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Who were the real assassins?

By Dr George Venturini

Heinz Alfred ‘Henry’ Kissinger obtained a Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1954. His interest was on Castelreagh and Metternich – two empire builders. He devoted his life to sublimate them.

In an incendiary, studiedly defamatory book the late Christopher Hitchens described him as “a mediocre and opportunist academic [intent on] becoming an international potentate. The signature qualities were there from the inaugural moment: the sycophancy and the duplicity; the power worship and the absence of scruple; the empty trading of old non-friends for new non-friends. And the distinctive effects were also present: the uncounted and expendable corpses; the official and unofficial lying about the cost; the heavy and pompous pseudo-indignation when unwelcome questions were asked. Kissinger’s global career started as it meant to go on. It debauched the American republic and American democracy, and it levied a hideous toll of casualties on weaker and more vulnerable societies.”

The story is all here: from the martyrdom of Indochina to becoming the real backchannel to Moscow on behalf of his new client: Donald Trump.

Editor’s note: This outstanding series by Dr Venturini is published bi-weekly (Wednesdays and Saturdays). Today we publish Part Eighteen. Here is the link to Part Seventeen; The Kissinger trademark – the repression of democracy.


Operation Condor

On 11 December 1959 Colonel J. C. King, chief of C.I.A.’s Western Hemisphere Division, sent a confidential memorandum to Allen W. Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. King argued that in Cuba there existed a “far-left dictatorship, which if allowed to remain will encourage similar actions against U.S. holdings in other Latin American countries.”

As a result of this memorandum Dulles established Operation 40. It obtained this name because originally there were 40 agents involved in the operation. Later this was expanded to 70 agents. The group was presided over by Richard Nixon, then Vice President of the United States between 1953 and 1961. On 4 March 1960 La Coubre, a ship flying a Belgian flag, exploded in Havana Bay. It was loaded with arms and ammunition which had been sent to help defend Cuba’s revolution from its enemies. It was later claimed that this was the first successful act carried out by Operation 40.

Operation 40 was not only involved in sabotage operations. In fact it evolved into a team of assassins. One member, Frank Sturgis, who was one of the five Watergate burglars whose capture led to the end of the Presidency of Richard Nixon, claimed: “this assassination group (Operation 40) would upon orders, naturally, assassinate either members of the military or the political parties of the foreign country that you were going to infiltrate, and if necessary some of your own members who were suspected of being foreign agents … We were concentrating strictly in Cuba at that particular time.”

Others, such as E. Howard Hunt, would join Sturgis in operations such as Watergate. They were all under the directive of Nixon, before and during his presidency.

Michael V. Townley, the son of an American business executive who wound up as general manager of the Ford Motor plant in Santiago, Chile, was another C.I.A. agent who was involved in organising – as well as personally performing – assassinations of political opponents.

The C.I.A. also used the International Development’s Office of Public Safety – O.P.S. to help establish right-wing military dictatorships.

In 1969, with Nixon in the White House flanked by Kissinger as his personal consigliere, the Uruguayan government was led by the very unpopular Colorado Party. Nixon and the C.I.A. feared a possible victory during the elections of the Frente Amplio, a left-wing coalition, on the model of the victory of the Unidad Popular government in Chile, led by Salvador Allende.

In the same year the C.I.A. arranged for Michael Townley to be sent to Chile under the alias of Kenneth W. Enyart. Townley passed under the control of David Atlee Phillips who had been asked to lead a special task force assigned to prevent the election of Salvador Allende as President of Chile. This campaign was unsuccessful and Allende gained power in 1970, the first ‘Marxist’ to gain power in a free democratic election. Townley continued to try and undermine the government of Salvador Allende. The C.I.A attempted to persuade Chile’s Chief of Staff General René Schneider to overthrow Allende. He refused and on 22 October 1970 his car was ambushed. Schneider drew a gun to defend himself, and was shot point-blank several times. He was rushed to hospital, but he died three days later. Military courts in Chile found that Schneider’s death was caused by two military groups, one led by Roberto Viaux and the other by Camilo Valenzuela. It was claimed that the C.I.A. was providing support for both groups.

David Atlee Phillips set Townley the task of organising two paramilitary action groups Orden y Libertad – Order and Freedom and Protecion Comunal y Soberania – Common Protection and Sovereignty. Townley also established an arson squad which started several fires in Santiago. Townley also mounted a smear campaign against General Carlos Prats, the head of the Chilean Army. Prats resigned on 21 August 1973. His replacement as Commander in Chief was General Augusto Pinochet.

In September ‘the first 9/11’ took place in Santiago. Soon afterwards Townley was recruited by General Juan Manuel Contreras, the head of D.I.N.A., the Chilean secret police. Townley’s main task was to deal with those dissenters who had fled Chile after General Augusto Pinochet gained power. This included General Carlos Prats who was writing his memoirs in Argentina. Donald Freed argues in Death in Washington: The Murder of Orlando Letelier that: “On September 30, 1974, shortly after the first anniversary of the violent overthrow of the Allende government, Townley and a team of assassins murdered Carlos Prats and his wife in Buenos Aires. Their auto was exploded by a bomb.” (D. Freed, Death in Washington: The murder of Orlando Letelier (Lawrence Hill, Chicago, 1980).

The C.I.A. continued to fund the activities of agents like Townley. Promoted to the rank of major by General Juan Manuel Contreras, Townley made regular visits to the United States in 1975. In September 1975 Townley’s death squad struck again. Former Chilean vice-president Bernardo Leighton and his wife were gunned down in Rome by local fascists working with D.I.N.A.

On 25 November 1975 leaders of the military intelligence services of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay met, with Juan Manuel Contreras in Santiago de Chile. The main objective was for the C.I.A. to coordinate the actions of the various security services in “eliminating Marxist subversion.”

Operation Condor (named after Chile’s national bird) – Operación Cóndor, also known as Plan Cóndor in Spanish, and Operação Condor in Portuguese – was given tacit approval by the United States which feared a ‘marxist’ revolution in the region. The United States government provided technical support and supplied military aid to the participants during the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations. Such support was frequently routed through the Central Intelligence Agency. Ecuador and Peru later joined the operation in more peripheral roles. These efforts, such as Operation Charly, supported the local juntas in their ‘anti-communist’ repression.

According to professor J. Patrice McSherry, based on formerly secret C.I.A. documents from 1976, in the 1960s and early 1970s plans were developed among international security officials at the United States Army School of the Americas and the Conference of American Armies to deal with perceived threats in South America from political dissidents. A declassified C.I.A. document dated 23 June 1976, explains that “in early 1974, security officials from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia met in Buenos Aires to prepare coordinated actions against subversive targets.”

Condor was an operation similar to Operation Gladio, the ‘strategy of tension’ used in Italy in the 1970s, of which one old tool of the fascist regime, Licio Gelli was a member. (J. Patrice McSherry, Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America, Rowman & Littlefield, Washington, D.C. 2005 at 78).

French journalist Marie-Monique Robin explained how General Rivero, intelligence officer of the Argentine Armed Forces and former student of the French, developed the concept of Operation Condor. (Marie-Monique Robin, Escadrons de la mort, l’école française – Death squads, The French School, Découverte, Paris 2004).

The programme was developed following a series of government coups d’état by military groups, primarily in the 1970s: 1) General Alfredo Stroessner took control of Paraguay in 1954; 2) the Brazilian military overthrew the president João Goulart in 1964; 3) General Hugo Banzer took power in Bolivia in 1971 through a series of coups; 4) a civic-military junta seized power in Uruguay on 27 June 1973; 5) forces loyal to General Pinochet bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace in Chile on 11 September 1973, overthrowing democratically elected president Salvador Allende; 6) a military Junta headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla seized power in Argentina on 24 March 1976.

Operation Condor’s targets were officially leftist guerrillas but in fact included all kinds of political opponents. For example, in Argentina an estimated 30,000 persons were murdered by the Juntas.

Kissinger would be Nixon’s National Security Advisor from 1969 to 1974, then briefly to Ford until 3 November 1975, and Secretary of State under Nixon and Ford between 22 September 1973 and 20 January 1977. George H.W. Bush was director of the C.I.A. between 30 January 1976 and 20 January 1977.

On 18 September 1976 Orlando Letelier who served as foreign minister under Salvador Allende, was travelling to work at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington when a bomb was ignited under his car. Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, a 25 year old woman who was campaigning for democracy in Chile, both died of their injuries.

George H. W. Bush was quickly told that D.I.N.A. and several of its contract agents were involved in the assassination. However, he leaked a story to members of Operation Mockingbird which attempted to cover-up the role that the C.I.A. and D.I.N.A. had played in the killings. Jeremiah O’Leary, a journalist, wrote: “The right-wing Chilean junta had nothing to gain and everything to lose by the assassination of a peaceful and popular socialist leader.” (The Washington Star, 8 October 1976). To which a well-known periodical added: “The CIA has concluded that the Chilean secret police was not involved.” (Newsweek, 11 October 1976).

In 1976, when George H.W. Bush was C.I.A. director, the American 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 the Letelier/Moffitt assassination. It soon became clear to the F.B.I. and other federal investigators that the attack likely was a joint operation of Pinochet’s D.I.N.A. and U.S.-based right-wing Cuban exiles.

But Bush’s C.I.A. steered attention away from the real assassins towards leftists who supposedly had killed Letelier to create a martyr for their cause. Eventually, the C.I.A.’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.

A subsequent de-classification of documents, as well as notes of an American prosecutor involved in counter-terrorism cases made clear that the connections among Bush’s C.I.A., D.I.N.A. and the Cuban Nationalist Movement – which supplied the assassins – were closer than was understood at the time.

D.I.N.A. provided intelligence training for the Cuban terrorists who acted like a ‘sleeper cell’ inside the United States; federal prosecutions of right-wing Cuban terrorists were routinely frustrated; and the C.I.A. did all it could to cover for its anti-communist allies who were part of a broader international terror of Operation Condor.

William F. Buckley, the well-known American conservative author and commentator, also took part in this disinformation campaign and on 25 October wrote: “U.S. investigators think it unlikely that Chile would risk with an action of this kind the respect it has won with great difficulty during the past year in many Western countries, which before were hostile to its policies.” According to Donald Freed, Buckley had been providing disinformation for the Pinochet Junta since 1974. He also unearthed information that William Buckley’s brother, James Buckley, met with Michael Townley and another asset in New York City just a week before the Letelier/Moffitt assassination.

In October 1976 the midair explosion of Cubana Flight 455 flying out of Barbados killed all 73 people aboard. Police in Trinidad arrested Herman Ricardo and Freddy Lugo, two Venezuelans. Ricardo worked for the security agency owned by one Luis Posada in Venezuela. He admitted that he and Lugo had planted two bombs on the plane. Ricardo claimed the bombing had been organised by Posada and another. When Posada was arrested a map of Washington showing the daily route to work of Orlando Letelier was found in his possession.

It later emerged that George H. W. Bush warned U.S. Congressman Edward Koch, in October 1974, that his sponsorship of legislation to cut off United States military assistance to Uruguay on human rights grounds had provoked secret police officials to “put a contract out for you.” According to documents and interviews obtained by John Dinges for his book, The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his allies brought terrorism to three continents, The New Press, New York 2004), the C.I.A. station chief in Montevideo received information in July 1976 that two high-level Uruguayan intelligence officers had discussed their ability to have D.I.N.A., Chile’s secret police, send agents to the United States to kill Koch.

The station chief, identified in the book as Frederick Latrash, reported the conversation to C.I.A. headquarters but recommended that the Agency take no action because the officers had been drinking at a cocktail party when the threat was made.

Only after the assassination of Letelier did the C.I.A. warn Edward Koch about the planned assassination and share the intelligence with the F.B.I. and the Department of State.

From 1976 onwards, the Chilean D.I.N.A. and its Argentine counterpart, S.I.D.E., were the Operation’s front-line troops. The infamous ‘death flights’, theorised in Argentina by Luis María Mendía, the Argentine Chief of Naval Operations in 1976-77 with the rank of vice-admiral, and previously employed during the Algerian war (1954-62) by French forces, were widely used. Government forces took victims by plane or helicopter out to sea, dropping them to their deaths and planned disappearances.

In a 3 August 1976 report written from Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Harry W. Shlaudeman to Kissinger it was amply explained that the military regimes in South America were coming together to join forces for security reasons.

The subsequent pages of the report dealt with specific problems concerning Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay (page 9), examined whether the organisation would evolve into a political bloc (page 10), and if so in which form (page 11), whether there was a chance of serious world-scale trouble (page 12), and what should be the United States attitude towards the organisation (pages 13 and 14). (Shlaudeman, Harry (August 3, 1976). “Department of State, Report to Kissinger, SECRET, ‘The Third World War and South America,’ August 3, 1976” (PDF). National Security Archive. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 28, 2015).

Next installment Wednesday: The “terror archives”

Dr. Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reach at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.



1 comment

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  1. Freetasman

    The influence and intervention of USA in South America started well before operation Condor, I remember well how everything took more intensively after the Cuban Revolution.
    During President Lyndon B. Johnson government back in 1966, USA sent to Uruguay William Cantrell, an OPS who was a CIA convert officer and active until the end of 1970.
    He organised the police force there, provided funds and created the National Directorate of Information and Intelligence known as the DNII.
    Torture started back then and Cantrell mastered the marginalization of the police force chief, Otero because he was against torture.
    There are many publications about Operation Condor that will complement the excellent series of articles by Dr George Venturini.
    Among them I recommend Death squads as parallel forces: Uruguay, Operation Condor, and the United States.

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