“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.