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The Assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, Part 3


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In July 1976 the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, George Landau, received a request from a high Paraguayan official to expedite visa applications from two Chilean officials who wished to travel to the United States. The passports that were submitted as part of the application contained the names and photographs of the two men.

Landau issued the visas but then something unexpected happened. In his book The Condor Years, John Dinges pointed out that a Paraguayan official, seeking to curry favor with Landau, disclosed that the two men were actually Chilean government agents on their way to the United States to undertake a secret intelligence mission.

By this time — 1976 — many people were well aware of the horrors of the Pinochet regime. Having taken power in the U.S.-inspired coup in 1973, Pinochet had carried out a reign of terror that included kidnapping, secret arrests, indefinite detention, concentration camps, torture chambers, rape, sex abuse, disappearances, and assassinations.

As soon as Pinochet took the reins of power, the floodgates of U.S. foreign aid, which had been frozen shut under Allende, suddenly opened up in support of Pinochet. U.S. taxpayer money began flooding into the country. At the same time, international credit, which the U.S. had blocked during the Allende years, opened up as well.

Central to Pinochet’s tyranny was DINA, the super-secret agency, essentially a domestic CIA with omnipotent powers to do whatever it wanted within the country. While Americans are still not permitted to know the full extent to which the CIA participated in establishing DINA, the evidence that has been released leaves one with little doubt that the CIA played a major role in its establishment and in the training of its agents.

Of course, that was not unusual. For three years, the CIA as well as the U.S. military had done everything possible to remove the democratically elected communist-socialist president, Salvador Allende, from power. Therefore, when the coup finally did come in 1973, the U.S. government, especially the U.S. military and the CIA, had a vested interest in making it succeed. That’s what the U.S. foreign aid and international credit were all about.

It was also what helping to establish DINA was all about. Twenty years before, in 1953, the CIA had undertaken a similar regime-change operation in Iran, ousting the democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and replacing him with the shah of Iran, an unelected dictator whose regime would last more than 25 years.

To ensure that the Iranian people could not oust the shah from power, the CIA helped him to establish the SAVAK, the secret KGB-like intelligence-police force that instituted and enforced a brutal and terrifying reign of terror against the Iranian people. Employing secret arrests, kidnappings, torture, and indefinite detention, the SAVAK would bear remarkable similarities to Pinochet’s DINA twenty years later.

That’s not a coincidence because the CIA played a major role in establishing both organizations.

In their book Assassination on Embassy Row, John Dinges and Saul Landau, point out,

Pinochet, on the advice of the CIA, asserted the need for a full-scale secret police that was under his personal command, independent of any military structure and charged with the coordination of the other intelligence agencies. Other secret police agencies set up for the same purpose, South Korea’s KCIA, Brazil’s National Information Service, and Iran’s SAVAK — all parented by the CIA — provided models for Contreras’ organization.

“We were taught techniques for following people in the street, interrogation, handling prisoners. They taught us about torture — how to know the most sensitive parts of the body and how to avoid killing the person unintentionally. We learned psychological torture — such as putting a person of high breeding in a filthy house and not letting him wash.” Fuenzalida, who later became an exile, said the Chilean officers who taught the courses were assisted by “gringos” — American advisers. He said he saw five or six during his three month training course and recognized them as American because they spoke English and because later many DINA officers were rewarded with trips to the United States.

Contreras, you will recall, was the Chilean army colonel that Pinochet appointed to run DINA. In The Condor Years, Dinges writes,

The U.S. military intelligence reports described DINA from the beginning as an extraordinarily powerful, sui generis security force unlike anything the Chilean military had ever seen. Even though its director was only a colonel, DINA was independent of the military chain of command, a power unto itself.

While a few U.S. officials expressed concern over DINA’s actions, especially its torture methods, the sentiment within the U.S. national-security establishment was entirely positive.

After all, don’t forget: America and the Free World were at war with the communists. Don’t forget also that the communists had just defeated the United States in the Vietnam War, having taken over and absorbed South Vietnam. The Cold War was still in full swing. The communists were still in charge in Cuba, 90 miles away from American shores.

As far as U.S. national-security officials were concerned, Pinochet, Contreras, and DINA were simply waging war against the enemy by rounding up, killing, torturing, “disappearing,” and assassinating communists and socialists.


In June 1976, U.S national-security adviser Henry Kissinger traveled to Chile to review the U.S. government’s handiwork in ousting the democratically elected Allende from power and replacing him with a brutal military dictator whose forces were arresting, torturing, and killing communists. Before giving a public speech giving lip service to human rights, Kissinger privately assured Pinochet in a side conversation, “We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”

Pinochet, Contreras, and the CIA, however, did not limit themselves to eradicating communists and socialists within Chile itself. Through Contreras’s leadership, they organized and established Operation Condor, which was one of the most far-reaching torture and assassination operations in history.

Consisting of the military dictatorships of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, and Chile, as well as the CIA, Operation Condor killed at least 60,000 people in Latin America and Europe, all in the name of the anti-communist crusade that had been launched by the U.S. national-security establishment after World War II.

Operation Condor also consisted of secret surveillance and kidnappings that entailed arresting dissidents from one country who were residing in another country and “renditioning” them back to their country of origin, where they were brutally tortured and then killed or “disappeared.”

Obviously, this type of sophisticated operation required sophisticated compilation of data and record-keeping and highly secret communications. That’s where the CIA came into the picture. While Americans are still not permitted to know the full extent of the CIA’s participation in Condor, we do know that at the very least the CIA’s role in the torture and assassination partnership consisted of providing the technological equipment, including computers and communications devices, that enabled the operation to run smoothly.

It was Operation Condor that targeted Orlando Letelier for assassination on the streets of Washington, D.C.

When the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, George Landau, discovered that the visas he had issued to two Chilean officials traveling under false names were part of a secret Chilean mission, he became suspicious. He sent a message to the CIA about the visas and inquired whether the CIA had any knowledge of this particular Chilean intelligence operation.

It certainly would not have been unusual for the CIA to be aware of such an operation. After all, as previously pointed out, the CIA not only helped organize and establish DINA, it was also a partner in Operation Condor. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the coup, Contreras, the head of DINA, had made at least one trip to Washington, D.C., where he had a friendly meeting with Vernon Walters, the deputy director of the CIA. Describing the meeting in a 2002 interview, Contreras stated,

In the year 1974, in the month of March, the president [Pinochet] sent me to the United States…. I met Vernon Walters about how to do national intelligence. So the CIA promised to help us. I spoke with Vernon Walters, and he sent us eight high-level CIA agents to organize courses or seminars here in Chile, which lasted until the middle of August 1974….

We eliminated the terrorists from Chile, throwing them out of the country, detaining them in Chile, putting them on trial, with the result that we produced very few dead compared with other countries… [In] Chile there were 3,000 dead.

According to Dinges in The Condor Years, Contreras’s meeting with Walters “is still kept secret by the agencies that worked with Contreras and DINA, including the CIA.” Dinges writes,

It involves CIA training on site in Chile and material support never acknowledged by U.S. officials, although general references in key documents confirm that CIA training of DINA took place. The context of the period of training is important: as the trainers arrived in Chile, DINA launched its first massive assault on the underground opposition inside Chile and opened its principal operations center for torture and interrogation, a walled complex in a Santiago suburb known as Villa Grimaldi. In June, July, and August, DINA agents, often in pickup trucks with camper-type coverings in the back, swept up hundreds of people. About 10 percent of those captured simply “disappeared,” a grim realization that for families and colleagues did not sink in for months. In those inaugural months of CIA training, the number of disappeared multiplied: seventeen in June, forty-six in July, forty-nine in August, forty in September….

Botched trials

What was the response of the CIA to Landau’s inquiry? After sitting on the request for several days, the CIA simply responded that it had no knowledge of the Chilean intelligence operation.

Landau had taken the precaution of having made copies of the two passports, including the photos of the two men. That is what ultimately led to the discovery and arrest of one of them, a man named Michael Townley.

In the early aftermath of the Letelier assassination, the FBI and Washington, D.C., police were unable to come up with any solid leads. Interesting enough, the CIA failed to disclose to the authorities the unusual request that Landau made of them regarding the Chilean visa applications. Instead, the CIA suggested that Letelier’s assassination was probably carried out by some left-wing or communist group, as a surreptitious way to generate antipathy toward Pinochet and sympathy for Letelier.

The CIA’s theory on the case followed long-established CIA procedure in covert state assassinations to blame the assassination on a communist. Why a communist? Given the extreme animus against communists during the Cold War, the accusation would detract attention from the national-security establishment as the malefactor in the assassination.

The CIA’s suggestion, however, went nowhere. Thanks to people at Letelier’s organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, as well as some honest and diligent personnel in the FBI, the D.C. police department, and the U.S. Attorney’s office, the investigation kept orienting toward Pinochet, DINA, and Contreras.

The investigators ultimately discovered the existence of the copies of the two passports that Ambassador Landau had taken. Unable to identify the two men, investigators decided to advertise them in the Chilean press, requesting anyone who knew the two men to contact the authorities.

Almost immediately, Chileans identified one of the men as Michael Townley, who turned out to be an American citizen working for DINA. The other man was a high-level DINA agent. Given that Townley was an American citizen, the FBI and an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington named Eugene Propper demanded that Chilean officials turn Townley over to the United States. After some negotiations, Chilean officials delivered him into the custody of U.S. officials in Santiago, who flew him back to the United States.

Soon after arriving in the United States, Propper entered into plea negotiations with Townley’s attorney, who had served alongside Propper as a federal prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, but who now was in private practice. The two attorneys naturally had a working rapport with each other and rather quickly came to a deal, one that provided that Townley, who had murdered Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in cold blood on the streets of Washington, D.C., would receive no more than a 10-year jail sentence, with the possibility of parole in 40 months, with the understanding that he would testify against the men he had hired to commit the assassination.

Townley’s assassination skills were impressive. He was an expert bomb maker, knowing all the ins and outs of that highly specialized and dangerous trade. He had also mastered technological skills regarding communications, such as building and operating clandestine radio stations.

How had he come to master such skills? This college drop-out steadfastly maintained that it was all self-taught. He said he had learned his skills entirely on his own, by just studying books and manuals.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence that Townley had, as an adult, lived for extended periods of time in Miami, which was the epicenter of the CIA’s operations against Fidel Castro. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that during the Allende administration, he joined a right-wing Chilean terrorist organization called Patria y Libertad, which was being funded by the CIA. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that during the Pinochet regime, Townley hung around the U.S. Embassy almost as if he were an official guest.

Townley and the CIA have always denied that he was a CIA operative. They claim that he asked for a job with the CIA but they turned him down. Of course, that’s what they would say if he were a CIA operative. And the fact is that Michael Townley had all the characteristics of a model CIA operative. He spoke Spanish fluently, came from a nice conservative family, was an extreme right-winger and anti-communist, and was willing to kill anyone on orders. Why in the world would the CIA have turned down someone with those credentials?

The fact is that Townley ended up with a sweetheart deal that would have befitted any CIA agent who had unfortunately gotten busted in an assassination — only five years in jail, followed by being safely ensconced in the U.S. federal witness protection program for the rest of his life.

While Propper has been hailed as a hero for bringing Townley and the Cuban exiles who helped him to justice, in my opinion he actually botched the case by refusing to seriously consider targeting a prime suspect in the Letelier assassination: the CIA.

When Propper took Townley into custody, he was thinking upward toward Contreras and possibly Pinochet, as had happened in Watergate. Thus, he struck the plea bargain with Townley’s attorney in which Townley would tell the truth about who had hired him to carry out the assassination.

But the flaw in Propper’s plan was that there was never any chance that Pinochet would extradite Contreras to the United States, especially since Contreras could then be squeezed to get to Pinochet. So, Townley’s testimony incriminating Contreras was always worthless. Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence that Townley struck a deal with Contreras prior to being turned over to the United States in which Contreras authorized him to incriminate him.

An interesting question arises: Why didn’t Pinochet and Contreras simply kill Townley instead of turning him over to the Americans? After all, these two men were responsible for killing tens of thousands of innocent people, including two Americans named Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. Why not kill or “disappear” Townley as well? We can only speculate, but one possible answer is that Townley was CIA and both Contreras and Pinochet knew that killing a CIA agent would not be a good thing.

A fascinating aspect of the U.S. government’s plea bargain with Townley is that he was given a light sentence to testify against the men he had hired to assassinate Letelier. The reason that’s fascinating is that usually in a plea bargain, the lighter sentences are given to the lower-echelon people as an inducement to testify against the higher-echelon people.

Since two of the suspects in the bombing were outside the country, the trial proceeded against three of the suspected assassins: Alvin Ross Diaz and brothers Guillermo and Ignacio Novo. To secure convictions, prosecutor Propper relied primarily on Townley’s testimony as well as the testimony of a jailhouse informant who testified that one of the defendants had admitted having assassinated Letelier. The jury voted to convict all three men. Guillermo Novo and Ross received life sentences. Ignacio Novo received eighty years. Soon after the trial, Townley was freed into the federal witness protection program

However, after the Letelier trial, the U.S Supreme Court issued a ruling in a separate case (U.S. v. Henry) disallowing the use of testimony by jailhouse informants, which the court of appeals in the Letelier case relied upon to reverse the convictions that Propper had secured. The case was remanded back to the district court for a new trial.

Given that the Supreme Court’s decision came after the Letelier case, can Propper be excused for using the testimony of the jailhouse informant to help him secure the convictions in the Letelier case? Not exactly. It turns out that while the Supreme Court’s decision in the Henry case came after the Letelier trial, the Court was actually affirming the same conclusion reached by the federal court of appeals in the Henry case, a decision that had been issued before the Letelier trial.

Was prosecutor Propper aware of the ruling in the court of appeals in the Henry case when he decided to use the testimony of a jailhouse informant in the Letelier case? According to a book he co-authored after the trial entitled Labyrinth, Propper was aware of the decision and decided to use the testimony of a jailhouse informant in the Letelier case anyway. His rationale was that the Letelier case was different because in Letelier the informant had not been retained by the federal government. It was a high-risk strategy.

After the court of appeals in the Letelier case reversed the convictions and remanded the case back to the district court for a new trial, Propper practically begged his superiors to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they turned him down.

It is shocking that in the retrial the jury voted to acquit the defendants of the murder charge, notwithstanding Townley’s testimony directly implicating them in the crime. One possibility, of course, is that the jury didn’t like the sweetheart deal that the government had given Townley, which would have come out during Townley’s testimony. Perhaps it motivated them to acquit the underlings that Townley had hired and who were being prosecuted.

Ultimate responsibility

Another fascinating and revealing aspect of the Letelier assassination was the mindset of Michael Townley. When asked about killing Letelier, he stated that he had no regrets whatsoever because as far as he was concerned, Letelier was a soldier, just like he was. In war, soldiers die.

What war was he talking about? The war on communism. The Cold War. The war that the U.S. government became involved in at the end of World War II. The war in which the communists were supposedly going to take over the U.S. government.

Townley’s mindset was no different from that of his counterparts in the Pinochet national-security establishment and, for that matter, the U.S. national-security establishment. It was the same mindset that guided the DINA officials who were rounding up, torturing, “disappearing,” murdering, and assassinating suspected communists and socialists. It was the same mindset that had guided the U.S. officials who sent hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers to kill, torture, and destroy millions of Vietnamese people.

In fact, the assassination of Orlando Letelier was no different in principle from the CIA’s assassination attempts against Cuban President Fidel Castro. Both Letelier and Castro were considered enemy soldiers in the Cold War and, therefore, properly the targets of assassination.

Throughout the Letelier controversy, Pinochet maintained that he had not ordered the assassination, an assertion that has met with scoffing by most people. But is it possible that Pinochet was telling the truth?

After all, what are the chances that Pinochet (or Contreras) would order an assassination within the country whose government had brought him into power, without first securing the consent of U.S. officials? Moreover, does it make much sense that Pinochet would have revoked Letelier’s citizenship a few days before assassinating him? And why assassinate Letelier within the United States, when Letelier often traveled in foreign countries?

There is another possibility, one that unfortunately prosecutor Propper and other U.S officials apparently never gave much thought to: that it was the CIA, in conjunction with its agents Manuel Contreras and Michael Townley, that planned, orchestrated, and carried out the assassination of Orlando Letelier.

After all, in the eyes of the CIA, Letelier, who had faithfully served in the communist administration of Salvador Allende, a regime that the CIA had succeeded in ousting from power, was no different in principle from Allende himself or, for that matter, Fidel Castro. The fact that he was a foreign communist operating on American soil and propagandizing and lobbying against the Pinochet regime that the CIA had installed into power made Letelier the perfect target of a CIA assassination, especially given that the CIA would have been certain it would never be caught and that it could point people in the direction of communist suspects. In a worst-case scenario in which the assassins got caught, the CIA would know that nobody would dare touch the CIA here within the United States.

Of course, even if it was the CIA, not Pinochet, who ordered Contreras and Townley to carry out the hit, that wouldn’t relieve Pinochet from responsibility, given that he had brought into existence an agency whose powers included assassination, headed by a man who had been delegated the power to assassinate anyone he wanted.

In any event, by bringing about the coup that brought Pinochet into power, the U.S. government became responsible for the acts of evil that naturally flowed from that coup. Moreover, by reinforcing in the coup leaders the fierce anti-communist mindset that guided the CIA’s assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and other communists, the U.S. government was ultimately responsible for what was reaped — the assassination of two innocent people, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.

This article was originally published in the March 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.