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The Assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, Part 1


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On the morning of September 21, 1976, former Chilean official Orlando Letelier was driving to work at the Institute for Policy Studies, a leftist public-policy institute in Washington, D.C. Accompanying him were his 25-year-old assistant Ronni Moffitt and her husband, Michael, both of whom also worked at the institute and who had just recently gotten married.

When the car reached Sheridan Circle in Washington, a remote-controlled bomb exploded under Letelier’s seat, severing both his legs, resulting in his almost-immediate death. Ronni Moffitt’s carotid artery was cut, which caused her death within a short time. Michael Moffitt, who was seated in the back of the car, suffered cuts and bruises but survived the bomb blast.

While the assassinations of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt have been blamed on Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet and his national-security establishment, much less attention has been paid to the responsibility that the U.S. government, especially its own national-security establishment, bears in these two murders. In fact, the Letelier and Moffitt assassinations go to the heart of what the U.S. national-security state, a governmental apparatus that was adopted after World War II, has done to American society and to the morals, values, principles, and consciences of the American people.

Let’s begin this long, complex, and fascinating story with the light punishments that were meted out by U.S. federal district courts to the various people who were involved in the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations.

There was Michael Townley, the American who planned the bombing and actually set the bomb under Letelier’s car. He served only five years in jail. That’s it! There are people who have been convicted for violating marijuana laws who have received much longer jail sentences than that.

It gets better. After he was released from jail, U.S. officials admitted Townley, who openly acknowledged that he had planned the assassination and planted the bomb under the car, into their Federal Witness Protection program, where he has been safely ensconced for more than 30 years.

It gets even better. Even though Argentina and Spain have sought to have Townley extradited for an assassination that left former commander the Chilean Army Carlos Prats and his wife Sofia dead and an assassination attempt that left former Chilean official Bernard Leighton and his wife Ana Maria permanently disabled, a U.S. magistrate ruled against the extradition requests, holding that the plea bargain that U.S. officials entered into with Townley in the Letelier assassination protected him from extradition for other assassinations that he had committed.

In 1991, two men who followed Letelier and the Moffitts that fateful morning and detonated the bomb under their car — Virgilio Paz Romero and Jose Dionisio Suarez Esquivel — were given plea bargains by the U.S. Justice Department that enabled them to be paroled after only six and seven years in jail …
for the cold-blooded, premeditated murder of two innocent people.

Two men who were also accused of participating in the conspiracy to murder Letelier — Guillermo Novo Sampol and Alvin Ross Diaz — were initially convicted of the murders and given life sentences. However, owing to an extraordinary error in judgment committed by federal prosecutors at trial regarding an evidentiary issue, the convictions were overturned on appeal. In the second trial, the jury acquitted both men. Bottom line: No punishment whatsoever for Novo and Ross.

Prior to the Letelier assassination, a Pinochet administration official named Armando Fernandez Larios entered the United States, monitored Letelier’s daily activities, and provided the information to Townley. In January 1987, Larios fled Chile, secretly entered the United States, and lived in an undisclosed place under the protection of the federal government. One month later, under a plea bargain reached with the Justice Department, he was permitted to plead guilty to being an “accessory after the fact,” given a 7-year sentence, and then released on the order of a federal judge after serving just a few months in jail.

It was later established that Chilean military strongman Augusto Pinochet, who was installed into power in 1973 by virtue of a coup orchestrated by Richard Nixon and the U.S. national-security establishment, and a Chilean military man named Manuel Contreras, who was in charge of Pinochet’s top-secret paramilitary-intelligence agency called DINA, had ordered the hit on Letelier.

The transformation

While Pinochet died without facing justice, DINA chief Manuel Contreras was ultimately convicted in a Chilean court for the Letelier assassination and sentenced to seven years in a military jail, one that was more in the nature of a country club, given the fear that Chilean officials still had of the Chilean military establishment. Contreras was later given several life sentences for other murders committed in Chile during the Pinochet coup. He died in prison in 2015.

The issue that remains unresolved to this date is the exact nature and extent of the responsibility that the U.S. national-security state had not only for the Letelier and Moffit murders but also for the massive criminal conduct of the Pinochet regime.

Examining that issue requires us to place the assassination in a much larger context, one that involves the U.S. national-security establishment, its three-decade Cold War against the Soviet Union, its domestic and foreign crusade against communism, and its long-time policy of foreign interventionism.

We begin this story with the U.S. Constitution, the document that called the federal government into existence. The Constitution established a government of limited, enumerated powers. If a power was listed in the Constitution, U.S. officials were permitted to exercise it. If it wasn’t listed, they were prohibited from exercising it.

America’s first, third, and sixth presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams — set forth America’s founding foreign policy, one that shunned alliances with foreign regimes and opposed intervening in the affairs of other nations. Washington stated, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Jefferson said, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” Adams observed that the U.S. government “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

The First Amendment to the Constitution, which was part of the Bill of Rights that the American people demanded as a condition for approving the Constitution, prohibited Congress from infringing on critical rights of the people, including freedom of speech. America would be a country in which people would be free to believe in anything they wanted — any religion, any philosophy, any creed — and free to promote their beliefs to others, no matter how odious or unpopular they might be.

The Sixth Amendment, among other things, prohibited the federal government from killing people without following well-established procedural protections, such as due process of law, grand jury indictments, right to the effective assistance of counsel, and trial by jury.

Those founding principles came to an end in the aftermath of World War II, when the federal government was converted into a national-security state, the same type of governmental structure that characterized the Soviet Union, communist China, North Korea, North Vietnam, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and other totalitarian states of the 20th century.

For the first time in American history, the United States had a vast, permanent, and ever-growing military establishment, led by the Pentagon. It also had an intelligence agency — the CIA — that operated in secret and that wielded omnipotent powers, including the power of assassination. The FBI infiltrated, monitored, and investigated domestic organizations and persons suspected of harboring communist beliefs or being part of an international communist conspiracy based in Moscow. The NSA, which had powers of surveillance over the citizenry, rounded out the trio of agencies that composed the national-security establishment.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of the conversion of the U.S. government to a national-security state. It brought a revolutionary transformation of the federal government and American society. It also had an enormous impact on people in foreign countries, especially those in Latin America. This transformation was accomplished without even the semblance of a constitutional amendment.

Prior to the Second World War, after every war U.S. policy had been to dismantle the enormous military establishment that war had brought into existence. This was in accordance with the long-held antipathy against standing armies that characterized the Founding Fathers and 17th- and 18th-century Americans. As soon as a war was ended, most of the soldiers would be discharged and returned to the private sector, leaving a relatively small army in place.

That policy was abandoned with the end of World War II. Having defeated Nazi Germany, U.S. officials maintained that America now faced another enemy, one, they said, that posed an even greater danger to the United States than the Nazis had. That enemy was the Soviet Union, which, interesting enough, had been America’s partner and ally during World War II, as well as the political and economic philosophy that the Soviet Union embraced — communism.

To combat this new enemy, U.S. officials maintained, it would be necessary for the United States to adopt the same type of governmental structure as the Soviets — a national-security establishment — in order to wage what became known as a “cold war” against the communist world. Once this new Cold War was ended, U.S. officials claimed, a constitutionally limited republic could be returned to the American people.

Hardly anyone questioned that narrative. Perhaps Americans were still too shell-shocked over the massive death and destruction that had come with the Second World War, a war that the vast majority of Americans had opposed entering prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Perhaps it was just a mindset of deference to authority that had been inculcated into people during years of public schooling.

Whatever it was, most Americans didn’t question the national-security-state transformation of the federal government, the concept of a Cold War, or what became known as an anti-communist crusade.

As part of that process, U.S. officials convinced the American people that they were in grave danger from an international communist conspiracy based in Moscow, one that was determined to convert America into a communist country and to put the federal government under control of the communists.

Throughout the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the U.S. national-security establishment inculcated Americans with a deep distrust of communism, communists, the Soviet Union, and Red China. One result was U.S. intervention in the Korean War, which cost the lives of some 50,000 American men. Another result was the Vietnam War, where more than 58,000 American men lost their lives. Both wars were actually nothing more than civil wars, but Americans were told that if the United States didn’t intervene and stop the communists from winning, America would be in grave danger of becoming a communist country.

It is significant that both wars were waged without the congressional declaration of war that the U.S. Constitution required, a violation of the higher law that the legislative and judicial branches of the federal government chose to ignore, either out of fear of communism or of the national-security establishment, which became the most powerful and influential part of the federal government.

Here in the United States, the anti-communist crusade was waged with little regard to constitutional provisions and long-established principles of liberty. The FBI assumed extraordinary powers to spy on, harass, and persecute people and organizations who were suspected of holding communist or socialist views. In fact, among the organizations targeted for surveillance, infiltration, and harassment was the Institute for Policy Studies, the place where Orlando Letelier and the Moffitts were working on the day of the assassination.


Now, let’s digress a moment to discuss communism and socialism as well as freedom of speech.

For all practical purposes, communism and socialism are interchangeable terms. In a pure sense, both terms involve an economic system in which the state owns everything and, consequently, a society in which everyone works for the government. If there is a difference, it is that communism is usually associated with socialist regimes that are unelected — i.e., unelected totalitarian socialist dictatorships.

Throughout the 20th century, there was a tremendous ideological battle between socialism and capitalism that was taking place all over the world, including here in the United States. In the course of that battle, people began proposing and adopting socialist measures that constituted violations of the principles of a free market but that did not call for 100 percent ownership of the means of production.

Among such measures were what became known as welfare-state programs, which involved government’s forcibly taking money from people through taxation and giving it to other people in the form of welfare. Social Security, a welfare-state program that originated within the socialist movement in Germany in the late 1800s, was a prime example of this phenomenon. So was the progressive income tax. And public (i.e., government) schooling. And a state-mandated minimum wage. And laws setting forth the maximum hours that employees were permitted to work. While clearly not 100 percent socialism, such welfare-state programs embodied the Marxian principle, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Here in the United States, the battle between those who adhered to a free-market or economic-liberty way of life and those who embraced the new socialism was fierce, as manifested by such judicial decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court as The Slaughterhouse Cases, Lochner v. New York, Munn v. Illinois, Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, New State Ice Company v. Liebmann, and the Gold Clause Cases.

In 1937, however, with the case of West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, the battle in the United States effectively came to an end, with victory going to the socialists. From that date forward, the U.S. government became a permanent welfare state, a system where the government is charged with taking care of people with money that has been taken from the citizenry through taxation.

Thus, by the time the Cold War was initiated by U.S. officials, America itself was well on the road to welfare-state socialism, which may have magnified the fears of many officials in the national-security establishment.

Liberty and communism

Where does the principle of freedom of speech fit into all this? In a free society, people have the right to believe in anything they want, including philosophies that are unpopular and even destructive. Even though communism had resulted in the deaths of millions of innocent people and the destruction of liberty for people living under communist regimes, the fact remained that Americans had the right to believe in communism and socialism and, for that matter, fascism, Nazism, or any other “ism.” They also had the right to read and publish books about any of those systems. And they had the right to deliver or attend speeches advocating any of them.

In a free society, everyone also has the right to run for public office regardless of his economic and political philosophy. A free society necessarily entails the right of communists and socialists to run for office, even if they are committed to a political and economic philosophy that is destructive of economic freedom and economic well-being.

Thus, freedom, in fact, can be dangerous because it can result in the election of people, including socialists and communists, who are committed to using political power to destroy freedom.

What is the freedom answer to that risk? To battle with better ideas — ideas on liberty, with the aim of influencing people to reject socialism and to embrace economic liberty instead.

But that wasn’t the attitude of the U.S. national-security establishment during the Cold War. They were so afraid of socialism and communism that they concluded that it was necessary to suspend freedom in order to save it.

Instead of protecting the rights of people who were advocating communism here in the United States, U.S. officials targeted them as dangerous enemies of the state. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. officials made it their mission to infiltrate, harass, and destroy such organizations as the U.S. Communist Party, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, the Institute for Policy Studies, and many other leftist organizations. Americans who had been associated with those types of organizations were exposed to ridicule, humiliation, and ruination of their lives. Nothing worse could befall anyone than to be called a communist. The Hollywood Blacklist scandal comes to mind. So do the accusations made by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

But even that wasn’t the worst of it. Among the Cold War powers that the U.S. national-security state came to embrace was the power to assassinate people, including people who held communist or socialist beliefs. The U.S. government’s repeated assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, who never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so, come to mind, as does the CIA’s list of targets for assassination during the 1954 coup in Guatemala in which the CIA removed the democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, from power and replaced him with a brutal unelected military general.

Recall the Sixth Amendment, whereby our American ancestors prohibited the federal government from killing people without following certain well-defined procedural protections, such as due process of law and trial by jury. Notice that by its express terms, the protections of that amendment extend to all persons, not just American citizens.

In adopting the Cold War power to assassinate communists, the U.S. national-security state nullified the Sixth Amendment, a nullification that the Congress and federal judiciary ratified by silent acquiescence.

That brings us to Cuba, a Latin American country that bore the brunt of much of the U.S. national-security state’s actions during the Cold War. Interesting enough, the five men who were accused of helping Michael Townley murder Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt were Cuban exiles.

In fact, Cuba plays a central role in the Cold War events that ultimately led to the U.S. national-security state’s responsibility for the assassinations of Letelier and Moffitt.

On January 8, 1959, Fidel Castro arrived in Havana, his revolutionary forces having defeated the Cuban regime of Fulgencio Batista, a brutal and corrupt dictator who had been supported by the U.S. government. Like Pinochet 14 years later, Castro proceeded to execute people who had served under his predecessor. He also began nationalizing businesses and industries, some of which were owned by Americans. He began closing down the casinos that were owned and operated by the Mafia. He announced expansions of Cuba’s welfare-state programs, such as public health care, public housing, and public schooling. Land-reform measures reduced the size of large land holdings and placed them under the control of cooperatives. Castro also made it clear that Cuba would be totally independent of U.S. political control. To cap it all off, he later reached out to the Soviet Union in friendship and a request for support.

All of that, needless to say, met with outrage, anger, frustration, and terror within the U.S. government, especially the Pentagon and the CIA. Their worst fears were materializing. The communists were coming and were almost here. Located only 90 miles away from American shores, Cuba was perceived to be a communist dagger pointed at America’s throat.

With the hope that the Cuban people or the Cuban people would oust Castro from power, the U.S. government imposed one of the most brutal economic embargoes in history, one that remains standing today and that has brought untold suffering to the Cuban people, especially when combined with Castro’s socialist economic policies. The idea was that given enough economic suffering, the Cuban people would rise up and revolt against Castro or that the Cuban military would remove him in a coup and reinstall a pro-U.S. ruler in his stead.

Under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA, one of the principal components of the national-security establishment, planned a paramilitary invasion of the island, with the aim of effecting regime change. The CIA secretly trained Cuban exiles to conduct the invasion so that it would not appear that the CIA had played a role in the invasion. The secret training took place in Guatemala with the hope that the American people would not discover the truth about U.S involvement in the invasion.

The Cuban exiles the CIA was training were among thousands of Cubans who had fled the island in the wake of Castro’s victory. They had escaped their homeland and hated Castro, communism, and communists with every fiber of their being. Many of them committed their lives and fortunes to ousting him from power and bring an end to his communist system.

When the CIA presented its invasion plan to Kennedy, he approved it with some reluctance. His role would necessarily entail falsely denying to the American people and to the world that the U.S. government had played a role in the invasion.

When the invasion was finally undertaken at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in the spring of 1961, it turned out to be a disaster for the CIA, Kennedy, and the Cuban exiles who were doing the invading. Castro’s forces were waiting for them and easily defeated them, killing some of them and capturing the rest.

The CIA’s defeat at the hands of Cuba’s communist forces only drove the agency to more desperate measures, including attempting assassination. Secretly partnering with the Mafia, which had lost its casinos under Castro’s revolution, the CIA undertook top-secret plans for assassinating Castro, plans of which even Kennedy was probably unaware.

Today, U.S. mainstream pundits love to make light of the various ways that the CIA planned to assassinate Castro, using exploding cigars or a contaminated wetsuit, but they inevitably ignore the most significant point: that the U.S. national-security establishment was illegally attempting to murder a foreign  head of state, just as the Chilean national-security establishment under Augusto Pinochet would later illegally murder Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt on the streets of Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published in the January 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    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.