Wednesday, December 13, 2006

U.S./Pinochet Documents Requested

The blast rocked Washington's Embassy Row on Sept. 21, 1976, ripping through the car of one of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's most outspoken critics.

The assassination of Orlando Letelier and his American assistant two miles from the White House prompted demands for explanations and helped expose what President Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a series of CIA officials tried for years to conceal: U.S support for a military dictatorship that was killing thousands of its own citizens.

In the wake of the former leader's Sunday death, officials at the think tank where Letelier and Ronni Moffitt worked said they are sending U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales a letter asking for the release of the remaining information.

In 1998, the Clinton administration declassified more than 16,000 documents related to Chile, but withheld documents on the Letelier bombing, citing an ongoing investigation.

"With the prime suspect no longer here, there is no reason to keep those documents secret," said Sarah Anderson of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

Former Chilean secret police chief Manuel Contreras, who served seven years in a Chilean prison for the assassination, claimed his orders came directly from Pinochet.

"The documents related to the Letelier case definitely could include embarrassing information about the relationship between the U.S. government and the Pinochet dictatorship," Anderson said. "But that shouldn't outweigh the public's right to know about that history, especially if it gives consolation to the victims' families."

Congressional investigations, CIA reports and the declassified documents have already revealed much about the relationship between Pinochet and the U.S.

Declassified transcripts portray Kissinger downplaying concern over Chile's human rights record, even as the dictatorship was torturing and killing thousands of opponents. The death toll would eventually reach at least 3,197.

Meeting with Chile's ambassador in September 1975, Kissinger joked that U.S. officials focusing on human rights violations had "a vocation for the ministry." And in a June 1976 meeting with Pinochet himself, Kissinger gently encouraged the dictator to release more prisoners while stressing that "we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here."

Peter Kornbluh, who helped win declassification of many files on Chile as a senior analyst at George Washington University's National Security Archive, said the transcripts of Kissinger's meetings "paint a pretty stunning picture of gross insensitivity to human rights atrocities."

Kornbluh believes some of the most important U.S. documents on Chile remain classified -- he's still seeking CIA cable traffic between Santiago and Washington, reports on Contreras' visits to the United States and more information about a young American, Charles Horman, who was killed shortly after the coup.

Full disclosure, Kornbluh said, would likely show how the U.S. government helped Pinochet's regime consolidate its power with overt and covert support, despite knowing of its abuses.

Documents already released indicate that U.S. officials did not directly participate in the military coup on Sept. 11, 1973 that toppled Chile's Marxist president, Salvador Allende. But the CIA said it had advance warning of the coup and had tried to foment earlier coup attempts on direct orders from Nixon and Kissinger.

A report released by the CIA in 2000 said the agency had been "aware of coup-plotting by the military, had ongoing intelligence-collection relationships with some plotters and -- because CIA did not discourage the takeover and had sought to instigate a coup in 1970 -- probably appeared to condone it."

A secret cable from the CIA deputy director of plans, Thomas Karamessines, conveyed Kissinger's orders to CIA Santiago station chief Henry Hecksher ([sic] Heckscher) in 1970: "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup," and that the "American hand" be hidden.

Nixon's CIA director, Richard Helms, in handwritten notes said the president, intent on saving Chile from communism, ordered covert operations to "make the economy scream" under Allende.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, when asked about covert U.S. activities in Chile, acknowledged in 2004 that, "It is not a part of American history that we're proud of."

The CIA kept in regular contact with Contreras -- blamed for much of the torture and death under the dictatorship -- until 1977, though it said the relationship "was not cordial and smooth."

Indeed, public outrage over Chile's human rights record prompted the U.S. Congress to ban weapons sales in 1976, not long after Kissinger's meeting with Pinochet.


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