A controversy has simmered for some years over the role of the United States, and particularly of its then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in the actions surrounding Operation Condor. Condor was an assassination and torture plan implemented by a number of South American countries, braintrusted by Pinochet’s Chile.
A new FOIA release, courtesy of the National Security Archive, shows that only five days before former high-ranking Allende official, Orlando Letelier, and his U.S. assistant, Ronnie Moffit, were assassinated by Chile’s notorious DINA secret service in Washington, DC, a September 16, 1976 State Department cable from Henry Kissinger told his assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs, Harry Shlaudeman, to cancel a formal demarche to the Uruguayan government, protesting the assassinations and other activities of Operation Condor. The cable was followed four days later by instructions from Shlaudeman to numerous South American U.S. embassies to forego any protests regarding Condor policy, offering the excuse that Condor appeared to be inactive.
Yet, only the next day, a Condor assassination took place in the streets of Washington, DC, when a car bomb blew up Letelier and Moffitt. According to British historian, Kenneth Maxwell, the U.S. government was aware of Operation Condor, and even “that a Chilean assassination team had been planning to enter the United States.” A flap over Maxwell’s favorable review in the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), Foreign Affairs of Peter Kornbluh’s book The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, led to Maxwell’s resignation from the CFR some months later.
See Maxwell’s account in “The Case of the Missing Letter in Foreign Affairs: Kissinger, Pinochet and Operation Condor,” PDF. Today, Kornbluh is a Senior Analyst at the National Security Archive, and edited the introduction to the documents on Kissinger and Operation Condor.
What is Operation Condor?
According to a September 28, 1976 cable to FBI headquarters from FBI agent Robert Scherrer, who previously had worked with Paraguayan police in intelligence gathering on leftists, Operation Condor was work of “cooperating services in South America in order to eliminate Marxist terrorists and their activities in the area…. Chile is the center for Operation Condor, and in addition it includes Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. Brazil has also tentatively agreed to supply input for Operation Condor.”
Scherrer, who later captured Letelier and Moffitt’s killer, continued:
A third and more secret phase of Operation Condor involves the formation of special teams from member countries to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions, [including] assassination, against terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations from Operation Condor member countries. For example, should a terrorist or a supporter of a terrorist organization from a member country be located in a European country, a special team from Operation Condor would be dispatched to locate and surveil the target. When the location and surveillance operation has terminated, a second team from Operation Condor would be dispatched to carry out the actual sanction against the target. Special teams would be issued false documentation from member countries of Operation Condor.
According to a 2005 BBC story, greater documentary evidence came to light in 1992, thanks to the chance discovery of a Paraguayan judge. “The archives counted 50,000 persons murdered, 30,000 “desaparecidos” and 400,000 incarcerated” (link).
The participation of U.S. military and intelligence agencies in facilitating Condor have been slow to surface, but there are some. In October 1978, a State Department cable from U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay Robert White, to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, noted that the intelligence chiefs in Condor kept in touch with each other through encrypted messages sent through “a U.S. communications installation in the Panama Canal Zone which covers all of Latin America.” White told Vance that since “there is [a] likelihood Condor will surface during Letelier trial in the U.S…. it would seem advisable to review this arrangement to insure that its continuation is in U.S. interest.”
Further declassifications of the Scherrer memo have shown that the Pentagon had quite detailed information about the mobilizations behind Condor operations.
Most recently, just yesterday, the Los Angeles Times, with Andrew Zajac and David S. Cloud reporting, described the response to the latest revelations surrounding Kissinger’s role in letting Operation Condor proceed:
“The document confirms that it’s Kissinger’s complete responsibility for having rescinded a cease-and-desist order to Condor killers,” said Kornbluh, author of a 2004 book on Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
In a statement, Kissinger said Kornbluh “distorted” the meaning of the cable and said it was intended only to disapprove a specific approach to the Uruguayan government, not to cancel the plan to issue warnings to other nations in the Condor network.
Former State Department officials who worked under Kissinger during that period now say that his cable did interrupt the U.S. effort to rein in Operation Condor, not just with Uruguay but with other countries in the region.
Assassinations, Then and Now
The Kissinger/Condor revelations come at a time with the issue of U.S. assassinations abroad have taken center stage. There is the ongoing controversy over whether the United States has a legal right to conduct “targeted killings”, i.e., murders, by pilotless drones in Afghanistan and elsewhere. These drone killings have left a trail of assassinations of purported Al Qaeda leaders, and hundreds of innocent civilians dead, and are believed to be alienating support for U.S. policy in that region.
Even more, reports of CIA and Joint Special Forces assassination squads, given the green-light by former President George W. Bush, and approved by his successor, Barack Obama, have also surfaced. Marcy Wheeler has followed the story in a number of recent articles. There was also the explosive tale by Seymour Hersh, that alleged that there was a special assassination squad attached directly to the office of Vice President Cheney.
The history of the United States is not one generally known to its average citizen. It involves the support and engagement in the use of torture, assassination, and covert interventions into the sovereign affairs of scores of other nations over the course of many decades, from Operation Gladio to Operation Condor. This policy has culminated in 2001-2003 with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, over a quarter million U.S. troops are in that region, and the United States has documented use of torture and assassination as a matter of state policy.
President Obama came to office promising change and greater transparency. He has not lived up to this promise, and it may be that no commander-in-chief can do so, lacking from the populace itself a determination to uproot the militarist mind-set that occupies the programmatic operations of much of the government. But on the other hand, Obama has not indicated any appetite to appeal to the people on these issues, and instead follows the policies of his generals and admirals, and the spooks who populate the vaunted IC (“Intelligence Community”).
The military and intelligence sectors of the government and the economy have grown unimaginably powerful. It is not an exaggeration that the actions of the U.S. government have made any claims of benefit in its activities abroad suspect. It is up to citizens of this country to take its democracy back, and hold its government accountable for what it has done.
Jeffrey Kaye is a psychologist living in Northern California who writes regularly on torture and other subjects for The Public Record, Truthout and Firedoglake. He also maintains a personal blog, Invictus. His email address is sfpsych at gmail dot com