This week the Washington Post carried a fascinating front-page article entitled “This Is Not an Accident. This Was a Bomb” about the assassination of Orlando Letelier, the former official in the Allende administration who, along with his 25-year-old assistant Ronni Moffitt, was murdered on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1976. The article includes several interesting photographs, including of Letelier and Moffitt.
Some historical events will just not go away, perhaps because something about them just keeps gnawing at people. The Letelier assassination is a good example. So is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The Letelier assassination necessarily must be viewed within the context of the Chilean coup, which took place on September 11, 1973, approximately ten years after Kennedy was assassinated.
In 1970 Chilean voters delivered a plurality of votes to presidential candidate Salvador Allende, who was an avowed communist and socialist. Since he had not received a majority of the votes, the election was thrown into the Chilean congress, which proceeded to elect Allende president.
As a socialist, Allende believed in such programs as Social Security, government-provided healthcare, public housing, and many other things that characterize the welfare state in America. More important, Allende also believed in peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union and had no interest in joining the U.S. national-security state’s worldwide Cold War anti-communist crusade. In fact, he actually reached out to the Soviet Union in a spirit of friendship and peaceful coexistence, which helped seal his fate.
President Richard Nixon, his national security advisers, the Pentagon, and the CIA concluded that Allende was a grave threat to “national security” here in the United States. It was bad enough, they reasoned, that the United States already was supposedly endangered by a communist regime in Cuba. In their minds, another communist regime in the Western hemisphere could spell the end of the United States, although how that was going to happen was never made clear, especially since neither Cuba nor Chile ever showed any interest in invading and conquering the United States.
In any event, Nixon and the national security branch of the federal government decided that Allende had to go. When they failed to succeed in blocking Allende’s ascendancy to the presidency, the U.S. national security establishment initiated plans to foment a military coup in Chile. Part of that process entailed the kidnapping of the commanding general of the Chilean army, Gen Rene Schneider, who opposed the U.S.-inspired coup owing to his oath to support and defend the Chilean constitution, which did not provide for coups to remove duly elected presidents from office.
In the minds of U.S. national-security state officials, the Chilean constitution was irrelevant. After all, they figured, a constitution is not a suicide pact. If by following it, the country was going to go down, then it was incumbent on Chile’s national security establishment to violate it in order to save the country.
That’s also how Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who became commanding general of Chile’s armed forces after Schneider was assassinated, felt. The solemn responsibility of a government’s national-security establishment is to protect national security. When there is a threat to national security, it is its responsibility to remove it.
Under a national security state, the executive branch and the national-security branch are on the same page most of the time. But what happens if the national-security branch concludes that a duly elected president has embarked on a course of action that constitutes a grave threat to national security? Pinochet’s position was the same as that of the Pentagon and the CIA. In such a case, he believed, it is the responsibility of the national security branch to save the country by removing the president from office, even if that means that is must be done violently and even if the constitution does not authorize it.
Once Pinochet took power, he and his national-security forces embarked on the same anti-communist crusade that the U.S. national security establishment was engaged in throughout the Cold War and in the Korean and Vietnam wars, where U.S. troops and CIA operatives killed multitudes of people who, they said, were communists.
That’s what Pinochet did in Chile, with the full support of the U.S. national-security establishment. He and his forces rounded up some 50,000 people who were suspected of having voted for or supported Allende and then proceeded to torture, rape, or kill them. It was all part of the war on communism, which was waged in much the same way as the U.S. national security establishment has been waging its war on terrorism for the past 15 years. In other words, no trials and no due process. Just the military’s omnipotent power to ferret out communists and deal with them, just as the U.S. military and CIA wield the omnipotent power to ferret out terrorists and deal with them.
That’s what the assassination of Orlando Letelier was all about. Since he had served in the Allende administration and, therefore, believed in socialism and communism, he was considered a legitimate target for assassination by Pinochet and his national security team.
As the Washington Post article points out, soon after taking power Pinochet established a top-secret international assassination program entitled Operation Condor. It was Condor agents who planned and orchestrated Letelier’s assassination.
While the Post article points out that the CIA succeeded for decades in keeping secret Pinochet’s role in ordering the Letelier hit, the article fails to point out that the CIA was actually a partner in Operation Condor, the organization that took out Letelier and Moffitt. The CIA’s job in the partnership was to provide the technological equipment in order to facilitate communications between Condor partners. The article also failed to point out that the man who was in charge of Operation Condor, Manuel Contreras, who was also in charge of DINA, which was Chile’s version of the CIA, was also on the payroll of the CIA.
A couple of days ago, I did a two-hour interview about the Kennedy assassination with libertarian Ernie Hancock, who runs a great website called Freedom’s Phoenix. In the interview, I place the JFK assassination within the context of other U.S. regime change operations that were taking place both before after the JFK assassination, including the one in Chile ten years later.
There are, of course, some people who find it inconceivable that the U.S. national-security establishment would take out a duly elected president. They just can’t believe that national-security state officials would do something that dastardly. But they just don’t get it. In the minds of national-security state officials, removing a threat to national security is not something dastardly. In their minds, it is the very height of patriotism.
Did Pinochet and U.S. national-security state officials believe that he had done something dastardly by initiating a violent coup that left the duly elected president of Chile dead? Did U.S. officials believe they had done something dastardly when they removed the democratically elected president of Guatemala from office 9 years before the Kennedy assassination? Or when they removed the elected prime minister of Iran from office in 1953? Did they think they were doing something dastardly when they entered into a partnership with the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro during the early 1960s, whose forces had never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so?
On the contrary, they considered themselves to be great patriots. In their minds, they were protecting national security, and sometimes protecting national security means engaging in unsavory, dark-side activity.
During the Cold War, the CIA and the Pentagon maintained a manual on state-sponsored assassinations that was used to teach national-security state counterparts from foreign countries, especially at the School of the Americas. When knowledge of the manual came to light, it was ordered destroyed. Today there are no copies to be had. But among the principles it taught was one that bears relevance to the Kennedy assassination: When engaging in covert assassinations, it counseled, blame the assassination on a communist.
Why a communist? Because nothing was the subject of greater opprobrium during the Cold War than a communist. Being labeled a communist or a communist sympathizer could destroy a person’s career and his life. So, by blaming a state-sponsored assassination on a communist meant that people would be reluctant to question the official version for fear of appearing to be defending a communist.
As Lawrence deHaven-Smith points out in his excellent book Conspiracy Theory in America, after people began suggesting that the CIA might have orchestrated the assassination of President Kennedy, the CIA sent out a top-secret memo to assets indicating how they should deal with these skeptics of the official story. Two points stand out in the memo: that their assets should accuse the critics of being “conspiracy theorists,” which is how that term first entered the American lexicon, and should accuse them of being communist sympathizers.
It has, of course, never made any sense why Lee Harvey Oswald, who was supposedly an avowed communist, would want to kill President Kennedy. By November 1963, it was public knowledge that Kennedy had announced his intent to end the Cold War and to establish a friendly, peaceful relationship with the Soviet Union and Cuba. As part of that process, he had gotten the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty through Congress.
It was also common knowledge that his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, was a Cold War hawk and that he aligned himself with the Pentagon and the CIA and their anti-communist mindset and crusade in the ideological war that had broken out between Kennedy and the national-security establishment.
Why would an supposed avowed communist want to take out a president who was making peace with the communist world, especially when he would be replaced by an anti-communist crusader who wanted to make war with the communist world? Like much of the official story that was set forth by the Warren Commission, whose most active member was Allen Dulles, the CIA director who Kennedy fired after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, that just has never made any sense at all.
What does make sense, of course, is the notion that the U.S. national security state would consider Kennedy as much a threat to national security as Allende, both of whom were reaching out to the Soviet Union and the communist world in a spirit of friendship and peaceful coexistence. And of course, the logic of blaming a covert national-security state assassination on a purported communist, just as that destroyed Pentagon-CIA assassination manual counseled, also makes sense; in fact, it was ingenious because few wanted to take the risk of being accused of favoring a purported communist who had supposedly killed the president.
For more information about the Chilean coup, Operation Condor, and the Letelier assassination, see my many articles on these subjects:
For more information about the Kennedy assassination, see five FFF’s ebooks on the JFK assassination as well as the following books and websites, which I highly recommend:
The JFK Autopsy by Jacob Hornberger (which is still ranked #7 on Amazon’s best-selling ebooks on 20th-century U.S. history two years after initial publication)
Regime Change: The JFK Assassination by Jacob Hornberger
CIA & JFK: The Secret Assassination Files by Jefferson Morley
JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters by James W. Douglass
Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot
Inside the Assassination Records Review Board, volumes 1-5 by Douglas P. Horne