Could it have been prevented? That's the key question as a special congressional committee investigates evidence of ignored warnings, intelligence lapses and bureaucratic miscommunication that compromised America's ability to detect al Qaeda's preparations for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
That same question has haunted the families of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt for the past 26 years. On Sept. 21, 1976, as they drove down Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, Letelier, a former Chilean foreign minister and leading critic of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's military regime, and Moffitt, his 26-year-old American aide, were killed by a car bomb planted by agents of the Chilean secret police. Until last Sept. 11, their assassination was considered by some to be the most egregious act of international terrorism ever committed in the nation's capital.
Now we have obtained a series of State Department and CIA records that cast a disturbing new light on the Letelier assassination, revealing that the United States had extensive awareness of a secret assassination operation and suggesting that U.S. officials called off actions that might have stopped it.
Letelier and Moffitt were the most famous victims of Operation Condor, a covert program to murder political opponents that was carried out by a network of six South American secret police agencies -- from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. For the past 20 years, an FBI field report filed after the killings has been the only known U.S. government document on Condor, leaving the impression that U.S. officials uncovered evidence of these operations only after the murders took place.
Newly obtained materials, however, show that almost four months before the Letelier bombing, State Department officials became concerned that the six military regimes in Latin America had organized an "international 'Murder Inc.' " aimed at eliminating leftist political exiles. In late July 1976, the CIA confirmed to State Department officers that these South American military governments, led by Pinochet, had initiated such an effort, code-named Operation Condor. In early August, then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger was informed by his top aide for Latin America, Harry Shlaudeman, that the South American military regimes were planning to use Condor "to find and kill terrorists . . . in their own countries and in Europe."
Quickly, Kissinger moved to head off the killings. He instructed U.S. ambassadors to warn the countries that Washington was aware of planned Condor assassinations and they were of "deep concern" to the United States. Yet for a month, none of the ambassadors carried out that order, according to the available documents. Then, one day before the car bombing in the heart of Washington's embassy district, Shlaudeman rescinded Kissinger's instructions.
"We were remiss," Shlaudeman's chief deputy, Hewson Ryan, recalled in a recently discovered oral history recorded in 1988, a few years before his death, by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. "We knew fairly early on that the governments of the Southern Cone countries were planning, or at least talking about, some assassinations abroad in the summer of 1976," he said. "Whether we might have prevented this, I don't know. But we didn't."
The Pinochet regime created Operation Condor in November 1975. CIA documents acknowledge an awareness of its existence in March 1976, describing it in favorable terms as a "cooperative effort by the intelligence/security services of several South American countries to combat terrorism and subversion."
At the same time, a spate of political killings began in Argentina: In April 1976, Edgardo Enriquez, the exiled leader of a Chilean radical group, was detained and later disappeared; in May, two exiled Uruguayan congressmen were murdered; on June 4, a former president of Bolivia, Juan Jose Torres, who was living in Buenos Aires, was found slain.
CIA and State Department cables, recently released under the Freedom of Information Act and in Argentina, reported that Chilean and Uruguayan intelligence officials were operating inside Argentina, conducting detentions, interrogations and torture. On June 4, over Kissinger's signature, a query went out to the Southern Cone embassies asking for any "evidence to support or deny allegations of international arrangements among governments to carry out such assassinations or executions." The U.S. embassy in Santiago responded that it had no evidence of formal collaboration but said "we believe these arrangements are possible, and that it is also possible Chilean agents have been involved in killings abroad, possibly in cooperation with foreign governments."
By early June, as the newly obtained documents make clear, the CIA had concrete intelligence confirming a scheme to commit assassinations as far away as France and Portugal. Yet the CIA waited almost two months to inform State Department officials. In a July 30 briefing on "disturbing developments in [Condor's] operational attitudes," an agency official reported that Chile and the other Condor nations were "identifying, locating, and 'hitting' guerrilla leaders" wherever they could be found.
This information was conveyed to Kissinger in a 14-page report a few days later. The report, classified "Secret" and titled "The 'Third World War' and South America," was found among 4,700 documents on Argentina declassified last month. In the report, Shlaudeman informed Kissinger that through the newly formed Operation Condor, the Southern Cone military regimes were "joining forces to eradicate 'subversion,' a word that increasingly translates into nonviolent dissent from the left and center left."
What to do? Too much U.S. pressure on Chile and the other Condor countries might lead them to unite "into formation of a political bloc," less responsive to U.S. influence, Shlaudeman warned. But the United States had an image problem. "Internationally, the Latin generals look like our guys. We are especially identified with Chile," Shlaudeman noted. "It cannot do us any good."
Shlaudeman's report to Kissinger was dated Aug. 3, 1976. About that time, he and other U.S. officials unwittingly received an important clue that the plot to to kill Letelier was already underway. Pinochet's secret police had sent two agents to Asuncion, Paraguay, to obtain false passports and visas for a trip to the United States. U.S. officials were told the agents' mission was to travel to Washington to meet with CIA deputy director Vernon Walters and spy on Chilean dissidents.
Ambassador George Landau issued the visas but photocopied the passports -- which included photographs of the two agents -- and pouched them to the CIA on July 28; the CIA forwarded them to Shlaudeman's office on Aug. 6. Walters, told of the agents' claim that they were going to meet with him, replied that he knew nothing of these two agents, bolstering suspicions by Landau and Shlaudeman about the agents' true mission in the United States.
"If there is still time, and if there is a possibility of turning off this harebrained scheme," Shlaudeman stated in an urgent cable, "you are authorized . . . to urge that the Chileans be persuaded not repeat not to travel." By that time, however, the two agents had abandoned their effort to travel on the Paraguayan passports. Subsequently, using false Chilean passports, the same two agents flew to Washington to plant the bomb that would kill Letelier and Moffitt.
Meanwhile, without connecting the activity in Paraguay to the Condor information, Shlaudeman and his deputies, Ryan and William Luers, worked on a cable warning the Southern Cone regimes to stop any planned assassinations. Some "20 drafts" were written, Luers remembers. A top Kissinger aide, Philip Habib, served as liaison with the CIA to obtain its support for the démarche.
On Aug. 23, Kissinger sent a Roger Channel (urgent consideration, very limited distribution) cable -- "Subject: Operation Condor" -- to U.S. ambassadors in all Condor nations. "You are aware of a series of CIA reports on 'Operation Condor,' " the cable began. The cable instructed the U.S. ambassadors in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay to approach "the highest appropriate official, preferably the chief of state" and issue a carefully worded démarche along the following lines: The United States is aware of "information exchange and coordination . . . with regard to subversive activities. This we consider useful. There are in addition, however, rumors that this cooperation may extend beyond information exchange to include plans for the assassination of subversives, politicians and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad. While we cannot substantiate the assassination rumors, we feel impelled to bring to your attention our deep concern. If these rumors were to have any shred of truth, they would create a most serious moral and political problem."
Chile was known to be Condor's command center of these plots. Therefore, Kissinger's cable stressed the diplomatic démarche to Pinochet. Kissinger instructed the ambassador to Chile, David Popper, to "discuss [with CIA station chief Stewart Burton] the possibility of a parallel approach by him" to his counterpart in the Chilean secret police, DINA.
Popper, Burton and Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas Boyatt met and came up with an alternative course of action. On Aug. 24, Popper cabled the State Department: "In my judgment, given Pinochet's sensitivity regard- ing pressures by the [U.S. government], he might well take as an insult any inference that he was connected with such assassination plots."
Instead, Popper's cable recommended that the CIA station chief meet with DINA's head, Col. Manuel Contreras. "Has department received any word that would indicate that assassination activities are imminent?" Popper asked, unaware that Contreras had already set the Letelier plot in motion. His cable concluded, "please advise."
On Aug. 27, at the weekly meeting of CIA and State officials on Latin America, Shlaudeman declared that approaching Pinochet "would be futile." But, despite Popper's urgency, over the next four weeks no additional instructions were recorded. As far as can be ascertained from available documents and interviews, none of the ambassadors delivered any warning about Condor.
On Sept. 20, 1976, one day before the assassination, Shlaudeman rescinded Kissinger's instructions entirely. According to a newly discovered cable, Shlaudeman ordered his deputy, Luers, to "simply instruct the Ambassadors to take no further action, noting that there have been no reports in some weeks indicating an intention to activate the Condor scheme."
In fact, the "Condor scheme" had been active for weeks. On Aug. 26, a DINA agent flew to the United States to do surveillance on Letelier's movements. On Sept. 9, DINA's veteran assassin, American expatriate Michael Townley, arrived in New York City. On Sept. 18, Townley taped the remote control bomb under Letelier's car as it sat in the driveway of his suburban Maryland home. Less than 18 hours after Shlaudeman's "no further action" order, Letelier's car exploded as he, Ronni Moffitt and her husband, Michael, drove to work along Embassy Row. Only Michael Moffitt survived.
This tragic story does not end there. Washington's actions following the assassination were just as bewildering. Instructions to finally reinstate the démarche to the Chileans came 12 days after the murders. "We agree that our purpose can best be served through [the CIA station] approach to Contreras, and that the issue should not repeat not be raised with Pinochet," a cable from Shlaudeman read.
Despite what officials knew about Condor and the Paraguay scheme, the U.S. government's initial reaction was to echo the Chilean contention that leftists had killed Letelier to create a martyr. It took more than a year for the Justice Department to examine the Paraguay passport photos, which quickly identified the assassination team.
The Letelier-Moffitt bombing provides a case study of forfeited opportunities to prevent terrorism from reaching U.S. shores. Official actions that could -- and should -- have deterred this murderous attack were not taken. As in the Sept. 11 terrorism, an official congressional inquiry is warranted to fully explain this failure. After 26 years, the Letelier and Moffitt families deserve to know what exactly the U.S. government knew -- and why it failed to act on that knowledge. We hope the families of Sept. 11's victims won't have to wait so long.
John Dinges is the author of the forthcoming "The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents" (The New Press). Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, is author of the forthcoming "The Pinochet File" (The New Press). Archive analyst Carlos Osorio contributed to this article.