(IPS) – Five days before the assassination in downtown Washington of former Chilean Defence Minister Orlando Letelier, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rescinded instructions to U.S. ambassadors in Latin America’s Southern Cone to warn the region’s military regimes against carrying out “a series of international murders”, according to documents released by the National Security Archive (NSA) here.
Kissinger “has instructed that no further action be taken on this matter”, reads a declassified Sep. 16, 1976 cable sent by Kissinger’s office from Zambia, where he was travelling at the time, to his assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Harry Shlaudeman.
The “matter” in question concerned instructions sent under Kissinger’s name to U.S. ambassadors to Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay Aug. 23, 1976, to make a formal demarche to the leaders of their host governments regarding Washington’s “deep concern” about reports it had received of “plans for the assassination of subversives, politicians and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad”.
The Aug. 23 cable ordered the ambassadors to warn to the highest possible officials that such plans – part of a secret, Chilean-led intelligence collaboration among the Southern Cone’s military regimes known as Operation Condor – would “create a most serious moral and political problem”.
When Washington’s ambassador in Montevideo, Ernest Siracusa, balked at the directive, Shlaudeman explained to Kissinger in a memo one week later that the instructions were designed “to head off …a series of international murders that could do serious damage to the international status and reputation of the countries involved”.
Kissinger’s Sep. 16 cable, which, along with the others, are posted at the NSA’s website, fills in some key gaps in the chain of events leading up to the car bomb assassination of Letelier and a colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, while they were driving to work at the Institute for Policy Studies less than two kilometres from the White House Sep. 21, 1976.
Until the 9/11 al Qaeda attack on the Pentagon, the assassination, which was carried out by agents of the regime of Chilean President Augusto Pinochet, was the most serious act of international terrorism committed in the U.S. capital.
In particular, it settles a controversy – played out most dramatically in the 2004 resignation of the senior Latin America specialist at the most influential U.S. foreign-policy journal, Foreign Affairs – over a Sep. 20, 1976 directive by Shlaudeman to his deputy, William Luers, to “instruct the (U.S.) ambassadors (in the region) to take no further action” on the Aug. 23 instructions. The cable noted that “there have been no reports in some weeks indicating an intention to activate the Condor scheme”.
Both the Sep. 20 and Aug. 23 cables were previously released by the NSA, a non-profit group founded in 1985 and supported by private foundations.
“The Sep. 16 cable is the missing piece of the historical puzzle of Kissinger’s role in the action, and inaction, of the U.S. government after learning of Condor assassination plots,” said Peter Kornbluh, the NSA’s senior analyst on Chile.
“We know now what happened: the State Department initiated a timely effort to thwart a ‘Murder Inc.’ in the Southern Cone, and Kissinger, without explanation, aborted it,” he said.
While Kissinger himself has not spoken about his role, his defenders have insisted that he had nothing to do with Shlaudeman’s Sep. 20 cable that countermanded the Aug. 16 instructions. Kissinger’s Sep. 16 cable from Lusaka, however, makes it clear that Shlaudeman was acting at his boss’ behest.
“The Kissinger cancellation on warning the Condor nations prevented the delivery of a diplomatic protest that conceivably could have deterred an act of terrorism in Washington, D.C.,” noted Kornbluh, author of “The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability”.
Some analysts, including Kornbluh, believe that a strong U.S. warning of the kind pushed by Shlaudeman’s bureau also could have discouraged hundreds of disappearances and killings of dissidents carried out by the intelligence services of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil, among others, as part of Operation Condor.
According to the cables, Siracusa, the U.S. ambassador in Montevideo, resisted his Aug. 18 instructions to deliver a demarche to Uruguay’s military junta because he feared that his life would be in danger.
Shlaudeman recommended that Kissinger authorise a telegram to Siracusa “to talk to both (Foreign Minister Juan Carlos) Blanco and General (Julio Cesar) Vadora” while Shlaudeman would meet with the Uruguayan ambassador in Washington. As an alternative, he suggested that a senior CIA official meet with his Uruguayan counterpart in Montevideo.
The U.S. ambassador to Chile at the time, David Popper, had also objected to the Aug. 18 instructions, arguing that, “given Pinochet’s sensitivities, he might well take as an insult any inference that he was connected with such assassination plots”.
In his Sep. 16 cable, Kissinger explicitly “declined to approve message to Montevideo and has instructed that no further action be taken on this matter”, effectively reversing the instructions to Popper and the U.S. ambassador in Argentina to make a demarche.
In early October – after the Letelier assassination – a Santiago-based CIA officer met with the head of the Chilean secret police (DINA), Col. Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, to discuss the demarche, although declassified documents obtained by the NSA offer no indication that the assassination came up in the exchange.
It was the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) which first related Condor to the Letelier assassination. Shortly after the car bombing, an Argentine general told an FBI agent that DINA was the likely perpetrator, and the tip led to the prosecution and conviction of several DINA agents here and eventually to a prison term for Contreras, who called himself “Condor One”.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.