Why U.S. Is Red-Faced Over 'Pinochet Papers'

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The worst terrorist attack ever in Washington, D.C., may have been ordered by one of Washington's closest allies. And that's just one of the more startling revelations in the latest collection of documents released by the CIA. The agency on Monday declassified the third in a series of documents that detail the U.S.'s role in the overthrow of Chile's democratically elected president in 1973 and Washington's subsequent support for the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The papers demonstrate that the American government acted in full knowledge of the dictatorship's systematic and bloody abuse of human rights. The CIA was ordered by President Clinton to make the documentation available as part of a program to allow a public assessment of the "extent to which U.S. actions undercut the cause of democracy and human rights in Chile."

Among other things, the latest documents show that General Pinochet may have had a hand in the 1976 car bomb attack that killed Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and an American aide, Ronni Moffit, in Washington. U.S. intelligence was aware that the general, long considered one of Washington's key allies in the region, had contacted Paraguay's President Alfredo Stroessner in the summer of that year to request Paraguayan passports to enable Michael Townley and Armando Fernandez to travel under cover to the U.S. The men, both Chilean intelligence operatives, were later convicted of carrying out the attack. The man convicted in 1993 of ordering the attack, Pinochet's intelligence chief General Manuel Contreras, has also been shown to have previously been a paid informant of the CIA.

U.S. Support for Pinochet

The latest batch of documents also contains evidence of U.S. intelligence agencies' gathering information about U.S. citizen Frank Teruggi (including his Chilean address), who was later detained at his home by Pinochet's security forces, taken to Santiago's National Stadium and summarily executed. But such individual instances point to a broader pattern of support for efforts to overthrow an elected leftist government — President Nixon tells a National Security Council meeting in 1972 that "we must do everything we can to bring down Allende." And previously released documents point to U.S. government efforts to support the Pinochet junta despite mounting congressional criticism of its human rights record.

President Clinton ordered the review in order to shed greater light on the U.S. role in Chilean democracy's darkest period, and the picture that emerges is far from pretty. But while there are unlikely to be any political recriminations in the U.S. at this point — notwithstanding the fact that former president George Bush was CIA director for some of the years under consideration — the latest documents may be bad news for General Pinochet. Chile's high court has stripped away the immunity he awarded himself as the price for relinquishing power, and only last week courts ordered him to undergo physical and psychiatric evaluation to determine his eligibility for trial on charges arising out of scores of kidnappings and killings. And the latest documents released by his erstwhile friends in Washington appear to be more helpful to the prosecution than to the defense.