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The Assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, Part 2


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Immediately after the bombing that killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, Michael Moffitt began screaming, “DINA!” “Assassins!” The Washington, D.C., police who had arrived on the scene were mystified. Who the heck is Dina? they wondered.

Moffitt was referring to the National Intelligence Directorate, an internal military-intelligence force within the Chilean government that was established soon after Gen. Augusto Pinochet took power in the 1973 coup that ousted Salvador Allende, an avowed socialist-communist who had been democratically elected by the people of Chile in 1970. Known as DINA, and headed by an army colonel named Manuel Contreras, the organization had all the powers of the military, the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA, all wrapped into one.

DINA agents wielded and exercised the omnipotent authority to kidnap people off the streets and cart them off to secret facilities, where they would torture, rape, or kill them. Tens of thousands of people were picked up off the streets and taken to places such as Villa Grimaldi in Santiago, where extremely sadistic acts were the order of the day. According to Wikipedia, uncooperative prisoners, for example, were taken to a parking lot where a car or truck would be used to run over their legs. The unnatural sex acts that were committed against women were so gruesome and so shocking that they cannot be repeated here.

Among the thousands killed by DINA’s agents were Victor Jara, a folksinger who was known as the Bob Dylan of Chile. Also killed were two young Americans, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, with the complicity of U.S. officials. (See “The Executions of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi,” by Jacob G. Hornberger, on the website of The Future of Freedom Foundation.)

Among those carted away to concentration camps was Orlando Letelier, who was then serving as defense minister under Allende and who had previously been his foreign minister and his minister of the interior. Taken into custody at the start of the coup, Letelier was transported to a Siberia-like camp in southern Chile and, along with others, subjected to cruel and brutal torture.

What had all these tens of thousands of people done to deserve being raped, tortured, or executed? They all supposedly had believed in socialism or communism or had supported or served in the administration of Salvador Allende, the socialist-communist who had been democratically elected president of Chile in a legitimate election, one, by the way, in which the CIA had played a major secret role funding and politicking for Allende’s opposition. In the eyes of Pinochet, Contreras, DINA, and the rest of Chile’s national-security establishment, believing in communism or socialism or having supported or voted for Allende or having been part of his government were considered grave crimes.

Of course, Pinochet wasn’t the only one who was waging war on communists and socialists in 1973. So was the U.S. national-security state, which had been locked in a Cold War against the communist world ever since the advent of the national-security state after World War II, fighting hot wars in Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s, 1960s, and into the 1970s, infiltrating American organizations, and secretly monitoring Americans who were suspected of having socialist or communist connections.

Indeed, it was its Cold War mindset that motivated the U.S. government, including the CIA and the Pentagon, to launch the forces that ultimately culminated in the assassinations of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.

In the 1970 presidential election, Allende had received only a plurality of votes, and, therefore, under the Chilean constitution the final determination of who would be president would be made by the Chilean congress. A physician by training, Allende was an avowed socialist and communist who expressed no interest in participating in the U.S. national-security state’s Cold War and, in fact, expressed a desire to establish friendly relations with both the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Long before he was elected president, Allende was considered a grave threat to U.S. national security. Throughout the 1960s, the CIA was, for all practical purposes, one of the primary players in Chilean politics. Of course, it was all secret, but the CIA was funding candidates and parties that stood in opposition to Allende and his political party. In fact, one of the main reasons that Allende wasn’t elected before 1970 was the millions of dollars that the CIA was secretly funneling into opposition parties and candidates.

Thus, at the moment that Allende received the most votes in the 1970 election, notwithstanding the CIA’s major role trying to ensure his defeat in that election, U.S. officials, from Richard Nixon on down, became apoplectic. Under no circumstances, Nixon told his national-security team, would the United States permit another avowed communist (in addition to Castro in Cuba) take power in a Latin American country, not even if he was democratically elected. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, put it bluntly and succinctly, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

The question naturally arises: What moral and legal authority did U.S. officials have to interfere with the democratic process in Chile?

There certainly is no authority under the U.S. Constitution for such action. In fact, the clear intent of the Framers was that the Constitution bring into existence a limited-government republic, one that would not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy,” as John Quincy Adams put it in his famous Fourth of July speech to Congress in 1821.

But during the Cold War, constitutional constraints became of secondary concern, especially given the revolutionary transformation of the federal government into a national-security state, a type of governmental apparatus that usually characterizes totalitarian regimes. The primary concern became national security, which would become the most important term in the political lexicon of the American people. Charged with protecting national security were the Pentagon and its vast and ever-growing military establishment; the CIA and its omnipotent powers of assassination, kidnapping, and torture; the FBI and its surveillance of American citizens and organizations; and the NSA and its highly secret surveillance activities.

Transforming America

What was the motive for this monumental transformation? U.S. officials said that it was needed to protect America from an international communist conspiracy that was based in Moscow and that was determined to conquer and take over the United States. Unless the U.S. government adopted the same type of national-security state apparatus that the Soviet government had, U.S. officials maintained, America would fall to communism, just like Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Chile, to say nothing of China and Eastern Europe. As soon as the Cold War was over, however, U.S. officials made it clear that the American people could have their limited-government republic back.

The transformation of the federal government into a national-security state was accomplished without even the semblance of a constitutional amendment, which the Constitution requires for any major alteration to the federal governmental structure established by the Constitution. But constitutional provisions were considered niceties that simply could not be followed because of the enormous threat supposedly posed by international communism.

It is no surprise that the national-security establishment quickly became the most powerful and influential part of the federal government. Budgets for the military and its armies of contractors grew exponentially, especially when U.S. officials embroiled the United States in the civil wars in Korea and Vietnam. Intended only as an intelligence-gathering organization, the CIA seized upon nebulous language in the National Security Act of 1947, which called the CIA into existence, to exercise omnipotent powers, including the powers to kidnap, torture, and assassinate as well as to effect regime change in foreign countries.

It all fell under the rubric of national security, even though no one could define the term with any specificity.

Where were the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts during all this? They were acquiescent in judicial cases involving national-security issues. Although the Constitution requires a congressional declaration of war before the president can wage war, the federal judiciary didn’t dare interfere with the undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam. By that time, the Pentagon and the CIA had become much too powerful. The federal justices and judges knew that any judgments of unconstitutionality wouldn’t be obeyed anyway and that, as a practical matter, the courts had no power to enforce their rulings against the military and the CIA.

When the military demanded a state-secrets doctrine, for example, the Supreme Court gave it to them in a judicial ruling, notwithstanding the fact that it was more properly a matter that should have been debated and determined in Congress. Years later, when it was discovered that the military had defrauded the Supreme Court into judicially creating the state-secrets doctrine, the justices meekly let the decision stand anyway.

It was no different in Congress. The Pentagon established thousands of military bases and projects all across the land, making millions of people dependent on its largess. If a congressman even hinted at objecting to whatever the military wanted, the bases and projects within his district would be threatened with termination, which inevitably would lead the local media to question the congressman’s “effectiveness.”

During the Cold War, most of the time the president and the national-security establishment were on the same page and worked together. But not always. While John Kennedy came into office as pretty much a standard cold warrior, by the time 1963 rolled around he had turned against the Pentagon and the CIA and had decided to end the Cold War and bring all the troops home from Vietnam. Few Americans realize that by the time he was assassinated, Kennedy had initiated top-secret negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro, the man that the CIA, in partnership with the Mafia, had been trying to assassinate.

Of course, today there are still Americans who just cannot believe that the CIA and the military would conspire to assassinate Kennedy, despite the mountain of circumstantial evidence, once highly secret, that points in that direction. What would be the motive, they ask?

They forget about national security. With his war against his national-security establishment, his supposed betrayal of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, his supposed capitulation to the communists during the Cuban Missile Crisis, his famous Peace Speech at American University, his nuclear-test-ban treaty with the Soviets, his secret negotiations with Khrushchev and Castro, and his decision to end the Cold War — to say nothing of his many sexual affairs, including the one with the girlfriend of a Mafia don, and his smoking of marijuana with his mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer — the U.S. national-security establishment had every reason in the world, given its concept of national security, to determine that Kennedy posed a grave threat to national security, a much graver threat, in fact, than Allende would pose prior to his violent removal from the Chilean presidency some ten years later. (For more on this subject, see FFF’s five ebooks on the assassination: The Kennedy Autopsy, by Jacob Hornberger; JFK’s War with the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated, by Douglas Horne; Regime Change: The JFK Assassination, by Jacob Hornberger; The CIA, Terrorism, and the Cold War: The Evil of the National Security State, by Jacob Hornberger; and CIA & JFK: The Secret Assassination Files, by Jefferson Morley.)

It was different with respect to the CIA’s secret attempts, in partnership with the Mafia, to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. When Americans discovered those assassination attempts, most were acquiescent and even supportive, notwithstanding the fact that Castro had never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so. Americans deferred to the judgment of the national-security establishment that Castro, because he was a communist and ally of the Soviet Union, posed a threat to U.S. national security and, therefore, could be assassinated. After all, as U.S. officials constantly reminded the American people, the United States was at war against communism and communists.

One assassination after another

That Cold War mindset had been no different in 1954, seven years after the enactment of the National Security Act, when the CIA launched a violent regime-change operation against the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz. Like Allende years afterward, Arbenz had no interest in participating in America’s Cold War against communism and the Soviet Union. He even allowed avowed communists to participate openly in Guatemala’s democratic political system. Some of them were even serving in his government.

As with Allende 16 years later, Arbenz’s election caused U.S. national-security state officials to go ballistic. The CIA, with the approval of President Dwight Eisenhower, launched a violent regime-change operation, one that included a CIA “kill list” of Guatemalan officials who were to be assassinated as part of the coup. Arbenz was lucky: he fled the country before he could be assassinated.

In the midst of the Cold War over communism, few Americans in 1954 questioned the moral or legal justification for destroying Guatemala’s democratic system and targeting its democratically elected president for assassination. All that mattered was that the national-security establishment was protecting national security.

Ironically, it would be Eisenhower, the president who approved the CIA’s coup in Guatemala, who would issue the famous warning just before leaving office in 1961 about the threat the “military-industrial complex” posed to the American democratic way of life and the liberties of the American people. I wonder what he thought about the 30-year-long civil war in Guatemala that the coup had launched, and which resulted in the deaths of more than a million Guatemalans. I wonder how many Chileans were familiar with his warning prior to the U.S.-inspired coup that destroyed their democratic system.

Once Kennedy was removed from the scene in 1963, the Vietnam War got ramped up, which, needless to say, fattened the coffers of the vast army of contractors that were feeding at the warfare-state trough. As part of the Vietnam War, the CIA and the military established one of the largest kidnapping, torture, and assassination operations in history, known as Operation Phoenix, whose countless victims consisted of suspected communists.

Thus, the U.S. government’s intervention in Chile to prevent Salvador Allende from serving as president was entirely consistent with its overall Cold War mindset. Foreign communists were bad. They posed a threat to U.S. national security. It was considered okay to capture them, torture them, kill them, and remove them from power.

Immediately after the Chilean election and before the Chilean congress had voted, U.S. officials launched a two-track plot to prevent Allende’s accession to the presidency. One track involved a complex political scheme that would result in the election of someone other than Allende as president. However, the current Chilean president, whose cooperation was needed, refused to go along. This track also involved bribing Chilean congressmen with large sums of U.S. taxpayer money to vote against Allende. That plan didn’t work either.

The second track involved a violent Chilean military coup that would oust Allende from power and undoubtedly bring about the deaths of lots of people. There was one big problem with this track, however. The head of Chile’s armed forces, Gen. Rene Schneider, refused to go along with the U.S. plan because it violated the Chilean constitution that Schneider had sworn to defend and uphold. Consequently, the CIA conspired with a local group to violently kidnap him, even smuggling two high-powered weapons into the country in a diplomatic pouch to give to the kidnappers.

When the CIA’s kidnapping plot ultimately became public (after repeated denials by the CIA), the CIA maintained that it just wanted Schneider kidnapped, not killed. But that claim has always been disingenuous. Once Schneider was violently removed as an obstacle to the coup, there would have been no other choice but to have killed him. His murder, notwithstanding the CIA’s claim of innocence, had to have been built into the plan, even if only implicitly.

As it was, during the kidnapping attempt, Schneider, who of course was armed, fought back. The kidnappers shot him dead, leaving a widow and small children and most of the nation grieving his loss. Actually, the shock and anger over Schneider’s assassination was what motivated the congress to quickly confirm Allende. At that point — 1970 — the military would not go along with a coup. Pinochet and the coup would not come for another three years.

There is another reason that the U.S. government cannot escape moral and legal culpability for Schneider’s assassination: the felony-murder doctrine, which holds that whenever a murder is committed in the course of a felony, all the conspirators to the felony are equally liable for the murder, even if they don’t directly participate in it. It goes without saying that kidnapping and murder are felonies under both U.S. law and Chilean law.

To this day, despite the indisputable evidence of the CIA’s role in the kidnapping and assassination of Schneider, not a single U.S. official has ever been indicted. Indeed, the U.S. Justice Department has never even launched a federal grand jury investigation into Schneider’s kidnapping-murder. When his family filed suit in federal court for the wrongful death of their husband and father, the federal judiciary, following its Cold War custom of deferring to the national-security branch of the government, summarily dismissed their suit.

It’s all a testament to the power that the national-security establishment played in America’s governmental structure during the Cold War. When it came to fighting communism and killing foreign communists, anything and everything was justified.

That now returns us to the assassinations of Orlando Letelier, the Chilean socialist who had served under Salvador Allende and who was then in the United States, openly opposing the regime that the U.S. government had succeeded in installing in Chile, and of his loyal socialist American assistant, 25-year-old Ronni Moffitt.

This article was originally published in the February 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.