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The CIA and the Assassination of Orlando Letelier

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On September 21, 1976, a car bomb exploded on the streets of Washington, D.C., killing former Chilean official Orlando Letelier and his young assistant Ronni Moffitt. Since it was clearly a case of premeditated, cold-blooded murder of two innocent people, the killers were subject to being sentenced to death or life in prison.

Yet, consider what actually happened to some of the people implicated in the murders:

Michael Townley, who put together the murder team and actually participated in the car bombing itself. Federal officials agreed to a plea bargain that enabled him to get out of prison after only five years. After that, federal officials admitted Townley into their Federal Witness Protection Program, where he has been under federal protection ever since.

The following is what happened to the men who Townley recruited to be on his murder team:

Guillermo Novo Sampol and Alvin Ross Diaz. A jury convicted them of murder and they were sentenced to life in prison, a reasonable punishment for premeditated, cold-blooded murder of two innocent people. However, because federal prosecutors committed an evidentiary error at trial, the convictions were overturned on appeal. On retrial, Novo and Ross were acquitted, possibly because jurors were disgusted with the sweetheart deal that federal officials had doled out to Townley.

Virgilio Paz Romero. He was arrested in 1991 while living in Florida. He pled guilty to the Letelier-Moffitt murders and was sentenced to serve only 12 years in jail for the crime. He was paroled after serving only six years.

Jose Dionesio Suarez. He was arrested in 1990 while living in Florida. He too pled guilty and, like Paz, was given a 12-year sentence. He was released after serving only 8 years.

Armando Fernandez Larios. He served as a high official in DINA from the time of the Pinochet coup to 1987. His job in the Letelier assassination was to enter the United States and follow and watch Letelier and then report his findings to Townley. According to an organization named The Center for Justice and Accountability, “Defendant Fernandez Larios secretly entered the United States on or about January 1987 and lived in an undisclosed location under the protection of the United States government.” The feds entered into a plea bargain with Fernandez that enabled him to leave prison after serving only eight months in jail.

Ignacio Novo Sampol was convicted of perjury in the same trial as Guillermo Novo Sampol and Alvin Ross Diaz. He had lied to a grand jury when he denied any knowledge of the crime. He was sentenced to 8 years in jail. However, his conviction too was overturned on appeal because the appellate court ruled that his case should have been severed from that of the other two defendants. Federal officials decided not to retry him and, therefore, he was released after serving two years in jail.

These relatively light punishments for the premeditated, cold-blooded murder of two innocent people, one of whom was a young woman who was just starting out in life, are enough “shock the conscience.” In my opinion, the whole thing stinks to high heaven.

Was the CIA involved in the murder of Letelier and Moffitt? That was certainly what Guillermo Novo Sampol and Alvin Ross Diaz contended in their original trial.

In their second trial — the one in which they were acquitted — they shifted gears and pointed to the Pinochet regime’s secret assassination and torture agency, known as DINA, and its head Manuel Contreras.

The U.S. mainstream press considered that to be a major change of strategy. However, what the press failed to notice was that the positions taken by Novo and Ross in their two trials were not necessarily inconsistent. It’s entirely possible that DINA, Contreras, and the CIA worked together to orchestrate Letelier’s assassination.

The CIA had helped bring DINA into existence and then helped train its personnel, helping to make DINA one of the premier kidnapping, assassination, and torture agencies in the world. The CIA also made Contreras a paid CIA asset, before the Letelier assassination. By furnishing communications and technology, the CIA also became a partner in the international kidnapping, assassination, and torture operation known as Operation Condor, which was led by DINA and Contreras.

In fact, when Contreras was ultimately brought to justice after the Pinochet regime was ousted from power, he steadfastly maintained that the Letelier assassination was a CIA operation.

In my recent article “Did the CIA Assassinate Letelier and Moffitt?” I pointed out that I had recently discovered the existence of a top-secret CIA program named “Operation 40.” I wrote that the organization could be significant because it could explain why Michael Townley felt that he could trust the Cuban exiles who he was recruiting to help him kill Letelier.

After doing extensive online research into Operation 40, I am absolutely amazed at how little has been written about this mysterious CIA program. There are some websites that list the supposed members but none of them cite any sources for their claim. One website showed a letter from the CIA stating that the CIA was not going to disclose any more information about Operation 40 in response to Freedom of Information requests. The ground for keeping the details of a half-century old program secret? “National security,” of course.

What amazed me was that there hasn’t been one book written that focuses entirely on Operation 40. Or even one credible article in the mainstream press. You would have thought that at least one good investigative journalist would have gone after the subject.

There are considerable online assertions that Operation 40 was a CIA assassination program that was originally designed to work with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Once the invaders made it onto the island, the job of the Operation 40 team would be to assassinate officials in the Castro regime. Even though no one provides any credible source for this allegation, to me it makes sense, for three reasons: The CIA made assassination one of its core responsibilities after the CIA was brought into existence in 1947; and, two, the same type of assassination operation had been planned for the CIA’s regime-change operation in Guatemala a few years before; and, three, the CIA entered into a partnership with the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro.

In the process of researching Operation 40, I determined that one of the Letelier defendants, Alvin Ross Diaz, had been in the CIA’s invading force at the Bay of Pigs. That would have necessarily meant that Ross and the CIA had been joined at the hip. That’s all the seal of approval that Townley would have needed to trust the Cuban exiles when he went began recruiting people to help him assassinate Letelier.

Among the fascinating aspects of the Letelier investigation was that at the time of the assassination, the CIA was in possession of information that a DINA team had tried to enter the United States through the use of false passports. Yet, when the Letelier assassination investigation began, the CIA kept that information secret and instead employed the “blame a communist” theme that the CIA was teaching rightwing Latin American dictatorships to use in covert state-sponsored assassinations ever since the Kennedy assassination.

As I indicated in my recent article and in my three-part article, “The Assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt,” it makes little sense that Pinochet would have specifically ordered Letelier’s assassination on American soil, at least not without first receiving a green light from U.S. officials. The U.S. government was his partner, his enabler, his funder. Why would he jeopardize all that by murdering someone on U.S. soil? Indeed, why would he subject himself and DINA officials to the possibility of being subjected to the U.S. criminal justice system, including extradition? Why would he have removed Letelier’s Chilean citizenship the day before his assassination, knowing that that would only draw more attention to him? Why not wait until Letelier was traveling abroad to kill him?

On the other hand, the United States was the safest place for the CIA to commit the crime. There was no possibility that the CIA, as a U.S. governmental agency, could be indicted for the crime. Equally important, the CIA would know that Justice Department investigators and prosecutors wouldn’t dare accuse the CIA of such a crime. And even if it came out that the CIA had done it, CIA officials would be immune from prosecution since the assassination would have been related to “national security,” just as the CIA is held immune from any other “national-security” assassinations, such as the murders (and felony kidnapping) of Rene Schneider, Charles Horman, Frank Teruggi, and Anwar al-Awlaki.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.