September 21 is a date that bears a special significance for a large number of Chileans and Latin America-watchers of U.S. foreign policy. It’s a date that ought to be memorialized by all Americans, for it was on September 21, 1976, that the worst act of international terrorism prior to 9/11 took place in the nation’s capital. The bomb that went off on the streets of Washington, D.C. that fateful morning took the lives of the former Chilean ambassador to the United States, Orlando Letelier, and his 25-year-old American aide, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. It was simultaneously a bomb attack and an assassination plot just fourteen blocks from the White House.
At around 9 am, Orlando Letelier was driving his two young aides, Ronni Karpen Moffitt and her husband, Michael Moffitt, to the Institute for Policy Studies where they all worked. Letelier was a genteel, erudite man, a statesman who had served as foreign and defense minister of Chile under the democratically elected government of Dr. Salvador Allende. When Allende was overthrown in a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, Letelier was sent to a concentration camp. Upon his release, he took up residence in Washington as the most prominent critic of the brutal Pinochet regime.
Sitting next to Letelier in the passenger seat that morning was Ronni Karpen Moffitt. She was a dark-haired idealist, musician, and teacher, who, in addition to helping Letelier in his crusade to restore democracy to Chile, ran a music program for the D.C. poor. Ronni and Michael had met at the Institute for Policy Studies and had married that spring. “It was as sweet a day as one can have in this life,” John Marciano, Professor Emeritus at SUNY-Cortland, who taught Michael, told me. “A sweet and marvelous day of love and solidarity.”
At 9:35 am, as Letelier’s blue Chevy Chevalle rounded Sheridan Circle on to Embassy Row and passed the residence of Augusto Pinochet’s ambassador in Washington, a bomb that had been fixed under the car went off. The explosion lifted the Chevy into the air, crushing its front end entirely. Ronni Moffitt stumbled away from the wreckage clutching her throat.
Michael, his shoes blown off, managed to crawl out the back window. “DINA did it!” he shouted almost involuntarily, referring to the National Intelligence Directorate, Pinochet’s ruthless secret police.
Seeing his wife standing on the sidewalk and thinking she had survived, Michael rushed to check on Letelier. The same statesman who just one week before had delivered a rousing speech in Madison Square Garden condemning the Pinochet dictatorship now lay dead in the incinerated car, his legs severed from the blast.
Shortly afterwards, Ronni Karpen Moffitt was pronounced dead at George Washington University Hospital. A piece of flying shrapnel the size of a thumbnail had pierced her carotid artery and slashed through her larynx. This young American, barely into her mid-20s, had drowned in her own blood.
That such a brazen act of terrorism could take place in broad daylight on the open streets of the nation’s capital was jarring enough; that this appeared to be the work of Augusto Pinochet made the tragedy into a scandal.
Last year, after I wrote an article criticizing a talk that Henry Kissinger gave at Yale Law School, I was contacted by an anguished John Marciano, who said that the subject of Chile always struck a personal chord with him because of what he witnessed the year that Ronni Moffitt and Orlando Letelier were murdered. In the spring of 1976, he had attended Ronni Moffitt’s wedding; that fall, Marciano and the many guests who had toasted the couple’s new beginning gathered on a more solemn day for Roni Moffitt’s funeral. ”Forever etched in my mind,” Professor Marciano remembered, “is a comment made to me by Ronni’s mother: ‘I bet you didn’t think you’d be back here so soon.’”
When I read this note, I felt a palpable sense of shame—anger and shame. I had referenced Chile in the article but had made no mention of either Letelier or Moffitt’s names, or the grotesque violence that was done to them. I had been ignorant of the whole matter. I suspected I wasn’t the only one.
So I began investigating the sequence of events that led to their murder, and who might have been able to prevent it. A few months later, the Obama administration declassified more documents related to Chile. In a symbolic but important move, Secretary of State John Kerry personally handed Chilean President Michelle Bachlet—herself a victim of Pinochet’s torture machine—a declassified U.S. memo that confirmed what the families of Letelier and Moffitt had long believed: The assassins who took the lives of their loved ones had been operating under the personal orders of Augusto Pinochet, the U.S.-backed dictator of Chile, who died in 2006.
The corollary presented itself: Pinochet could not have acted alone. He had been one of the United States’ closest allies, had come to power in a coup with the CIA’s blessings, had received considerable American subsidies, as well as the glad tidings of the secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. What’s more, the year before Letelier and Moffitt’s assassination, Pinochet had masterminded a secret program of state-sponsored terror codenamed Operation Condor. The program had been on the CIA’s radar within months of its inception.
Far from being an anomalous incident, the double-murder that took place on September 21, 1976, was the latest ‘hit’ in a long string of international assassinations.
On the fortieth anniversary of this tragedy, it is imperative to ask: Just who in the United States government knew of Operation Condor. More importantly, why did no one in the CIA, White House, or State Department deter Pinochet’s fascist regime from extending its bloody hand across two continents and bringing terror to Washington’s streets that September morning?
To understand why 9/21 took place, you must go back six years to 1970, when Chile was still a pluralistic, multi-party democracy with a tradition of vigorously contested elections. On September 4, 1970, something remarkable happened: Dr. Salvador Allende won the Chilean elections, making him the first democratically elected socialist in Latin America. Because Allende had won a plurality of the votes rather than an outright majority, Chilean constitutional procedures required that Chile’s National Congress vote on the candidate who received the most votes. By precedent, the Congress would vote for the winning candidate in the election, regardless of whether or not that candidate had won over 50% of the vote. Allende’s ratification was scheduled for October 24.
Washington, however, had other plans.
The official record states that eleven days after the Chilean elections, President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to begin covert operations to block Salvador Allende from assuming office. Present at this crucial meeting, dated September 15, 1970, were National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, Attorney-General John Mitchell, and CIA Director Richard Helms. We know the coup order came directly from the president because the CIA director took handwritten notes, which included such gems as: “no involvement of the embassy”; “not concerned with risks involved”; “$10,000,000 available, more if necessary”; “full-time job—best men we have”; and, most destructively, “make economy scream.” One would think that the most senior officials of the American government would know not to take notes on a criminal conspiracy, but these were officials who were blind drunk off their own power.
Henry Kissinger in particular played an unusually important role within the Nixon Administration. Since becoming national security adviser, Kissinger exerted, in the words of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, “near-total control over the intelligence community.” He did this through his chairmanship of a clandestine bureaucratic body known as the 40 Committee, which approved and sometimes supervised covert CIA operations. Thanks to the herculean efforts of the National Security Archive, we now know that the 40 Committee had been studying the feasibility of a coup in Chile even before Allende won the election on September 4.
Between 1969 and 1970, Kissinger’s 40 Committee discussed the upcoming Chilean elections at least four times; in March of 1970 and again in June, the Committee approved over $400,000 for anti-Allende propaganda. At one of their meetings that summer, Kissinger made his now infamous remark, encapsulating his attitude toward “third-world” democracies: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
In mid-August, weeks before Allende’s election, Kissinger ordered a strategic review of U.S. policy towards Chile. The memo he received ended with a sinister annex titled, “Extreme Option—Overthrow Allende.” The State Department advised that the U.S. should not overthrow Allende but finance his opponents for the next election—in effect continuing what the the CIA and State Department were already doing—but Kissinger demanded a “cold-blooded assessment” of the possibilities of a coup in Chile “organized now with U.S. assistance.”
The CIA and 40 Committee developed two policy tracks to block Allende from becoming president. Track I was to use economic aid to induce enough members of the Chilean Congress to throw their support behind Allende’s opponent. Track II was a military coup, an option deliberately kept from the U.S. ambassador to Chile. The plan was to find active or retired officers of the Chilean army, give them arms and funds, and let them mount an assault on Chile’s institutions and take power.
When Edward Korry, U.S. ambassador to Chile, heard that Washington was fomenting a coup, he hastily cabled Kissinger and told him that not only would the Chilean military not overthrow Allende, but that any coup attempt “would be an unrelieved disaster for the U.S.” Kissinger overruled him, and at an October 6 meeting of the 40 Committee, pressed the CIA to move quickly because there were “only eighteen days left” from Allende assuming power and “some drastic action was called for.” The CIA Director ordered his agents in Santiago to “contact the military and let them know the USG wants a military solution.” The fate of Chilean democracy appeared to be sealed.
There was just one problem, and his name was General Rene Schneider, the head of the Chilean military. A strict constutionalist, General Schneider espoused a doctrine of no military intervention in political affairs. He was steadfastly committed to seeing a peaceful transfer of power to Salvador Allende. Without his buy-in, any attempt at a coup would falter from the start. The general would have to be eliminated.
Over the next few weeks, U.S. officials in Chile contacted disgruntled anti-Allende officers and discussed the possibility of having General Schneider abducted. On October 13, nine days before Allende’s ratification was due, representatives of the anti-Allende elements contacted the CIA and informed them that the plan to abduct Schneider would happen within 48 hours. The same day in the White House, Nixon reiterated his original directive to Kissinger that all necessary steps be taken to manufacture a coup. “We’re going to smash him,” Nixon said a day later.
On October 15, 1970, at another crucial meeting, Kissinger instructed the CIA to “continue keeping the pressure on every Allende weak spot in sight—now, after the 24th of October, after 5 November, and into the future until such as new marching orders are given [emphasis added].” The message was duly passed on to the CIA Station Chief in Santiago.
The underworld of professional hitmen and assassins is filled with men who are as clumsy as they are deadly. In the case of the Chilean assassins, they had been paid $50,000 by the CIA and failed at their first attempt to kidnap General Schenider because they got nervous. The following day, they tried again to abduct him but got stuck in traffic. CIA headquarters cabled the Santiago Station and told them to assure the kidnappers “that USG support for anti-Allende action continues.” Finally, two days later, with six submachine guns procured to them by the CIA, the gangsters shot and killed Rene Schneider at close range.
Despite the assiduous efforts of the CIA, 40 Committee, and White House, the murder of General Schneider and the chaos this was intended to provoke had the opposite effect: Chileans rallied around their leader, and Salvador Allende’s electoral victory was duly ratified by the Chilean Congress as planned.
The new Chilean president quickly appointed Orlando Letelier his ambassador to the United States. In the 1960s, Letelier had worked as an economist for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington; Letelier knew America well, and the CIA knew Letelier. In one declassified CIA file, Letelier was described as “a reasonable, mature democrat.”
Two days after Allende was sworn in, Kissinger presented Nixon with three policy options: peaceful co-existence with the the socialist government, overt hostility, and finally, the pretense of peaceful relations masking covert operations. Kissinger emphatically urged this third option, asking what the U.S. government could do to “intensify Allende’s problems so that at a minimum he may fail” and at a maximum, “might create the conditions in which a collapse or overthrow may be feasible.” This was the policy that Nixon (and later, Ford), adopted—feigning friendship while secretly sabotaging the friend in question. It was a crude and devious approach, the perfect embodiment of Hunter S. Thompson’s description of Nixon (which applies equally well to Kissinger), as a man who “could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time.”
Over the next three years, the U.S. government did all it could to liquidate the Allende government. The way to do this, of course, was by precipitating an economic disaster. Aid and credits were cut. U.S. officials worked to disqualify Chile from receiving a $21 million World Bank credit that it desperately needed. Despite these moves, Kissinger still asked the CIA to broaden “the scope of covert operations.” Between 1970 and 1973, the CIA poured millions of dollars into funding anti-Allende political parties, propaganda, and protests that would weaken the Allende government even further.
In 1973, Orlando Letelier was recalled from Washington serve as Chile’s foreign and defense minister, but by this point, Allende’s government was on its last legs. On September 11, 1973—Chile’s 9/11—General Augusto Pinochet, whose boss was technically still Letelier, launched an attack on Chile’s presidential palace. According to declassified records, the CIA had been in contact with the coup plotters for a month, and had enough credible sources to know the exact date of the coup in advance. “Kill the bitch and you eliminate the litter,” Augusto Pinochet was heard saying in a tape, referring to Salvador Allende.
Pinochet’s military gangsters did away with Chilean democracy in short order. President Allende was found dead in his office with gunshot wounds to the head. Orlando Letelier was immediately arrested and sent to a concentration camp to be tortured.
The seeds of the bloody 1973 coup were laid in 1970 in Washington by Nixon and the 40 Committee, including Henry Kissinger, Attorney-General John Mitchell, and CIA Director Richard Helms. What came of these men, who in the name of the American people, helped to overthrow a democratic government and bring a thuggish autocrat to power?
John Mitchell became the first attorney-general in American history to go to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal; a little known fact of that sordid affair is that the first place burgled by Nixon’s cronies was not the DNC but the Chilean embassy in Washington. One can imagine the sort of documents the Watergate thieves were after. CIA Director Richard Helms perjured himself in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1977 when he flatly denied U.S. involvement in the 1970 coup attempt, the first CIA director to be indicted for a crime. (Helms pled no-contest, and in a testament to powerful officials manipulating the law for their own ends, was fined a paltry $2,000, a sum which his CIA colleagues helped him raise. “I wear this conviction as a badge of honor,” Helms said.)
As for the Chairman of the 40 Committee, Henry Kissinger, who had urged a coup at every turn and worked to vandalize and mutilate the Allende government from behind the scenes, the day after Pinochet’s coup, he had his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill for the position of secretary of state. Salvador Allende was dead. Orlando Letelier was in a concentration camp. The black night of dictatorship had fallen over a once peaceful nation.
“The president is worried that we might want to send someone to Allende’s funeral,” Kissinger joked. “I said that I didn’t believe we were considering that.”
It is more than just a passing coincidence that the U.S. government reopened bilateral and military aid to Chile after Augusto Pinochet’s fascist regime came to power. While Nixon and Kissinger were defending Pinochet abroad and condoning his coup at home, Pinochet was summarily executing thousands of innocent people. Many more unlucky souls were simply “disappeared,” seen one day and never heard from again.
The U.S. Congress took notice and wanted to cut aid to the bloody Chilean junta. State Department officials urged Kissinger to condemn Pinochet’s atrocities, but the secretary of state was reluctant to do so—having long mocked the idea that human rights should be part of America’s foreign policy. “Inside the executive branch,” writes Peter Kornbluh in his indispensable, The Pinochet Files, “Secretary Kissinger personally let the effort to circumvent congressional restrictions and sustain aid to the junta.”
In fact, Kissinger was so opposed to raising the human rights file that when he met with Chilean officials, he castigated his own State Department staff. “The State Department is made up of people who have a vocation for the ministry,” Kissinger said, “because there are not enough churches for them, they went into the Department of State.” For a seasoned veteran of realpolitik, the undercutting of America’s own ambassadors and diplomats to the private emissaries of a foreign dictatorship could hardly be seen as advancing “the national interest.”
Meanwhile, in Chile, Pinochet had handpicked a man named Manuel Contreras to head his newly created secret police, DINA. In October of 1975, Contreras met with the intelligence heads of Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina, and agreed on an intelligence sharing program they called Operation Condor, named after Chile’s national bird. But this was no ordinary coordination effort of the kind that spy agencies routinely implement. Operation Condor was a state-sponsored program of surveillance, kidnapping, torture, assassination, and terror, aimed at anyone who was perceived as an opponent of these regimes.
Here’s how a Condor ‘hit’ worked: A special surveillance team would be sent out to monitor the target, map his movements, and figure out his routine. Once these details were recorded, a second team made up of agents with false documents would then carry out the murder with either bullets or bombs. The whole program was organized from DINA headquarters and overseen by Pinochet.
By 1976, Orlando Letelier was living in Washington and successfully lobbying against the Pinochet regime. He had friends and allies in Congress who were sympathetic to his aims and opposed to Kissinger’s carte blanche to Pinochet. If Letelier succeeded in turning Pinochet into an international pariah, it would be the State Department and by extension the whole U.S. government that would be discredited. To forestall the criticism, Kissinger’s aides pleaded with him to address human rights in his upcoming trip to Chile, which took place in June of 1976.
In his memoirs, Years of Renewal, Kissinger writes that “a considerable amount of time in my dialogue with Pinochet was devoted to human rights.” The declassified record proves this to be a cynical manipulation at best and an outright lie at worst. In private, Kissinger briefed the Chilean strongman on the human rights speech and told him, “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.” What followed was something insidious, as the secretary of state assured the despot, “The [human rights] speech is not aimed at Chile. I wanted to tell you this…I want you to succeed and I want to retain the possibility of aid.”
If American diplomats in Chile had not been undermined before, now anything they said to Pinochet and DINA may have elicited little more than concealing smiles. Also mentioned in that crucial Pinochet-Kissinger meeting of June 1976 was Orlando Letelier, whom Pinochet explicitly referred to not once but twice.
Contrary to deterring any surreptitious plans Pinochet and DINA chief Contreras may have had, the blessings of America’s secretary of state seemed to have emboldened them. In late June of 1976, Manuel Contreras, relaying Pinochet’s wishes, gave the order to kill Orlando Letelier.
The hitman chosen for this special job was Michael Vernon Townley, a burly American expat from Iowa who had moved to Chile as a teenager. He was perhaps the most savage of all DINA agents, and with his technical experience, was even helping the Chilean junta manufacture sarin gas.
Using a cover story, Townley and the other DINA hitmen procured false passports from their Paraguyan counterparts. Once they got their forged documents, all they needed were U.S. visas. But the U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay, George Landau, hesitated. Something did not feel right. Landau was contacted by the right-hand-man of the Paraguayan dictator, who told him that the visas were requested by Pinochet for a special meeting with Deputy CIA Director Vernon Waters in Washington. Ambassador Landau relented, not wanting to interfere with whatever the CIA was getting up to. He issued the visas but first copied the fabricated passports and sent them to Vernon Waters at the CIA for authentication. A few days later, Waters responded and said he was unaware of who these Chilean operatives were. Landau immediately urged that the men who had been given the visas be refused entry into the United States.
Thinking their cover had been blown, DINA scrapped the Paraguayan option altogether and instead sent two DINA agents straight to Washington to surveil Orlando Letelier. The CIA caught wind that something related to Condor was happening and told the State Department about possible DINA plots focused on “identifying, locating, and ‘hitting’” opposition leaders.
On August 3, 1976, Henry Kissinger was briefed on possible assassinations by the Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Harry Shlaudeman. At the State Department, officials discussed how the U.S. government should proceed, and several top aides recommended a direct and forceful response to Chile that any assassination attempt was unacceptable.
On August 23, Henry Kissinger approved and signed a vital cable to the U.S. ambassadors in Uruguay, Paraguay, and most importantly, the nerve-center of Operation Condor, Chile. The ambassadors were informed of CIA reports of “planned and directed assassinations within and outside the territory of Condor’s members” and were instructed to approach the highest officials of the Condor countries, “preferably the chief of state,” and warn them that the United States government was aware of the planned assassinations of “prominent figures” and that such actions “would create a most serious moral and political problem.”
In diplomatic talk, the U.S. ambassadors were to deliver a demarche to the heads of Condor countries, a formal protest registering the displeasure of the United States.
The following day, August 24, the U.S. Ambassador to Chile, David Popper, objected to delivering such a demarche to Pinochet. Popper thought that Pinochet would take the injunction as an insult and that it would backfire. The U.S. ambassador to Uruguay also hesitated. He thought that passing on such a warning would jeopardize his life and he suggested that the demarche be delivered in Washington by Kissinger’s office.
On August 30, 1976, Kissinger’s assistant secretary Harry Shlaudeman wrote his boss a secret memo titled “Operation Condor.” In it, Shlaudeman raised the ambassadors’ worries and stated explicitly that, “What we are trying to head off is a series of international murders.” That was the objective of the demarche, to deter assassinations, the very reason the State Department found it necessary to issue a formal objection in the first place.
Michael Townley entered the United States on September 9, 1976, under a false Chilean passport. Little did Letelier know that Townley and his fellow hitmen were watching his every move. Townley had originally planned to throw a vial of sarin gas into Letelier’s car at a traffic stop; he probably dropped this idea when he realized that the consequences of a chemical weapons attack in the U.S. capital were too severe. Instead, he stuck to his tested method and assembled a bomb in his hotel room.
On September 16, 1976, Kissinger responded to Shlaudeman’s “Operation Condor” memo with a cable that for many years Kissinger refused to admit even existed. That is, until it was declassified in 2010. The cable read: “The secretary of sate declined to approve the message. No further action will be taken on this matter [emphasis added].” Kissinger had officially instructed his deputy to rescind the demarche, meaning that the U.S. government protest on planned assassinations would not be delivered to the Pinochet. Rarely have so few words carried such great consequences.
Two days later, on September 18, under the cover of night, Townley and his fellow assassins drove to Letelier’s home in Bethesda, Maryland. It was Chilean Independence Day, but Letelier’s blue Chevy was in the driveway. Townley slipped under Letelier’s car and taped a bomb directly under the driver’s seat. On September 20, Shlaudeman faithfully forwarded Kissinger’s message to the U.S. ambassadors verbatim. They were to “take no further action.” No demarche would be delivered. No warning given to Pinochet. No attempt made even to suggest to the Chilean dictator that any plot to kill prominent opponents would come with the severest of consequences. No further action was taken.
History is a stubborn adversary, and its verdict is never a kind one for those villains who view citizens as dispensable playthings in a great game of geopolitics.
The next day, September 21, 1976, Ronni Karpen Moffitt and Michael Mofitt rode to work in Orlando Letelier’s car. What was going through their minds as they turned on Sheridan Circle just after 9:30 am? Perhaps they were wondering about the long fight to bring democracy back to Chile. Perhaps Letelier was optimistic about their prospects. Perhaps Ronni Karpen Moffitt, not yet 26 but with a degree under her belt, a music program she led for the homeless, and her husband of four months sitting in the backseat, was thinking of the selfless, humanitarian work she was pursuing in the great Jewish tradition of Tikkun olam—trying to repair a broken world. Or maybe they were all thinking it would be an ordinary day.
As the car turned on to Embassy Row, a few seconds would have passed between the banality of a September morning and the carnage of the explosion that would soon erupt from under the vehicle.
The flames that rose in the heart of Washington that day could have been prevented. Kissinger and the White House could have let Chileans decide for themselves who would govern them. The CIA could have refused to aid and abet the mercenaries who killed General Schenider. Kissinger could have pursued peaceful relations with Allende and discouraged the 1973 coup. He could have used the power and influence of his office to deter Pinochet. At a minimum, Kissinger could have not revoked the demarche five days before Letelier and Moffitt were murdered.
Following the bomb explosion on 9/21, the U.S. government—including CIA Director George H.W. Bush—knew who had committed the worst act of terrorism in America’s capital. But the White House lied to the media and fed them the story that the assassination was the work of “leftists.” Pinochet portrayed himself as the victim of a communist conspiracy. The lies, half-truths, and media manipulations continued through the 1990s, despite guilty verdicts for the assassins involved. Michael Townley struck a plea bargain, confessed to the vile crime, and currently lives under the witness protection program. Pinochet was arrested in London for crimes against humanity in 1998, though he was subsequently released on grounds of compassion because of his faltering health. He died in 2006 without ever having faced a trial.
Kissinger continues to lecture freely at every powerful institution one can imagine; his counsel is sought by presidents and business-leaders, his endorsement desperately desired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. To my knowledge, not once has Kissinger been asked to account for his role in the policies, overt and covert, that led to the bomb explosion in Washington, D.C., forty years ago today. But history is a stubborn adversary, and its verdict is never a kind one for those villains who view citizens as dispensable playthings in a great game of geopolitics.
I’ve thought often about Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt this past year. They were the sort of model citizens any of us would be privileged to know—empathetic human beings who were striving for the noblest of ends. They were caught in a system that was indifferent to people like them—people whose moral imagination would not be stilled by homicidal strongmen and their cretinous accessories. To think that Letelier and Moffitt met such a savage end while the likes of Nixon and Kissinger were (and are) celebrated is to begin to appreciate the effects of power.
Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt’s memories will live on; it is for the rest of us to ensure that their ideals do as well.
Omer Aziz is a Student Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School.