This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Saul Landau’s Investigations of US Ties to the Pinochet Regime

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Saul Landau’s Investigations of US Ties to the Pinochet Regime

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Saul Landau’s Investigations of US Ties to the Pinochet Regime

The late Saul Landau spent years investigating the assassination in Washington, DC, of his friend, Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean foreign minister. What he found pointed right back to DC.


Former US Minister of Foreign Affairs Henry Kissinger meets with General Augusto Pinochet of Chile. (Reuters)

This past week was marked by the coincidence of two sad and related occasions: Wednesday, September 11, was the fortieth anniversary of the American-backed coup that overthrew the socialist President of Chile, Salvador Allende; on Monday, the great journalist and documentary filmmaker Saul Landau—a lifelong friend and contributor to The Nation—died at 77.

Landau’s first articles for The Nation were based on a years-long investigation into the assassination of Allende’s foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, by a car bomb in Washington, DC, in late September 1976. In his Nation pieces and in his widely acclaimed 1980 book, Assassination on Embassy Row, written with his frequent collaborator, John Dinges—our reviewer Jorge Nef called it “a provocative study [that] reads like an absorbing spy thriller”—Landau painstakingly demonstrated that the US intelligence community’s complicity with the Pinochet regime’s crimes did not end with the tragic 1973 coup.

Just a month before he was killed, Letelier—then a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary—published a remarkably prescient article in The Nation titled “Economic ‘Freedom’s’ Awful Toll: The Chicago Boys in Chile,” extensively documenting the efforts of American-trained conservative economists to convince Pinochet’s regime “that they were prepared to supplement the brutality, which the military possessed, with the intellectual assets they lacked.” In an editorial the week after the bombing—which also killed 24-year-old Ronni Moffitt, Letelier’s assistant at the IPS and a US citizen, and injured her husband, Michael, sitting in the backseat—The Nation wrote: “Letelier made the essential political connection in that article—that the kind of economic organization the United States was fostering on Chile absolutely required a ‘system of terror…to succeed.’ And now that system of terror has reached out and struck down by murder an opponent of the dictatorship which the United States did so much to install.”

Landau and Ralph Stavins, both colleagues of Letelier’s at IPS, immediately embarked on an investigation to determine both who was directly responsible and who was complicit. In a March 1977 Nation article dramatically titled, “This Is How It Was Done,” Landau and Stavins laid out the evidence linking the Chilean secret police—DINA—to the crime:

Our evidence indicates that a high-level DINA agent landed in Miami on September 13, 1976, and met with a group of Cuban exiles who had already been alerted that a “contract” was in the offing. The DINA agent worked out the details of the Letelier assassination with four young terrorists, noted for their daring and cold-bloodedness. Having secured a plastic explosive and a detonating device, they departed for Washington. There they met with DINA agents, posing as Chilean officials, stationed at the Chilean Embassy. The Washington-based operatives briefed the exiles on Letelier’s habits, his car description, daily departure times, route to work, parking location, and probable work schedule at the In­stitute for Policy Studies during the following week.

Landau and Stavins then provided a vivid, clock-ticking account of the assassination based on their six-month investigation:

As Letelier entered Sheridan Circle, a hand in the [assassins’] gray car depressed a button. Michael Moffitt heard the sound of “water on a hot wire” and then saw a “white flash.” Thrown clear of the explosion, Moffitt tried to free the unconscious Letelier from the wreckage on top of him. His legs had been snapped from his body and catapulted some 15 feet away. Ronni Moffitt stumbled away from the smoldering Chevrolet; she seemed to be O.K., but in fact had suffered a severed artery and soon bled to death. Michael screamed out into the world, “The Chilean Fascists have done this.”

Landau and Stavins then began to unravel the connections between the assassins and top members of the US government and media elite, which Landau developed further in later Nation investigations:

Most of the FBI and Justice Department officials in­vestigating the murders have made a concerted effort to bring the ‘perpetrators to the bar of justice. At the same time, other agents inside the government have leaked material from Letelier’s briefcase, seized by the police as potential evidence at the time of the explosion. The leaked material first appeared on the desks of sev­eral officials of the Inter-American Development Bank, where Letelier had served for many years. Next, the briefcase material was given to newspaper columnists Jack Anderson and then to Evans and Novak. The col­umns which these men wrote attempted to discredit Letelier and divert attention from the actual killers—General Pinochet, the Chilean junta, the DINA and their Cuban exile hit men.

The names of most of the killers, their motives, and their modus, operandi are now known to the Justice De­partment. What remains are the more fundamental ques­tions: will the U.S. authorities be allowed to gather sufficient evidence to bring the killers to trial? Will they name General Pinochet and other ruling junta mem­bers who ordered the assassinations? And will the role of U.S. intelligence and defense agencies, which had previously trained junta leaders, DINA agents and the exiles, be revealed in full?

A few years later, Landau himself helped reveal more of that role, in collaboration with John Dinges. In “The Chilean Connection” (November 28, 1981), they revealed new information about how the CIA may have provided crucial information and even assistance to Letelier’s and Moffitt’s killers:

In the early summer of 1976, Col. Manuel Contreras, head of DINA, Chile’s secret police, launched an operation to assassinate exiled Chilean leader Orlando Letelier. It has now been learned that within a few days of setting that plot in motion, Contreras mace a secret visit to Washington, D.C., where he met with officials of the Central Intelligence Agency and also negotiated the purchase of illegal weapons and electronic spying equipment with a firm run by former C.I.A. officers Edwin Wilson and Frank Terpil.

Wilson and Terpil gained notoriety after a Federal grand jury accused them of exporting terrorist goods and services to Col. Muammar ‘el-Qaddafi of Libya, whose regime is high on the Reagan Administration’s enemies list. By 1978, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had established that DINA agents killed Letelier on U.S. territory. That evidence, combined with the newly revealed materials showing that former C.I.A. officials cooperated with other DINA covert opera­tions in the United States, would seem to compromise the Administration’s efforts to rehabilitate Chile’s military dictatorship as an anti-Communist ally.

In a follow-up article the following year, “The C.I.A.’s Link to Chile’s Plot,” Landau and Dinges revealed that Contreras had also met twice with the second-highest ranking official at the CIA, deputy director Vernon Walters. One meeting occurred just a month before the assassination.

Walters’s name has arisen several times in connection with Contreras and the DINA agents plotting the murder, according to the evidence compiled by the F B I That evidence shows that Walters traveled to Asuncion, Paraguay, in June 1976 on agency business. A month later, two DINA agents assigned to kill Letelier arrived in Paraguay to obtain false passports, using Walters’s name and alleging that Walters and the C I A knew about the DINA mission to Washington Walters has denied he had anything to do with the DINA agents or the false passports…

The biggest question left unanswered concerns the relation­ship of the C I.A to DINA and to [Leterlier assassin Michael] Townley at the time of the assassination. Why were DINA agents able to come and go freely in the United States? Were C.I.A. officials involved in circumventing the Congressional arms embargo against Chile, and so obliged to keep silent about DINA activity in Washington at the time of Leteher’s assassination for fear of revealing another C.I.A. covert action scandal?

In 1987, Landau and Dinges conducted an interview with Armando Fernández Larios, a former DINA official, who fled to the United States so he could reveal the truth of Pinochet’s direct involvement in the Letelier assassination. The authors spoke with Fernández Larios in a Virginia motel room under strict US Marshal Service security.

Fernandez has named six generals and colonels as having had a direct role in the murder or in ordering the cover-up. And he has pointed a finger at the President. He says DINA deputy chief Espinoza, one of the few insiders in a position to know, told him that Pinochet himself had given the order to kill Letelier. According to Espinoza, Fernandez said, DINA chief Contreras admitted to another general that he had set the Letelier assassination in motion because he had been so ordered. When asked by whom, Contreras replied “Ask the chief”—which both Espinoza and Fernandez took to be a reference to General Pinochet, Contreras’s only superior.

On so many issues—from Chile to Iraq, globalization to nuclear fallout—Landau “called us all to thought, gave an example to emulate in his fights for justice and left his mark forever,” as Nation intern Andrés S. Pertierra writes in his moving commemoration. It was The Nation’s honor to publish his work at such an early and definitive moment in his career, when he sought to uncover who was responsible for the brutal and untimely death of his dear and principled friend.

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