Ever since the assassination of former Chilean official Orlando Letelier in 1976, the official position, promoted by both the mainstream press and the Washington establishment, was that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who the U.S. helped install into power, ordered the hit on Letelier.
Yet, as I pointed out in my 3-part article “The Assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt,” which was published in the January, February, and March 2017 issues of FFF’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom, that position is problematic.
First, though, a recap of the facts.
In 1970, a self-avowed Marxist socialist named Salvador Allende was democratically elected president of Chile. Concluding that Allende was a threat to U.S. “national security,” especially given his friendship with Russia and Cuba, U.S. officials targeted Chile for a regime change. Those regime-change efforts culminated in 1973 with a U.S.-supported military coup led by Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose national-security state forces proceeded to round up, torture, rape, disappear, or execute tens of thousands of Allende supporters or people who believed in communism and socialism. Among those incarcerated and tortured for about a year was Allende administration official Orlando Letelier.
Owing to international pressure, Pinochet finally agreed to release Letelier, who ended up in Washington, D.C., working for a leftist think tank and lobbying strongly for a cutoff of all international funds to Chile, including U.S. foreign aid that was flooding into the Pinochet regime.
On September 10, 1976, Letelier delivered a speech at Madison Square Garden detailing the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship and also pointing out the collaboration between the CIA and the so-called Chicago Boys, free-market acolytes of Milton Friedman who had gone to work for the Pinochet dictatorship. On that same day, Pinochet issued a decree depriving Letelier of his Chilean citizenship.
The next day, September 11, while Letelier, his young assistant Ronni Moffitt, and Moffitt’s husband Michael, were riding to work in Washington, a car bomb that had been placed under the car exploded, killing both Letelier and Ronni Moffitt and injuring Michael. (Click here for a photo of all three.)
Thanks to some determined FBI agents, the assassination was ultimately traced to an American living in Chile named Michael Townley and five Cuban exiles living here in the United States that Townley had retained to help him with the assassination.
Townley was ultimately given what can only be described as a sweetheart deal for the cold-blooded murder of Letelier and Moffitt. Agreeing to testify against the Cuban exiles he had retained, he received a relatively light jail sentence given the heinous nature of his crime. The deal was rather unusual since usually light jail sentences are meted out to those at the bottom of a conspiracy as a way to get to those at the top of the conspiracy. Three of the Cuban exiles were convicted but owing to a prosecutorial error at trial, their convictions were overturned on appeal. On retrial, they were acquitted.
The other two Cuban exiles were arrested several years later and given relatively light jail sentences for the cold-blooded murder of two innocent people. Townley, who had planned and helped carry out the cold-blooded murder of Letelier and Moffitt, was admitted into the Federal Witness Protection program, where he has been protected ever since.
While Townley and the CIA have always denied that he was a CIA asset, the denials have never meant much since they would deny it even if it were true. And the fact is that Townley, who lived for a time in Miami, which was the epicenter of CIA activity against Cuba, had characteristics of a CIA asset, given that he was an expert bomb-maker, an expert in radio and technology, an expert assassin, and a fiercely loyal anti-communist.
Townley did acknowledge that he was working for DINA, a top-secret torture, intelligence, and assassination agency that the U.S. national-security establishment helped create in Chile and then train after Pinochet took power. The head of DINA, a brutal man named Manuel Contreras, was later determined to be a paid CIA asset.
The official theory is that Pinochet ordered Contreras to assassinate Letelier as a threat to Chilean “national security,” that Contreras ordered Townley to carry out the hit, and that Townley employed the five Cuban exiles to help him plan and carry out the car-bombing.
Yet, there are problems with the official story, at least insofar as Pinochet was concerned.
Pinochet denied ever ordering the hit on Letelier. Of course, such a denial by a brutal military dictator who oversaw the kidnapping, rapes, torture, execution, or disappearances of tens of thousands of innocent people wouldn’t ordinarily hold much water.
And yet, logic and reason dictate that Pinochet may have been telling the truth. After all, the U.S. government was the reason that Pinochet was in power. It was also the U.S. government that was helping prop up the Pinochet dictatorship with millions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid.
Would Pinochet really jeopardize his relationship with the U.S. government by committing an assassination on U.S soil, at least without receiving a green light from U.S. officials? That wouldn’t seem very likely.
Moreover, Letelier often traveled internationally. If Pinochet wanted to assassinate him, why not wait until he was traveling in some foreign country? That would have been consistent with other the tens of thousands of assassinations being carried out by Pinochet, Contreras, and DINA as part of Operation Condor, the international assassination operation run by DINA for which the CIA had contributed the communications and technological equipment.
Moreover, if Pinochet was planning on assassinating Letelier on September 11, what would be the point of depriving him of his Chilean citizenship on September 10?
Of course, even if Pinochet didn’t specifically order the hit on Letelier, that wouldn’t let him off the hook because he had vested Contreras and DINA with the power to assassinate people without first checking with him. That in itself would make him criminally liable for the assassination.
But what U.S. officials and the U.S. mainstream press have never seriously considered is the possibility, even the likelihood, that the CIA, operating in conjunction with its DINA asset Contreras, and possibly with Michael Townley too, orchestrated the assassination of Orlando Letelier.
The problem with the sweetheart deal that was given Townley becomes apparent: While Townley was willing to implicate Contreras and Pinochet, as a practical matter that didn’t matter much because both Contreras and Pinochet were safely ensconced back in Chile. At the same time, the sweetheart deal given to Townley meant that the Justice Department lost the ability to squeeze Townley into disclosing that the CIA was involved in the assassination by threatening him with a life sentence or even the death penalty.
Motive? The same motive for installing Pinochet into power in the first place. Letelier, like Allende, was a communist. When Pinochet instigated his coup in 1973, one of the first things his forces tried to do was kill Allende. That’s because Allende was a communist or socialist. After that, the round-ups, kidnappings, rapes, and murders of tens of thousands began. That’s because the people who were being kidnapped, raped, executed, tortured, or disappeared were communists or socialists. All this was done with the full support of U.S. national-security state officials, whose forces, at the same time, were killing communists in Vietnam.
And so here was one of Allende’s communists — Orlando Letelier — spouting communism on American soil and, even worse, doing everything he could to destroy the U.S. national-security state’s Pinochet regime.
As I was writing my three-part article, one of the things that intrigued me was how Townley was able to employ those five Cuban exiles to assist him with the assassination. It’s not like he put a want-ad in the Washington Post looking for assassins he could trust. When one is going to assassinate a well-known and highly respected former government official, it stands to reason that he would want to hire people that he knows he can trust, people that he knows are going to keep their mouths shut.
So, how did Townley come to meet those Cuban exiles? How did he know they were expert assassins? How did he know he could trust them? How did Townley, Contreras, and Pinochet, who lived thousands of miles away in Chile, come to decide that these particular Cuban exiles living here in the United States could be trusted to carry out something this big and this delicate?
I recently came across something called “Operation 40.” (See here and here.) It was a secret group organized by the CIA soon after Fidel Castro came into power. Its mission? Regime change in Cuba, including through assassination. Apparently, many of the members of Operation 40 were Cuban exiles.
An interesting question arises: Were any of the Cuban exiles that were implicated in the Letelier-Moffit assassination former members of the CIA’s Operation 40?
In 1953, the CIA published a top-secret “Study of Assassination,” which shows that practically from its inception the CIA was specializing not only in assassination but also in ways to avoid detection. The question is: Did the CIA exercise its dual specialty 23 years later in the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, on grounds of “national security”?