayan counterpart, conveying "the most sincere thanks for the cooperation given us to help in the mission my agents had to carry out in the sister republic of Paraguay, and I am sure that this mutual cooperation will continue and increase in the accomplishment of the common objectives of both services." Another long letter followed: Contreras invited three Paraguayan intelligence officials to attend a "strictly secret" meeting in Santiago along with intelligence chiefs from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay. The Paraguay archive contains the agenda of the meeting, which was held November 25-December 1, 1975. It included discussion of codes and secret communications methods, and a "flowchart" of the new organization. The Fuentes/Santucho "success" appears to have provided the impetus and the model for the formal organization of the six countries into Operation Condor. Fuentes was seen, tortured but alive, by a dozen witnesses inside a secret prison known as Villa Grimaldi, on the outskirts of Santiago. He was taken away in January 1976 and is presumed dead.

Nine months later, an apparent Condor mission struck in Washington. On September 21, 1976, a car bomb exploded on Massachusetts Avenue, killing Chilean exile leader and former US ambassador Orlando Letelier and a US associate, Ronni Moffitt. FBI agent Scherrer was assigned to investigate. In the 1979 interview, Scherrer told me how he got a major lead in the case. He had contacted an Argentine military intelligence officer who had been in Santiago the week the assassination occurred: "It was a wild Condor operation," the source said, carried out by "those lunatics in Santiago." Scherrer drafted a cable, dated September 28, 1976, that described Condor to Washington FBI headquarters. For many years that cable was virtually all that was known about Condor, and it left the impression that Condor was discovered after the Letelier assassination. We now know, thanks to the new documents, that US officials knew about Condor before the Letelier assassination. In fact, CIA and State Department officials wrote about Condor's assassination plans in six documents before the assassination, and in one on the very day of it.

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