By David Kurlander
The Biden administration last week released intelligence revealing that Saudi Arabian leader Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) directly ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Hours later, however, senior administration officials announced that Biden would not directly penalize MBS, fearing damage to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. President Carter, another liberal president with a stated human rights interest, faced a similar dilemma over the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a Chilean dissident who military dictator Augusto Pinochet ordered killed (in Washington, D.C. no less) in 1976. The Carter administration’s hesitance to act against Pinochet—a staunch anticommunist—led to a years-long congressional debate over how to react to state-sponsored killings.
Orlando Letelier served as the U.S. Ambassador to Chile under the idealistic Marxist President Salvador Allende. On September 11th, 1973, General Pinochet deposed Allende in a brutal CIA-backed coup. Allende killed himself as troops surrounded his palace. Pinochet’s forces went on to murder thousands of left-wing figures over the coming months and imprisoned Letelier in a concentration camp.
Upon his release in 1974, Letelier headed to Washington, where he joined the Institute of Policy Studies, a progressive think tank headed by Marcus Raskin (Congressman Jamie Raskin’s father). Letelier wrote for The Nation, fostered contacts in the Marxist world, and appeared at fundraisers—including a massive Madison Square Garden event with musicians Joan Baez and Pete Seeger to mark the third anniversary of the coup. He became, in effect, the leader of the Chilean opposition.
On September 21st, 1976, Letelier and his Institute of Policy Studies colleague, 25-year-old Ronni Moffit, drove into Washington. Moffitt’s husband Michael was in the back seat. DINA-affiliated assassins detonated a remote-controlled bomb underneath Letelier’s car as the trio drove past the residence of the Chilean Ambassador—a house Letelier once lived in. The blast dismembered Letelier. A piece of shrapnel severed Ronni Moffitt’s throat, and her husband watched as she bled out on the street.
Michael Moffit and Letelier’s widow Isabel, both experts themselves in Chilean politics, lobbied the new Carter administration for sanctions. On the first anniversary of the killing—and shortly after a much-criticized White House summit between Pinochet and Carter, they sought a meeting with the President. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor, wrote in a memo to Carter that the meeting was “an opportunity, in their eyes, to right the balance and restate your commitment to human rights and justice.” Brzezinski followed up with a warning: “Given the sensitivity of the evidence surrounding the assassination, however, I would recommend that you not meet with them.” Carter instead suggested they meet with his White House Counsel, Robert Lipshutz.
By this time, the fiercely independent, 31-year-old D.C. Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Propper had started overseeing the sensitive and labyrinthine investigation. FBI Agents uncovered that the man who planted the bomb was an American. The perpetrator, Michael Townley, had moved to Chile as a teenager in the early 1960s with his parents; his father was a General Manager at Chile’s arm of Ford Motor Company. Townley married a Chilean woman and, after Allende’s election, became increasingly reactionary, ultimately working with the CIA to assist Pinochet and becoming a bombmaker for DINA, Pinochet’s secret police.
Townley had liaised with several anti-communist Cuban exiles from Miami to pull off the brazen bombing. The men collectively answered to Manuel Contreras, the head of DINA, a close Pinochet ally who oversaw Operation Condor, a state terror network of eight right-wing Latin American dictatorships. The cabal killed as many as 60,000 leftists over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, including shooting a former Bolivian president and bombing a Cuban airlines flight. Townley himself had put together another car bombing of a disgraced Chilean general.
Propper unsealed the indictments on August 1st, 1978, almost two years after the killing. A Federal grand jury indicted Townley (who had cooperated with the government), the Cubans, and three higher-ups in DINA, including Contreras. A remarkable McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour special aired that night, which included footage of the scandalized reaction in Chile and interviews from Isobel Letelier and Michael Moffitt, who said: “The U.S. government has inasmuch said that the DINA came here to assassinate Orlando Letelier; and I think that especially an administration which has made human rights the cornerstone of its foreign policy simply cannot afford to overlook that.”
The State Department, led by Ambassador to Chile George Landau, entered into an extradition battle to get Contreras and his underlings to face trial in the United States. In March 1979, Chile’s Supreme Court denied the request, effectively goading the reticent Carter administration into leveling sanctions. Six months later, Carter announced a moderate list of punishments—a cut-back in military and embassy staff and the stoppage of several loan and investment programs. He also banned Chile from participating in Unitas, naval exercises that the U.S. hosted with Latin American nations.
A vocal coalition of liberal congresspeople, led by Iowa Representative Tom Harkin, felt that the punishment did not go nearly far enough. Harkin released a scathing statement, which blasted Carter’s “despicably weak” response to “foreign terrorism in the streets of America.” He argued that cutting off the $2 billion in private U.S. bank loans to Pinochet’s government—as the administration had recently done to Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime in Iran—would be a far more impactful act of condemnation.
At the same time, vocal anti-communists were angry that Carter had punished Pinochet at all. Representatives Henry Hyde and Charlie Wilson (see: Charlie Wilson’s War) berated Carter in a White House meeting in February 1980. Hyde defended the Chilean refusal to extradite Letelier’s killers. An NSA summary of the meeting reads: “Representative Hyde compared the trial of the criminals involved in the Letelier affair to the US putting J. Edgar Hoover on trial. It was not likely that we would do something like that because Hoover was said to have files on everyone, and we shouldn’t have expected the Chileans to do it either.” Wilson, meanwhile, warned Carter about bowing to liberal voices: “He insisted that there are not that many Tom Harkins on Capitol Hill, and President Carter would have to deal with some conservatives on this.”
Hyde and Wilson didn’t have to worry for long. When President Reagan won the presidency, they could trust that their perspective would be honored. Reagan had expressed frustration with the “hard-line human rights campaign” to punish Chile, even conspiratorially suggesting on his popular radio show that Letelier may have been killed by “his own side.” When Reagan came into office in January 1981, his Secretary of State Alexander Haig quickly moved to cancel the sanctions on Chile. Pinochet remained in power until 1990, and only in 2015 did the CIA declassify a 1978 intelligence estimate suggesting that Pinochet had directly ordered the Letelier killing.
As the Biden administration faces fallout from its own struggle to find appropriate punishment for MBS’s involvement in the Khashoggi assassination, the battles over Letelier and Moffitt’s killings feel more painfully relevant than ever.
For a riveting recent treatment of the bombing and its aftermath, check out Alan McPherson’s 2019 Ghosts of Sheridan Circle: How a Washington Assassination Brought Pinochet’s Terror State to Justice. For an entertaining inside look at the investigation into Letelier’s killing, read AUSA Eugene Propper and Taylor Branch’s 1982 Labyrinth: The Sensational Story of International Intrigue in the Search for the Assassins of Orlando Letelier. And for thousands of documents on Pinochet’s regime, visit Peter Kornbluh’s Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.
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