In the Press

By John Dinges

Fresh Air interview with John Dinges

Copyright 2004 WHYY. All Rights Reserved

SHOW: Fresh Air (12:00 Noon PM ET) - NPR

February 12, 2004 Thursday

LENGTH: 3768 words

HEADLINE: John Dinges discusses his book "The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents"



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Recently declassified secret documents reveal the US connection to Operation Condor, the secret alliance between six Latin American military dictatorships in the '70s which was formed to track down the regime's enemies and assassinate them. The six countries in Condor were: Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. Journalist John Dinges covered the Pinochet regime in Chile and was briefly detained by Chile's secret police. Now he's written a new book called "The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents." Dinges says the Condor story holds a cautionary lesson for today's war on terrorism.

Dinges is a former managing editor of NPR News and has written for The Washington Post and Time. He teaches at Columbia University. He's also a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, which works to uncover America's recent secret history by filing to declassify documents through the Freedom of Information Act.

So you say in your book that although Operation Condor may have begun as a way to stop the violent revolutionaries who were opposing military dictatorships, it ended up being an attack on anybody who opposed the military dictatorships.

Mr. JOHN DINGES (Author, "The Condor Years"): And I think that it started out that way as well. I interviewed one of the people who was present at the founding meeting of Operation Condor in November of 1975. It was clear from--he said the--I have some documents from that meeting. They talk about intelligence exchange. They don't talk about, 'This is a plan to assassinate people worldwide.'

But the eyewitness that I interviewed said that in the introduction it was made clear that this was set up to track down their adversaries. And he used as an example people like Letelier, people like the former foreign minister of Chile who was killed in Washington. The idea always was to track down the military rivals of Pinochet and the other governments and the people who had credibility in Europe, in the United States among democratic politicians. And those were the most prominent victims.

The revolutionaries were less known, and they were the majority of the victims. Hundreds of them were tracked down and killed. Most of them were Uruguayans and Chileans and Paraguayans and Bolivians who were killed in Argentina.

GROSS: How did you find out that Operation Condor existed, that six Latin American dictatorships were actually working together to track down and in some cases assassinate people who they saw as their enemies?

Mr. DINGES: I first came across the existence of Operation Condor when I wrote a book in 1980 called "Assassination on Embassy Row," which was the story of the Letelier assassination. A source, an FBI agent who I now name in the book--He's since died--told me in great detail how a week after the assassination, he was told by an Argentine intelligence source that Condor existed, that it had three phases--intelligence exchange, joint operations in Latin America and the stage three, which was assassinations outside of Latin America, in the United States.

And this source told the FBI agent that Letelier was a wild Condor operation. In other words, it was a Condor operation that was counterproductive, that was going to cause problems for what he considered to be a good operation. That episode, I didn't know any details of how it was organized, I just knew of its existence and was able to presume that certain assassinations had occurred because of Operation Condor.

GROSS: Now you could say that the United States wasn't fully aware of the extent of the atrocities perpetrated by the secret police in the six countries that were involved with Operation Condor, but you found memos that showed that they really did know the extent of the atrocities.

Mr. DINGES: In addition to the general complicities in the crimes of these military dictatorships, I'm able to show exact knowledge by the CIA and the FBI of actual operations of Operation Condor. In some cases, there were reports from inside the prisons, briefings given to the CIA and to the FBI of the interrogations of people who were held and being tortured under Operation Condor. The information in one case is within 24 hours. In other words, I know the date of the arrest of these, in this case, 28 people, and the information reported--the report of that arrest is 24 hours later in a Pentagon cable.

The intimacy of the contact between the Operation Condor operatives and US intelligence agency was really astounding. We're dealing in the 1970s with our friends. These are our allies. The people who are committing these acts of terrorism are America's allies, not our enemies. And so the intelligence comes from the very intimacy of our contacts with these people. They're telling us what they are doing, assuming that we endorse what they are doing.

GROSS: What kind of assistance or advice did the United States offer the Latin American dictatorships in Operation Condor?

Mr. DINGES: I document a series of technical-type assistance. The Operation Condor was created by Chile, and they brought in five other countries of the southern cone. They also invited other countries, like Venezuela, who turned them down, and that was fortunate because I was able to interview people there who gave me great detail about the nature of the invitation to join Condor. Number one, the United States was a consultant, so to speak. Whenever Manuel Contreras, Colonel Manuel Contreras, who was the chief of the secret police in Chile, whenever he was moving to the next step in the creation of his secret police and then in the creation of Condor, he would go to the United States for a meeting with the CIA. We don't know the nature of those meetings, but the timing is very coincidental. We know, according to him, that the CIA sent eight trainers to Santiago in 1974, just prior to the first mission of Operation--actually, Operation Condor didn't exist yet, but just prior to the first international assassination committed by Chile. Does that mean that the CIA agents trained them in assassinations? I don't know that. But definitely the intimacy of the contact was notable.

There were computers provided specifically to Operation Condor, according to one of my sources. There was an encoding machine that handled the telex transmission so that they could be transmitted in code. And there was a radio network for most of Latin America set up by the Pentagon, and that was also provided to the intelligence services for use in Operation Condor. The conclusion is that the United States encouraged this type of intelligence collaboration, but perhaps--and this, of course, I don't know for a fact, but this would be the exculpatory version from the United States' point of view. They were helping in an intelligence coordination, perhaps they were encouraging joint operations, but they didn't know that they were going to start assassinating people outside of Latin America, and I have evidence that shows that as soon as the United States found out that they were planning assassinations outside of Latin America, that there was a big discussion inside the State Department about, 'We should do something about this, we can't permit this.'

GROSS: My guest is journalist John Dinges. His new book is called "The Condor Years." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is John Dinges. His new book is called "The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents."

Well, this leads us to the assassination of Orlando Letelier, who had been Salvador Allende's foreign and defense minister and had served as Allende's ambassador to Washington. He was assassinated in Washington, DC, and also killed in the car was a 25-year-old woman named Ronni Moffitt. Now a question that has been circling this case ever since the assassination was, did the United States know about this? Was the United States in any way complicit in the assassination? You found a memo from Henry Kissinger that is a very important clue in this story. Would you describe what the memo is?

Mr. DINGES: Well, we can't say that the United States was complicit in the assassination of Orlando Letelier. We can say that there was information that could have prevented the assassination had the United States acted on the intelligence that it had. Now what happened was that the United States discovered the existence of Operation Condor and its plans to assassinate people like Letelier outside of Latin America. The specific intelligence was for Europe. But they also discovered that there was an actual mission heading to Washington. It had gone through Paraguay and it was Chilean secret agents, and our intelligence discovered that mission.

In addition, the CIA had discovered a plan to kill a US congressman. All of this was happening in the two or three months right prior to the assassination. This intelligence was, in my analysis, of the level and quality that, had it been acted on, it could have prevented, it would have prevented the assassination from occurring. Now what happened was that when this information was discovered by the CIA, it was reported to the State Department. The State Department officials, in an exchange of memos--I have more than 30 documents discussing this--recommended to Kissinger that he send instructions to his ambassadors to tell the heads of state of all of these countries involved in these plans that, 'We know about them, we don't approve of them, this is going to be an enormous problem between these countries and the United States if these kinds of assassinations are carried out.'

And that memo went out to the ambassadors. Unfortunately, none of the ambassadors carried out the instructions. At one point, the instructions were rescinded, and they were told to take no further action. In other words, the warnings, telling the countries, 'We know about these assassination plans,' were never delivered. In the case of Chile, the ambassador, David Popper, took it very seriously, actually asked for further instructions. He recommended that they go not to General Pinochet, the president, but to go to the head of the secret police. He thought that would be more effective. A month went by and he received no further instruction. So the action that could have been taken on this intelligence was not actually taken, and as a result, the assassination went forward.

There's a final cable that we have. It was the day before the assassination of Letelier. And in it, the head of the Latin American bureau gives approval to rescind the order to the ambassadors and tells the ambassadors to take no further action.

GROSS: There was a period of time between that initial memo to the ambassadors saying, you know, 'We're aware of this, and you've got to tell the dictators in the country that you represent that we're aware of this and it's got to stop.' There was an interim of time that elapsed between that memo and the memo that went out saying, 'Well, on second thought, don't take any action.' How come no action was taken in between?

Mr. DINGES: In that period, which is approximately a month, the documents that we have have extensive sections blanked out. And there are certain documents that we know exist but have not been released. And the explanation presumably is in those still classified sections. I've interviewed all of the people who are alive and were participating in this, with the exception of Kissinger, who at this point was not dealing with the day-to-day negotiations on this. They don't have an explanation. One of the people who signed that final memo, Harry Shlaudeman, said, 'I simply don't remember why we delayed in giving the further instructions to Chile.' I think--my interpretation--and I am loathe to cast aspersions on State Department officials, but I have to conclude that they made a very bad intelligence error. The information was clear that something could have been done to have prevented the assassination that eventually occurred, and that what we're facing here is a cover-up of that intelligence error.

GROSS: Why was Letelier targeted for assassination by Pinochet?

Mr. DINGES: Letelier was one of the most important and attractive figures of the opposition. He was somebody that I think would have been a candidate for president once democracy was restored, but most importantly, Letelier was somebody who was very effective in organizing opposition against Pinochet. He had very good contacts in Washington. Henry Kissinger, in an interview, talks about having lunch several times with Letelier during this period prior to his assassination. Letelier was instrumental in passing some key legislation--human rights legislation, not, of course, passing it but lobbying for it. It was his contacts with senators, for example, Senator Kennedy and other members of Congress. He traveled to Europe frequently and was involved in getting some loans and some business deals cut off from Chile only a few months before his assassination. He was one of the people who was doing the most damage to Pinochet's prestige and also to his ability to be successful in bringing the economy forward.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Dinges and he is a former reporter for National Public Radio and former managing editor of NPR News. he now teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism. His new book is called "The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents."

You got a small taste of what the terror tactics of the secret police in Chile were like. When you were reporting in Chile, the police came to your home and rounded up you and the other people you were living with and brought you to one of the main and most notorious prisons there. Would you describe what happened the day they came to your home?

Mr. DINGES: It was a Sunday morning, three or four men came up to the house. I was living outside of Santiago in a half-acre plot of land with a very nice house. And they said their little boy had been hit by a car and they were--they wanted to investigate this. They identified themselves as police. I quickly learned that these were not police and that there had been no accident and no little boy had been hurt. That just got them into the house. And within a half an hour, I realized that we were under arrest, that we were not free to go. They began to show us pictures of people--four pictures of two men, two women, and asked us whether we knew these people. I'd never seen these people before. Turned out later that these pictures were of the four top leaders of the revolutionary group known as MIR in Chile. That's who they were pursuing.

They eventually threw us in the back of a pickup truck, put Scotch tape over our eyes and took us all to a prison camp called Via Gumaldi. And I kept track of where we were going, the roads we were going to so that I could identify where I was being taken. And I later was able to confirm that this is where I was--where we were held.

We were interrogated--I was interrogated very briefly. They said by the time they got to me that this was a mistake, 'We realize you're an American citizen. You have to understand that we have to use these tactics to protect you from the Marxist terrorists who are loose in the street.' And at that point they took us back, left us off far away from the prison camp but closer to our house. We were very terrorized by this, but I don't want to make myself out to be a victim. Clearly it was a mistake. When they realized it was a mistake, they released us.

GROSS: What went through your mind during that period when you were in custody?

Mr. DINGES: I knew about disappearances. A friend of my wife and mine had disappeared only a couple of months before. We didn't know that he was dead. It turns out that he actually was being held at that prison where I was taken. He ultimately disappeared. We knew in general; we didn't know the extent of this. I felt as this was happening to us that anything could happen. I could--they could realize that I don't have anything to do, that I'm a journalist and I'm protected because I'm an American. Or they could do to me what they had done to the Chileans. They could do to me what they had done to two Americans who had been killed in 1973 after the coup.

I was scared. No question, I was petrified. But I--somehow I had the presence of mind, I guess through reporters training, to keep track of every corner that we turned and which hills we were going up and hills we were going down because I felt I had to keep this story going. I had to report the story even while I was in the middle of it.

GROSS: Was that helpful getting through the story, you know, to emotionally surviving the story and then was that helpful in actually reporting the story?

Mr. DINGES: I never told the story all these years because it was a personal story, and I never wanted to focus the attention on me. This is the first time, in this book, that I ever told that story publicly. I think it did help me. It kept my presence of mind. I kind of locked into the reporter mode of, 'I have to gather every conceivable fact possible in this experience.' And I still have engraved in my memory most of the details, even though this happened more than two decades ago.

GROSS: My guest is journalist John Dinges. His new book is called "The Condor Years." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is journalist John Dinges. His new book "The Condor Years" is about the secret alliance between six Latin American dictatorships of the '70s which worked together to assassinate their enemies. Dinges covered one of those dictatorships, the Pinochet regime in Chile. When we left off, we were talking about the time Dinges and his future wife were detained and interrogated by Chile's secret police.

Now you reported the incidence of your arrest to the US Consulate. You met with the vice consul, John Hall. You told him what had happened and he suggested, 'Well, you could file a complaint, but then they'll just expel you from the country.' You later learned that the vice consulate, John Hall, was actually an undercover CIA officer. What was your reaction when you found that out, and how did you find that out?

Mr. DINGES: I found that out in the course of my investigation of the Letelier case. I had developed quite a few very good sources and, of course, this is a relevant question: Who was CIA and who wasn't? And so I was able to pretty much identify all the CIA agents working inside the embassy, and I learned that John Hall was working at the consulate undercover as a CIA agent.

I guess I reacted kind of cynically saying, 'You know, well, big surprise.' His recommendation to me was basically, you know, 'Don't rock the boat.' He convinced me that I shouldn't do anything about that, meaning that he wouldn't have to do anything about it; he wouldn't have to take my case to the Chilean government. And that was the extent of it. I think he had that dual hat on. On the one hand, he was the consular officer dealing with an American citizen in trouble. On the other hand, he was a CIA officer making sure that relations with the secret police were going to go smoothly.

GROSS: So, you know, looking back, what do you think of that decision to have a CIA agent also serve as vice consul?

Mr. DINGES: Well, there's a more notorious case than that. Another vice consul, Jim Anderson, was the person in the consulate--CIA agent in the consulate who handled the Charles Horman case. And Charles Horman was the American journalist who was killed in 1973 shortly after the coup in Chile.

GROSS: This was the story that was dramatized in the film "Missing."

Mr. DINGES: Yes. No, I don't know that Jim Anderson did anything untoward, but to later reveal that the person that the family is dealing with, that the person given to handle that case is somebody who is a CIA agent. I think it's just--it's flabbergasting that this is the way the United States was operating at that time, that they were using CIA agents who were complicit certainly with the encouragement of the coup, that these same people would be handling the murder of an American citizen. None of these things have ever been accounted for. There's never been a trial, there's never really been any resolution of that case. But the facts are pretty clear and I think that there was some--again, in that case, as in the Letelier case later, some astounding intelligence failures, astounding failures on the part of simply good judgment on the part of US officials in handling these cases.

GROSS: Is the main warning that you come away with from investigating Operation Condor is that we can't--it's a bad idea to make allies of dictators who are brutalizing their own people in the name of fighting what you consider to be the greater enemy which, in the case of '70s and early '80s, was Communism?

Mr. DINGES: And now the war is terrorism, the terrible terrorism that has been committed against the United States itself. Even stating it, as you just have, it's amazing that we even have to say this. That the United States should ally itself with people who are committing mass murder and that somehow we even have to debate this is pretty astounding. Obviously, that was a mistake. We were supposedly defending democratic values by allying ourselves with people who had destroyed democracy. We were defending people's--the civil rights that are so dear to us, the rights of freedom of expression in the United States. We were defending those by participating in regimes who had destroyed all freedom of expression in their own countries, and we're systematically violating the rights--even the rights to personal safety of people in their countries.

It is trying to establish American values by allowing those values to be destroyed in other countries. It's obvious that that's a mistake and I hope that we don't keep making that mistake.

GROSS: John Dinges, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. DINGES: Thank you, and it's great to be on your show again.

GROSS: John Dinges is the author of the new book "The Condor Years." He teaches at the Columbia University School of Journalism.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

LOAD-DATE: February 13, 2004

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