"Actions approved by the U.S. government aggravated political polarization and affected Chile's long tradition of democratic elections and respect for constitutional order and the rule of law," reads a White House press release that accompanied the November 13 declassification of 16,000 secret government documents on Chile. That statement, contorted bureaucratese for admitting a US contribution to undermining Chilean democracy and backing a brutal dictatorship, falls far short of accepting US accountability for the national and human horror experienced in Chile--an acknowledgment necessary for Chileans and Americans to reach closure on this shameful history.
The release marks the final installment of the Clinton Administration's special Chile Declassification Project. "One goal of the project," according to the White House statement--issued by the press secretary rather than in the name of the President--"is to put original documents before the public so that it may judge for itself the extent to which US actions undercut the cause of democracy and human rights in Chile." Among the 24,000 documents declassified over the past two years are secret cables, memorandums and reports making that judgment perfectly clear.
The new documents dramatically record the imperial spectacle of high-level US efforts to destroy Chilean democracy in order to prevent an elected socialist, Salvador Allende, from governing. In a declassified transcript of a November 6, 1970, National Security Council meeting, President Nixon and selected Cabinet members casually discuss the need to "do everything we can to hurt [Allende] and bring him down." There, in bald terms, the historical record reveals the callous willingness to promote upheaval and bloodshed to achieve this goal. "You have asked us to provoke chaos in Chile," the CIA station chief in Santiago cabled headquarters in October 1970 during covert efforts to foment a coup; "we provide you with [a] formula for chaos." The CIA Chilean coup-plotters predicted at least 10,000 casualties if the military coup went forward. "Carnage could be considerable and prolonged i.e. civil war."
The CIA knew a year before the coup that Pinochet was prone to ruthlessness. An intriguing intelligence report records Pinochet as saying in September 1972 that "Allende must be forced to step down or be eliminated." A Chilean informant, who apparently accompanied Pinochet on a trip to Panama to purchase US tanks for the Chilean military, told the CIA that US Army personnel based at the Southern Command had assured them, "US will support coup against Allende 'with whatever means necessary,' when time comes."
In the United States, revelations of covert operations to destabilize the Allende government caused a major scandal in the mid-1970s. In Chile, where even the pro-Pinochet media have been forced to report on the declassified US records, this history is only now having a major impact on the national psyche. Throughout the country, there is outrage at this dramatic evidence of US intervention in Chile's internal affairs. A group of prominent senators has demanded that the Chilean government formally protest US "violations of our sovereignty and dignity" and have summoned the foreign minister to explain what action the government of Ricardo Lagos intends to take toward Washington. Privately, Chilean government officials have requested that the United States clearly acknowledge actions that helped change the course of Chilean history.
The Clinton White House considered such an acknowledgment to accompany the final documents' release--but in the end decided against it. Some officials fear that Washington could be held liable for covert war crimes in Chile--that the long arm of international justice that nabbed Augusto Pinochet could someday reach US officials. Although President Clinton did apologize to Guatemala for Washington's cold war policy of aiding and abetting repression--"support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression," the President stated in Guatemala City last year, "was wrong, and the United States will not repeat that mistake"--no similar statement on Chile will be forthcoming. With the declassified documents, we now have a fuller accounting of the US role in Chile--but with no accountability.
Collaboration occurred in the past, and there's no professional bar to it today.
"Covert action," the late Senator Frank Church concluded in 1976 after his long inquiry into CIA operations in Chile and elsewhere, is a "semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies...." Had the CIA been fully forthcoming with Church's committee about its ties to Augusto Pinochet's regime, he would have included "and consorting with known torturers and international terrorists."
To the rogues' gallery of world-class criminals the CIA has directly supported--among them Panama's Manuel Noriega, Emmanuel Constant of the FRAPH in Haiti, Nicolas Carranza, former head of the treasury police in El Salvador, Guatemala's Col. Julio Alpírez and, many believe, ousted intelligence chieftain Vladimiro Montesinos, who recently fled Peru--can now be added Gen. Manuel Contreras of Chile. In a declassified report provided to Congress on September 18, titled "CIA Activities in Chile," the agency confirms what so many have long suspected: At the height of the Pinochet regime's repression, the head of Chile's infamous secret police, the DINA, was put on the CIA payroll.
Contreras ran the torture centers in Chile; he ordered the murder and disappearances of hundreds of Chileans. But unlike so many other infamous CIA assets who viciously violated the human rights of their countrymen while their covert handlers looked the other way, Contreras took his dirty war beyond Chilean borders, dispatching his agents throughout the world to commit acts of international terrorism. He is currently in prison outside Santiago for the most brazen terrorist attack ever to take place in the capital of the United States--the September 21, 1976, car bombing that killed former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and a 25-year-old American associate, Ronni Karpen Moffitt.
Having covered up its relationship to Contreras and the DINA for all these years, including initially keeping it secret from federal prosecutors investigating the Letelier-Moffitt murders, the CIA now admits that it knew in 1974 that the DINA was involved in "bilateral cooperation...to track the activities of and...kill political opponents" abroad. Yet in 1975, shortly after the CIA's own intelligence reporting documented that Contreras was "the principal obstacle" to improving human rights in Chile, CIA officials "recommended establishing a paid relationship with Contreras," and a "one-time payment was given." Cozying up to the DINA, the report makes clear, was done "in the interest of maintaining good relations with Pinochet" and to "accomplish the CIA's mission," presumably to gather intelligence to safeguard US security.
The report, however, does not address how the CIA failed to avert a planned terrorist attack in Washington directed by its own asset. Only after the Letelier-Moffitt assassination, the report concedes, did the CIA approach Contreras to discuss Operation Condor--the network of Southern Cone intelligence services he led, which, the CIA already knew, was engaged in acts of murder abroad. "Contreras confirmed Condor's existence as an intelligence-sharing network but denied that it had a role in extrajudicial killings," states the report. Could his gullible handlers have believed this lie? On October 11, 1976, based on a leak, Newsweek reported that "the CIA has concluded that the Chilean secret police were not involved in the death of Orlando Letelier."
Either the CIA was criminally negligent in failing to detect and deter the Letelier-Moffitt assassination, or it was complicitous. Even if the covert operatives running Contreras were not aware of his plans to send a hit team to Washington, their close relations with him, despite his atrocities inside and outside Chile, may well have emboldened him to believe he could get away with this act of terrorism within a few blocks of the White House.
Advancing the US ability to protect itself from international terrorism is reason enough for Congress to hold hearings on how the CIA's covert associations in Chile compromised US security and cost the lives of two human beings. But the larger issue of the US role in Pinochet's horrors must also be addressed. Even the most cynical political observers cannot help but be profoundly disgusted by the CIA's callous debasement of US principles in Chile.
A full accounting will require release of the documents from which "CIA Activities in Chile" was written, as well as the hundreds of other records covering the history of US covert operations there. Despite a presidential directive to declassify the record of its contribution to political violence, terrorism and human rights abuses in Chile, to date the CIA has refused to release a single document on its clandestine actions that helped the Pinochet regime seize and consolidate power. The White House has delayed a final declassification of US records in order to press the CIA to be more forthcoming.
The Chileans have shown great courage by moving to hold Pinochet accountable for his crimes against humanity. But what Chile's human rights investigators have called "the cleansing power of the truth" in confronting their past applies equally to the United States. The CIA can no longer be allowed to hold this history hostage. A full accounting is required for Washington to begin to wash the blood from its hands.
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