When the Terrorists Were 'Our Guys'
In 1976, when George H.W. Bush was CIA director, the U.S. government tolerated right-wing terrorist cells inside the United States and mostly looked the other way when these killers topped even Palestinian terrorists in spilling blood, including a lethal car bombing in Washington, D.C., according to newly obtained internal government documents.
That car bombing on Sept. 21, 1976, on Washington’s Embassy Row, killed Chile’s former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and an American co-worker Ronni Moffitt, while wounding Moffitt’s husband.
It soon became clear to the FBI and other federal investigators that the attack likely was a joint operation of DINA, the fearsome Chilean intelligence agency of military dictator Augusto Pinochet, and U.S.-based right-wing Cuban exiles.
But Bush’s CIA steered attention away from the real assassins toward leftists who supposedly killed Letelier to create a martyr for their cause. Eventually, the CIA’s cover story collapsed and – during the Carter administration – at least some of the lower-level conspirators were prosecuted, though the full story was never told.
Recently obtained internal FBI records and notes of a U.S. prosecutor involved in counter-terrorism cases make clear that the connections among Bush’s CIA, DINA and the Cuban Nationalist Movement (CNM) – which supplied the trigger men for the Letelier bombing – were closer than was understood at the time.
DINA provided intelligence training for CNM terrorists who acted like a “sleeper cell” inside the United States; federal prosecutions of right-wing Cuban terrorists were routinely frustrated; and the CIA did all it could to cover for its anticommunist allies who were part of a broader international terror campaign called Operation Condor.
Beginning in late 1975, Operation Condor -- named after Chile's national bird -- was a joint operation of right-wing South American military dictatorships, working closely with U.S.-based Cuban and other anticommunist extremists on cross-border assassinations of political dissidents as far away as Europe.
This meant that during George H.W. Bush’s year at the CIA’s helm, the United States both harbored domestic terrorist cells and served as a base for international terrorism. Yet no U.S. official was ever held accountable -- and in many cases, just the opposite.
George H.W. Bush rose to be Vice President four years later and to be President eight years after that, with his son now sitting in the Oval Office. Former President Bill Clinton has said his wife's first act as President would be to dispatch him and George H.W. Bush on a worldwide fence-mending tour.
The Letelier Plot
Regarding the DINA-CNM alliance, Chile’s star assassin Michael Townley told FBI interrogators after his arrest in 1978 that Cuban exiles involved in the Letelier murder had received DINA training, including CNM member Virgilio Paz, who “attended a one-month ‘quickie’ intelligence course sponsored by DINA,” the internal FBI report said.
Townley, a fiercely anticommunist American expatriate who had emerged as DINA’s chief overseas assassin, told the FBI that Paz’s training was personally approved by DINA’s director, Col. Manuel Contreras, who – the CIA later acknowledged – was an asset of the U.S. spy agency.
Paz lived at Townley’s residence during his three-month stay in Chile and DINA paid for Paz’s frequent calls back home to the United States, Townley said, recalling that Paz left Chile close to his son Brian’s birthday on June 6, 1976.
About a month later, Colonel Pedro Espinoza, DINA’s director of operations, summoned Townley to a meeting near St. Georges School in suburban Santiago. Townley recalled driving his DINA-supplied Fiat 125 sedan to the early-morning meeting and taking a thermos of coffee.
Espinoza asked Townley if he’d be available for a special operation outside Chile. Townley complained “that he had spent a majority of 1975 in Europe on DINA missions and that he felt he was neglecting his family with constant travel on behalf of DINA,” according to the FBI report.
(Only later would investigators learn that Townley had been working with European neo-fascists in hunting down Chilean dissidents in Europe, including Christian Democratic leader Bernard Leighton, who was severely wounded along with his wife in an assassination attempt in Rome on Oct. 6, 1975.)
In late July 1976, Townley said he drove a stubby metallic green MG 1300 to a second meeting and spoke with Colonel Espinoza outside the car. Espinoza informed Townley that his mission would be the assassination of Orlando Letelier, who had emerged as an articulate critic of Pinochet’s dictatorship and was putting an unwanted spotlight on Chile’s central role in the spreading human rights calamity across South America.
Espinoza said Paraguayan travel documents would be used for the operation and the preferred method of death was an arranged traffic accident while Letelier was alone.
“Colonel Espinosa [sic] instructed him [Townley] that Cuban exile terrorists were to be utilized to carry out the actual assassination, and that his and [his DINA accomplice’s] role would be to plan the assassination and then withdraw leaving its execution to the Cubans,” the FBI report said.
“Based on his [Townley’s] recent favorable association with Paz and the latter’s recent training under DINA sponsorship, he [Townley] told Colonel Espinosa [sic] that he believed the assassination in the United States might be arranged,” the FBI document said.
The CORU Umbrella
By June 1976, CNM also had joined in another campaign of right-wing terrorism, this one organized by Cuban exile Orlando Bosch under an umbrella group called the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU), which targeted Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
According to the federal prosecutor’s notes, the CORU organizational meeting in the Dominican Republic in June 1976 brought together CNM and four other exile groups, including the “Force Fourteen (F-14, led by a CIA asset),” meaning the U.S. spy agency surely knew about CORU’s plans from the start.
In early July 1976, after getting the assignment to murder Letelier, Townley said he contacted Paz and other CNM members to assist him.
First, however, Townley and his DINA accomplice, Chilean Army Lieutenant Armando Fernandez Larios, went to Paraguay to arrange visas for a trip to the United States, using the false names, Juan Williams and Alejandro Romeral.
Their cover story was that they were investigating suspected leftists working for Chile’s state copper company in New York and that – while in the United States – they would meet with Bush’s CIA deputy, Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters.
A senior Paraguayan official, Conrado Pappalardo, urged U.S. Ambassador George Landau to cooperate, citing a direct appeal from Pinochet. An alarmed Landau recognized the visa request as highly unusual, since such operations were normally coordinated with the CIA station in the host country and were cleared with CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Though granting the visas, Landau took the precaution of sending an urgent cable to Walters and photostatic copies of the fake passports to the CIA. Landau said he received an urgent cable back signed by CIA Director Bush, reporting that Walters, who was in the process of retiring, was out of town.
When Walters returned a few days later, he cabled Landau that he had “nothing to do with this” mission. Landau immediately canceled the visas, but the U.S. government apparently never delivered a specific warning to DINA to call off the operation.
To this day, it remains unclear what – if anything – Bush’s CIA did after learning about the “Paraguayan caper.”
Nevertheless, Townley said he and DINA’s Col. Espinoza worried about delays in getting the original visas, which suggested that the Paraguayan approach was compromised, Townley said in his FBI interrogation.
To allay any U.S. suspicions, DINA did dispatch two other Chilean operatives using the phony names Juan Williams and Alejandro Romeral. After they arrived in the United States on Aug. 22, 1976, they made a point of having the Chilean Embassy notify Walters’s office, but the CIA again demonstrated little curiosity about the mission.
“It is quite beyond belief that the CIA is so lax in its counterespionage functions that it would simply have ignored a clandestine operation by a foreign intelligence service in Washington, D.C., or elsewhere in the United States,” wrote John Dinges and Saul Landau in their 1980 book, Assassination on Embassy Row.
“It is equally implausible that Bush, Walters, Landau and other officials were unaware of the chain of international assassinations that had been attributed to DINA.”
As for the Letelier assassination, DINA was soon plotting another way to carry out the killing. In late August 1976, DINA dispatched a preliminary team, consisting of Larios Fernandez and a female agent, to do surveillance on Letelier as he moved around Washington.
Then, on Sept. 8, 1976, Townley followed, using an official Chilean passport under the fictitious name of Hans Petersen Silva.
After arriving at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, Townley said he contacted Virgilio Paz by telephone and then rented a car to drive to Union City, New Jersey, to meet Paz at a restaurant named “Bottom of the Barrel,” according to the FBI report.
The next night, Paz brought members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement to Townley’s motel room, including Guillermo Novo Sampol and Jose Dionisio Suarez Esquivel, Townley said.
“Cuban exiles present at the meeting agreed that the CNM would assist DINA in assassinating Letelier,” the FBI report said. “Shortly thereafter he [Townley] traveled to Washington, D.C. in the automobile of Virgilio Paz in order to conduct additional surveillance on Letelier and to purchase additional materials necessary to make the bomb which would be utilized to kill Letelier.
“Basically, the bomb was made up of TNT and a substance which he [Townley] believed to be C-3 plastic. Several months previously he modified a CB Fanon Courier … receiver in Chile at the request of the CNM to be utilized at a future date. …
“The crystal on the receiver was set at 31.040 megahurts [sic]. A major modification made by Townley was to remove the speaker from the receiver and put in a transformer. A standard blasting cap was used in the construction of the bomb. The bomb was contained in an aluminum baking tin.”
Townley’s remark about DINA’s preparation of the explosive device for the U.S.-based Cuban extremists further indicates that the DINA-CNM relationship represented an active penetration of the United States by an international terrorist cabal operating under the nose of U.S. intelligence.
After arriving in Washington and checking into a downtown Holiday Inn, Townley and Paz spent several days conducting surveillance of Letelier. After another CNM operative Suarez Equivel arrived, the assassination team took the next step, heading to Letelier’s house in suburban Maryland.
Late that Saturday night, Sept. 18, or early Sunday morning, Sept. 19, Paz drove Townley to Letelier’s neighborhood. Townley “was dropped off at the top of a hill in a cul-de-sac street, immediately adjacent to the Letelier home. [After crawling under Letelier’s Chevelle] he affixed the bomb to the cross-member and recalled he had some trepidation as to whether the bomb would remain attached since he ran out of tape," the FBI report said.
“The bomb contained a safety switch which he placed in the ‘on’ position after covering the switch with tape. … While he was placing the bomb he recalled that a police cruiser passed by … however, he was undetected. After placing the bomb he walked down the hill and joined Virgilio Paz in the latter’s automobile and they left the area and returned to their hotel.”
On Sunday morning, Townley flew from Washington National Airport to Newark where he met CNM leader Novo Sampol for breakfast. Then they drove to New York City where Novo had a meeting with an “attorney apparently connected with the local New York City government,” the FBI report said.
After a family visit in Westchester County, Townley flew to Miami where he saw his parents at their Boca Raton home before meeting with Miami CNM member Felipe Rivero Diaz, who pressed Townley for more assistance from DINA, the FBI report said.
By Monday evening, Townley had become “troubled that no news had been received concerning Letelier and he suspected that something had gone wrong with the plan to assassinate him.”
Early Tuesday morning, Sept. 21, Townley called Virgilio Paz to find out what had happened. “Paz was extremely angry at the early hour of the call and the use of the telephone from a security standpoint. Paz furnished no information concerning the Letelier bomb,” the report said.
“Later on during the morning he [Townley] contacted Ignacio Novo Sampol in Miami and they arranged to have lunch at a Miami restaurant. During the telephone conversation, Novo informed him that something had happened in Washington, D.C. Subsequent news broadcast the death of Letelier as a result of a bomb which detonated in the latter’s automobile.”
Next, Townley said he “eliminated the identity of Hans Petersen Silva and returned to Chile utilizing a United States passport under the name of Kenneth Enyart.”
Slowly into Focus
Back in Washington, the facts of the assassination slowly came into focus. The explosion that ripped apart Letelier’s Chevelle had shattered a quiet morning in the stately section of the capital where embassies line Massachusetts Avenue, what is called Embassy Row.
The blast ripped off Letelier’s legs and punctured a hole in Ronni Moffitt’s jugular vein. She drowned in her own blood at the scene; Letelier died after being taken to George Washington University Hospital. Ronni’s husband, Michael Moffitt, survived.
At the time, the attack represented the worst act of international terrorism on U.S. soil and remains the most notorious terror attack sponsored by a foreign government inside the United States.
Adding to the potential for scandal, the terrorism had been carried out by a regime that was an ostensible ally of the United States, one that had gained power in 1973 with the help of the Nixon administration and the CIA.
The scandal also jeopardized the reputation of CIA Director George H.W. Bush and the political future of his boss, President Gerald Ford, who was in the midst of a heated presidential campaign against Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Within hours of the bombing, Letelier’s associates accused the Pinochet regime, citing its hatred of Letelier and its record for brutality. The Chilean government, however, heatedly denied any responsibility.
That night, at a dinner at the Jordanian Embassy, Sen. James Abourezk, a South Dakota Democrat, spotted Bush and approached the CIA director. Abourezk said he was a friend of Letelier’s and beseeched Bush to use the CIA “to find the bastards who killed him.”
Abourezk said Bush responded: “I’ll see what I can do. We are not without assets in Chile.” [See Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]
A problem, however, was that one of the CIA’s best-placed assets – DINA chief Manuel Contreras – would turn out to be a mastermind of the assassination.
Wiley Gilstrap, the CIA’s Santiago station chief, did approach Contreras with questions about the Letelier bombing and wired back to Langley Contreras’s assurance that the Chilean government wasn’t involved.
Following the strategy of public misdirection that DINA already had used in hundreds of “disappearances” of dissidents, Contreras pointed the finger at the Chilean Left. Contreras suggested that leftists had killed Letelier to turn him into a martyr.
Evidence of Lying
The Ford administration had plenty of reasons to disbelieve Contreras.
“The CIA had substantive evidence to show that Contreras was lying,” researcher Peter Kornbluh wrote in his 2004 book, The Pinochet File. “The Agency had concrete knowledge that DINA had murdered other political opponents abroad, using the same modus operandi as the Letelier case. The Agency had substantive intelligence on Condor, and Chile’s involvement in planning murders of political opponents in Europe.”
Rather than fulfilling his promise to Abourezk to “see what I can do,” Bush ignored leads that would have taken him into a confrontation with Pinochet.
As the Ford administration dawdled and Bush’s CIA kept its head down, right-wing Cuban terrorists stepped up their war against leftists in general and Fidel Castro’s communist government in particular.
On Oct. 6, 1976, a Cubana airliner, flying the Cuban Olympic fencing team and other passengers to Cuba, exploded after taking off in Barbados, killing everyone onboard. At the time, this sort of mid-air bombing was unprecedented, and the evidence quickly pointed to Cuban extremists linked to CORU and the CIA.
But the U.S. government either resisted putting the pieces together or chose to avoid the obvious conclusions.
On Oct. 6, the day of the Cubana Airline bombing, a CIA informant in Chile went to the CIA station in Santiago and relayed an account of Pinochet denouncing Letelier, with the dictator calling Letelier’s criticism of the government “unacceptable.”
The source “believes that the Chilean Government is directly involved in Letelier’s death and feels that investigation into the incident will so indicate,” the CIA field report said.
But Bush’s CIA chose to accept Contreras’s denials and even began leaking information that pointed away from the real killers.
Newsweek reported in the magazine’s Oct. 11, 1976, issue that “the Chilean secret police were not involved. …. The [Central Intelligence] agency reached its decision because the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts and because the murder, coming while Chile’s rulers were wooing U.S. support, could only damage the Santiago regime.”
Similar stories ran in other newspapers. On Nov. 1, 1976, the day before the presidential election, the Washington Post became another vehicle for trumpeting Pinochet’s innocence.
“Operatives of the present Chilean military Junta did not take part in Letelier’s killing,” the Post wrote, citing CIA officials. “CIA Director Bush expressed this view in a conversation late last week with Secretary of State [Henry] Kissinger.”
Despite Bush’s success in keeping the truth about the Letelier assassination under wraps, Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Ford on Nov. 2, 1976.
Cracking the Case
Over the next two years, federal investigators would crack the case, successfully bringing charges against Townley and several Cuban-American conspirators. But prosecutor Eugene Propper told me that the CIA didn’t volunteer the crucial information about the Paraguayan gambit or hand over the photo of the chief assassin, Townley.
“Nothing the agency gave us helped us break this case,” Propper said.
According to the recently obtained prosecutor’s notes, one of the breaks in the Letelier case came from Rolando Otero, a Cuban exile who was believed to be the youngest member of the CIA-trained Bay of Pigs invasion force in 1961 and who was implicated in a string of 1975-76 bombings in Miami (though ultimately acquitted).
Otero had worked with Chile’s DINA, but – according to John Dinges’s 2005 book, The Condor Years – was a double agent for Venezuela’s intelligence service, DISIP, causing his Chilean controllers to jail and torture him before expelling him to the United States.
According to the prosecutor’s notes, “Otero became the witness who gave a Washington, D.C. AUSA [assistant U.S. attorney] the key to the car-bombing of Orlando Letelier. … The AUSA cut a deal with Otero that if Otero talked about the Letelier case, he would not have to give any information about [terrorism] cases … in Miami.”
The prosecutor’s notes also complained of a wider lack of cooperation from Washington in the many cases of Cuban-exile terrorism in Miami.
Regarding the information generated by the Letelier prosecution, the Miami prosecutor asked, “why wasn’t that information ever communicated to Miami, the Cuban exile stronghold, where the most devious and clandestine plots were discussed on a regular basis? The links to Miami were so thick, the exchange of communication so thin.”
As for the CIA's initial Letelier cover-up, neither Bush nor Walters was ever pressed to provide a full explanation.
When I submitted questions to Bush in 1988 – while he was running for president and I was a Newsweek correspondent preparing a story on his year as CIA director – Bush’s chief of staff Craig Fuller responded, saying “the Vice President generally does not comment on issues related to the time he was at the Central Intelligence Agency and he will have no comment on the specific issues raised in your letter.”
Newsweek editors subsequently killed my critical story about Bush’s CIA tenure, even though he was citing that experience as an important element of his résumé for the presidency. Walters also rebuffed interview requests on the Letelier topic prior to his death on Feb. 10, 2002, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
In 1995, after the Pinochet dictatorship had ended, DINA chief Contreras and his assistant Espinoza were convicted in Chile for the Letelier assassination and sentenced to seven and six years, respectively. Contreras began implicating Pinochet in the Letelier case and other acts of terrorism, saying Pinochet knew and approved all of these actions.
As for Pinochet, former President Bush didn’t hold a grudge against this foreign leader who allegedly had sponsored a terrorist attack under the nose of the U.S. government at a time when Bush was chief of U.S. intelligence.
In 1998, when Pinochet was detained in Great Britain on an extradition request from Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who was pursuing Pinochet for killing Spanish citizens, George H.W. Bush was one of the world leaders who rallied to Pinochet’s defense.
Bush called the case against Pinochet “a travesty of justice” and demanded that Pinochet be sent home to Chile “as soon as possible,” which the British courts did.
However, Garzon’s initiative prompted the Clinton administration to take a second look at the Letelier case in 2000. An FBI team reviewed new evidence that had become available and recommended the indictment of Pinochet.
But the final decision was left to the incoming administration of George W. Bush. In effect, the baton of the Letelier-Moffitt-murder cover-up was passed to a new Bush generation. Besides failing to act on the FBI’s recommendation, the Bush II administration continued to withhold relevant documents from Chilean investigators.
The younger George Bush – and his brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – also helped out in protecting the old Cuban terrorists who were implicated in the Cubana Airline bombing, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles. Both have been allowed to live out their golden years in the relative safety and comfort of the United States.
As for Pinochet, the aging general never had to face justice for his acts of international terrorism or for his domestic human rights crimes. Pinochet died of a heart attack on Dec. 10, 2006, at the age of 91.
When I tracked down former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Sanford, who was assigned to the Cuban terrorism cases in the mid-1970s, he still sounded frustrated at the lack of support he got from Washington to pursue these killers who inflicted death both inside and outside the United States.
“My blood starts to boil when I think of how much we could have done but how badly we were kept in the dark,” said Sanford, now 66, living in northern Florida. “I asked for stuff and never got it.”
Sanford recalled that when CIA Director Bush visited Miami at the end of the bloody year 1976, FBI agents “asked him for information from the CIA on where explosives [for the Cuban exiles] were stashed.” The response from Bush, according to Sanford, was “forget about it.”
Referring to the umbrella organization CORU, Sanford said, “it was the only terrorist group that ever exported terrorism from the United States.”
Ironically, the CIA’s analytical division reached a similar, troubling conclusion in an annual report entitled “International Terrorism in 1976” that was published in July 1977, after CIA Director Bush had left office.
“Cuban exile groups operating under the aegis of a new alliance called the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations [CORU] were particularly active during the second half of the year,” the CIA reported. “They were responsible for no less than 17 acts of international terrorism (at least three of which took place in the US).
“Statistically, this matches the record compiled by the various Palestinian terrorist groups during the same period. But largely because the Cuban exile operations included the October bombing of a Cubana Airlines passenger aircraft, their consequences were far more bloody.”
In other words, Cuban exiles based in the United States – during George H.W. Bush’s year in charge of the CIA – outpaced Palestinian terrorists in terms of a total body count.
After the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, the U.S. government presented itself as the innocent victim of international terrorism with a moral right not only to pursue the “bad guys” across the globe but to subject some captives to torture, to lock others up indefinitely without trial, and to launch attacks that have killed many thousands of innocents.
In the years that have followed, there were few recollections of the days under the current president’s father when the bloodiest terrorists were “our guys.”
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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