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The Murder of Orlando Letelier

On September 21, 1976, the US-backed Pinochet government assassinated a leftist Chilean dissident on the streets of Washington, DC.

Orlando Letelier. The Transnational Institute

Ask most Americans about terrorist attacks committed by foreigners on US soil and there’s more than a good chance they’ll point to the September 11, 2001 bombings of the World Trade Center, or the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. At a push, they might even point to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which, while not a case of terrorism, was until September 11 the worst foreign attack on US soil in the country’s history.

Few are likely to talk about the time an ostensibly friendly government — one partially installed by the United States in an act of covert regime change, no less — murdered one of its own dissidents in a car bombing in the heart of the nation’s capital, killing a US citizen in the process. Yet forty years ago today, that’s precisely what happened when Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean diplomat and outspoken critic of the Pinochet dictatorship which had come to rule the country, and his two coworkers prepared to travel to work.

On a rainy fall morning on September 21, 1976, as Letelier’s car traveled down the block of 2300 Massachusetts Avenue, just past Sheridan Circle and along Washington, DC’s Embassy Row, a plastic explosive attached to the underside of the vehicle detonated, killing Letelier and one of his occupants, twenty-five-year-old Ronni Moffitt. Passers-by watched as the flaming wreck crashed into a nearby Volkswagen, and Michael Moffit, Ronni’s husband, crawled out of the back. They had been married only 113 days.

As became clear in the succeeding years, the incident was a clear-cut case of state-sponsored terrorism carried out in the beating heart of American power. Yet whether due to intentional obfuscation by sections of the US national security state, or because of other factors, justice was largely dodged by the true perpetrators of the attack, who presided at the highest levels of Chile’s government.

A Life of Dissent

Letelier’s murder had its roots in the US-backed Chilean coup of 1973, which also took place on the date of September 11. Three years earlier, Salvador Allende had been elected as the country’s first socialist president, and set about transforming the country’s economy. He increased wages and froze prices, and in the act that may have contributed most heavily to his eventual fate, he expropriated US-owned copper companies without compensation.

Naturally, other US-owned corporations began to get nervous. Companies with interests in Chile, such as Chase Manhattan, Anaconda, and Pepsi, made their anxiety known to the US government. Then president Nixon, who worked as a lawyer for Pepsi, received two phone calls from the company’s chairman asking him to do something about the problem. Meanwhile, Chile’s phone company, International Telephone and Telegraph, was illegally donating money to the GOP. “All’s fair on Chile,” Nixon advised his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. “Kick ‘em in the ass. Okay?”

The Nixon administration set about creating the right conditions for a coup in Chile, eventually succeeding in 1973 when the country’s military, led by Augusto Pinochet, the head of the army, took power. Allende, perhaps aware of what fate likely awaited him, committed suicide in the ensuing mayhem.

Pinochet instituted a brutal dictatorship that would disappear or kill three thousand people over seventeen years, including two American citizens, and viciously torture many more. As always, most of these were segments of the Chilean left whom Pinochet viewed as the enemy. Contrary to rhetoric around “big government” being an inevitable bedfellow of “tyranny,” Pinochet paired this police state with a radical program of free-market reforms and privatizations, instituted by economists who had been mentored by the giants of the “Chicago school” of economics, such as Milton Friedman.

Letelier was more affected than most by the coup. A member of Chile’s Socialist Party, he had worked for decades in Washington at the Inter-American Development Bank, making friends and contacts, until Allende’s victory spurred him to return to Chile. Recognizing Letelier’s connections and experience, Allende appointed him Chile’s new ambassador to the United States.

The Leteliers’ new home in the Chilean embassy was less than a mile from where he would eventually be murdered. His children went to school with Donald Rumsfeld’s daughter, and in the course of attending an Easter egg hunt at the White House, one of his sons received a signed memento from Pat Nixon, the wife of the man who was at the time plotting the demise of both his government and president.

In 1973, Letelier moved back to Chile, first to serve as foreign minister, then as the minister of defense — Pinochet’s immediate superior. Less than a month after this appointment, Pinochet would topple Allende and his government, and Letelier would be arrested and sent to a prison camp on Dawson Island.

While at Dawson, Letelier and his fellow inmates were tortured and “subjected to every degrading treatment possible,” according to a State Department report declassified decades later. He was in “a shocking condition, with a great weight loss and showing signs of severe emotional stress.” Letelier was eventually moved to another camp and, thanks to diplomatic pressure by Venezuela, released and exiled from Chile, moving to Venezuela.

In 1976, he and his family returned to Washington to take on a teaching position at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank that had once been burglarized and spied on as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. It was there that Letelier would meet the Moffitts. And it was there, thanks his outspokenness, and an international campaign of terror launched earlier by the Pinochet regime and its murderous counterparts in neighboring countries, that his life would end.

Condor Takes Flight

Letelier’s murder was part of Operation Condor, a decade-long campaign of political terror and repression against the Left carried out by the secret police agencies of six South American dictatorships: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile.

These agencies collaborated closely to eliminate what they viewed as political enemies, sharing information and working together to kill or kidnap their targets. By the time the program ended, it may have killed as many as sixty thousand people.

Condor didn’t just span the borders of South America. It spanned continents, with member countries going to great lengths to hunt down and brazenly murder dissidents in a variety of foreign countries, in some cases killing foreign citizens. At one point, an unnamed Latin American military official even drunkenly threatened to have Congressman and later New York mayor Ed Koch killed over his attempts to block military aid to South American dictatorships.

Twenty-three Italian citizens were killed over the course of the program, while 1975 saw the failed assassination attempt in Rome, Italy of Bernardo Leighton, a former Chilean official opposed to the Pinochet dictatorship. According to declassified CIA documents, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay planned a series of assassination attempts in Western Europe, including in France and Portugal. The CIA informed France and Portugal of the plans, who subsequently warned the countries’ representatives not to go ahead with them.

This courtesy wasn’t extended to non-Western countries, however. In fact, quite the opposite. The Nixon administration tacitly encouraged the wave of homicidal repression within South America.

While speaking with a member of the Argentine military regime in June 1976 about the “joint efforts” the South American countries were embarking on to stamp out “terrorism,” Kissinger told him: “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”

Two months later, concerned about the political fallout of supporting an international campaign of murder, Kissinger instructed the ambassadors to Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay to pass on the United States’s “deep concern” about their “plans for the assassination of subversives, politicians, and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad.”

It wasn’t long before Kissinger had a change of heart, however. On September 16, he ordered the message to be rescinded and that “no further action be taken on this matter.”

It was a fateful decision. Only five days later, Letelier would fall victim to those same plans.

The Murder

Being arrested, tortured, and expelled by the Pinochet dictatorship had done nothing to dampen Letelier’s criticism of the regime. He continued to speak out about the abuses being carried out in Chile, and used his platform and connections in Washington to put pressure on the regime.

According to Michael Moffitt, in June 1976, he spearheaded the legislative campaign that led to a bill, proposed by Representatives Ted Kennedy and Tom Harkin, to ban US arms sales to Chile. Around the same time, he traveled to Holland to lobby against a Dutch company’s $63 million investigation in Chile (which was subsequently cancelled), and met with a leader of Chile’s Christian Democratic Party, a centrist party that had supported Allende’s toppling but opposed Pinochet.

Less than a month before he died, Letelier wrote a piece for the Nation excoriating Pinochet’s economic reforms as an almost total failure that only succeeded in concentrating power and wealth in a small minority, and were inherently reliant on political terror to exist. Able to bridge the gap between the Chilean left and its center, Letelier was a popular and visible figure considered a strong prospect for president of a democratic Chile.

All of this put Letelier in the crosshairs of Chile’s ruling junta. In June 1976, a mere two days after Kissinger gave the Argentine military official his words of encouragement for Operation Condor, Pinochet spoke with the secretary of state about the impending Kennedy-Harkin ban.

As they talked about the need to defeat the legislation, Pinochet griped about the supposed campaign of misinformation being waged against Chile in Washington by his enemies. He mentioned Letelier twice, referring to him by only his last name. “Letelier has access to the Congress,” he complained. “We know they are giving false information.”

If he was prodding Kissinger for some kind of reaction, he never got it; Kissinger said nothing about the dictator’s pointed reference to the dissident he once imprisoned and tortured. This was the same conversation, however, in which Kissinger assured Pinochet that “we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do.”

Not long after, the Pinochet government publicly revoked Letelier’s citizenship, on September 10. The plan to assassinate Letelier was already in motion.

The plot was hatched by Chile’s secret police, known as the Department of National Intelligence (DINA), sometime around June or July 1976, when its director of operations, Pedro Espinoza Bravo, briefed the men he had recruited for the job. One of these men was Michael Townley, an American electronics expert living in Chile whom Espinoza had previously recruited for a failed assassination mission in Mexico.

Townley was a wannabe secret agent who had dreamed of fighting communists for the CIA. Unfortunately for him, the CIA was not as enthusiastic about the prospect. Working with DINA gave Townley the one chance he had to live out his dream.

Originally recruited as early as 1974, Townley was by this point a longtime contact for DINA. He had spent time obtaining electronics equipment for DINA and surveilling Chilean exiles in European countries. He had helped plan and set into motion the attempt on Bernardo Leighton’s life in Rome.

Townley was instructed to make Letelier’s death look like an accident, although Espinoza also told him that should that prove impossible, using a bomb was acceptable. He was also instructed to recruit members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement, a group of anti-Castro exiles from Cuba, for the mission, having previously worked with them on the failed Mexican assassination.

Townley and the Cubans formed an informal network of assassins that had been earlier cobbled together for operations such as these by Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, the head of DINA and the mastermind behind Operation Condor. As Townley would later testify, “Contreras considered himself a focal point or a ‘capo’ of the anti-Marxist movement.”

When the time came, Townley was able to secure a false passport from Paraguay, a partner of Chile’s in Operation Condor. Upon arriving in the United States, already carrying the explosives’ ingredients he would eventually use for Letelier’s assassination, he met with both the Cuban exiles he was to work with on the mission and a DINA agent who had been conducting surveillance on Letelier and proceeded to give Townley information about Letelier’s vehicle, home, place of employment, and daily routine.

Over the next twelve days, Townley and the Cubans arranged the elements of the plot. They surveilled Letelier, built the bomb, and attached it to the underside of the car, beneath the driver’s seat.

The Moffitts’ presence in the vehicle was sheer bad luck, their car having been recently repaired and refusing to start the day before. Letelier told them to use his car overnight and to pick him up in the morning, from where they would carpool to work.

As they drove down Massachusetts Avenue, Townley and the Cubans followed behind, detonating the bomb as the Letelier’s car was one-quarter of the way around Sheridan Circle. Michael Moffit described the explosion:

It was as if the entire car were heaved off the ground, accompanied by a blinding flash and a deafening blast. I recall that everything was thrown upward, my head struck the roof of the car. My shoes were blown off. The car then crashed into a Volkswagen and stopped. There was smoke everywhere and intense heat, as if we were in a furnace. Most powerful of all, though, was the overwhelming stench of burned flesh and hair . . .

Orlando was turned around facing the back of the car. He was leaning back, and his head was rolling back and forth. His eyes were moving a little but he locked unconscious. I saw that his lower torso — basically, the whole bottom half of his body — had been blown off. There were gobs of flesh and bloody pieces of seat stuffing everywhere. A sturdy six-foot man looked like a broken doll.

. . . I knew I could not help Orlando, so I rushed over to my wife. She was on the lawn on her back and was much worse than I had thought. Her belly was swollen and protruding like she was eight months pregnant and blood was gushing out of her mouth — a huge current of blood.

So horrific was the scene, a witness remembered seeing a secret service agent guarding one of the embassies throwing up.

Eviscerating the Left

Operations like Letelier’s killing were just one part of a wider campaign of state terror instituted across Latin America, going far beyond Chile’s Operation Condor. That campaign aimed to purge countries in the region ruled by right-wing dictatorships of any semblance of political opposition. How long such programs of repression lasted varied from country to country, but in most cases they continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s — in some cases, even into the 1990s.

While state repression was largely aimed at the Left, it wasn’t long before it encompassed just about anyone seen as threatening to the established political order. Thus, Argentina’s “Dirty War,” in which tens of thousands of people “disappeared,” targeted not just communists and other leftists, but journalists, intellectuals, students, and anyone else expressing dissent.

Much the same applied to countries like Brazil and Chile. In Guatemala, which wasn’t part of Operation Condor, death squads and military forces killed more than two hundred thousand over three decades, most of them members of the indigenous population.

Just as governments do today, much of this repression was based on an elastic definition of “terrorism.” Operation Condor, for instance, was cast as a war on terrorists. This label presumably included Bernardo Leighton, the centrist Christian Democrat who Pinochet tried to assassinate in Rome.

These efforts were largely successful, at least in the short term. Operation Condor worked to eliminate highly visible opposition leaders such as Letelier and Leighton, who could either work overseas to undermine the ruling regime or stand as symbols of resistance.

Meanwhile, the repression within these countries created a blanket of silence over internal dissent. They created cultures or climates of fear that served to foster silence and self-censorship, stifle political activities on the Left, and largely destroy meaningful political resistance, aided by the outlawing of opposition parties.

According to Steven Levitsky and Kenneth Roberts, military repression in Latin America left “a legacy of organizational weakness and fear on the Left that endured well after democratization.”

Stonewalling

In the immediate aftermath and ever since, there has been fierce speculation about how much, exactly, segments of the US government knew about the assassination plot. Even forty years later, the evidence remains murky.

A subsequent series of investigations by Saul Landau, Letelier’s friend and colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies, uncovered a series of links between those involved in the plot and the CIA. The CIA had a “paid relationship” with Contreras, including, according to Townley, a joint checking account with the CIA used for reimbursing DINA for jobs done for or with the agency.

Moreover, only a few days after putting the plan into motion, Contreras secretly visited Washington, meeting with CIA officials and (illegally) purchasing weapons and spying equipment from a firm run by two former CIA agents.

Around this same time, reported Landau, Contreras also met with the CIA’s Deputy Director Vernon Walters, who neglected to mention this meeting with FBI investigators looking into the Letelier murder. Not only that, but Walters traveled to Paraguay in June 1976, a month before Letelier’s assassins arrived to receive their false passports. They allegedly used his name and claimed Walters knew about the mission.

Whether or not that was the case, it’s certainly true that the CIA knew about at least two of the four visits by DINA agents to Washington in preparation to kill Letelier. Yet the agency didn’t try to find out what the agents were up to. In 1980, the Washington Post wrote: “It is beyond belief that the CIA would simply have ignored a clandestine operation by a foreign intelligence service in Washington, or anywhere in the United States.” Or as Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project, later wrote: “Either the CIA was criminally negligent in failing to detect and deter the Letelier-Moffitt assassination, or it was complicitous.”

Indeed, it seemed different elements of the US government were working at cross-purposes on the case. While dogged FBI investigators uncovered the first evidence of Operation Condor, the CIA was far from helpful. Despite its relationship with DINA and the information it possessed, Assistant US Attorney Eugene Propper — who had been assigned to investigate the killing — said that “nothing the agency gave us helped us break this case.”

The CIA instead worked to muddy the waters, telling Newsweek that “the Chilean secret police were not involved in the death of Orlando Letelier,” based on the fact that “the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts.” The investigation was not helped by the Chilean government’s own stonewalling efforts.

The subsequent declassification of thousands of US government documents related to the Pinochet regime has only deepened suspicions. The documents were released by Bill Clinton in the final years of his presidency, spurred on by Pinochet’s arrest in London.

For instance, as we’ve seen, we now know that officials at the highest levels of the Nixon and Ford administrations were aware of Pinochet’s reign of terror, both inside and outside the borders of his country. We know that Pinochet brought up the issue of Letelier with Kissinger around the same time the plot to murder him was hatched. We also know that Kissinger personally nixed the proposal to chastise the South American countries for Operation Condor.

While none of it points to intentional complicity in Letelier’s killing, it certainly suggests extreme negligence by the CIA and the US government. As John Dinges pointed out, once French intelligence confronted three Condor member-countries about a plot it had learned they were planning in France, the operation was immediately cancelled. There’s no reason why the same couldn’t have happened in the United States.

Or as one State Department official put it, fifteen years later:

Whether if we had gone in, we might have prevented this, I don’t know. But we didn’t. We were extremely reticent about taking a strong forward public posture, and even a private posture in certain cases, as was this case in the Chilean assassination.

Perhaps more importantly, the incident suggests the kinds of results one can expect when getting into bed with rabidly anticommunist homicidal dictatorships and treating them with kid gloves.

Friends Like These

If there’s one thing Clinton’s Chile Declassification Project did prove, however, it’s that subsequent administrations were well aware of who was ultimately responsible for the crime, yet did little about it. The reams of documents that were released in the late nineties show that intelligence agencies and high-ranking government officials were made explicitly aware that it was Pinochet himself who ordered the murder.

Most damning is a 1987 memorandum to President Reagan from George P. Shultz, his secretary of state, that references a then-recent CIA report on the assassination. The document was one of those that had been held back from release during Clinton’s administration, and was only declassified late last year.

“The CIA concludes that its review provides ‘what we regard as convincing evidence that President Pinochet personally ordered his intelligence chief to carry out the murders,” Shultz wrote. He noted the report also confirmed that Pinochet stonewalled, and continued to stonewall, the US investigation of the crime, at one point even weighing up the option of murdering Contreras.

Despite it being “a blatant example of a chief of state’s direct involvement in an act of state terrorism” — a “particularly disturbing one” given that it took place in the country’s capital and involved a “friendly” government — Shultz advised letting the matter go. “It is not clear whether we can or would want to consider indicting Pinochet, even if we had more public sources of evidence,” he wrote.

The Reagan administration had embarked on a much more Pinochet-friendly course, supporting the (successful) repeal of the ban on military aid and assistance to Chile and reinstating military relations between the two countries. Finding out the country’s leader was behind the murder of a US citizen did not appear to have changed its mind.

We didn’t have to wait until 2015 for evidence that subsequent administrations knew this, however. A May 1978 CIA report on the political implications for Pinochet from new disclosures surrounding Letelier’s murder essentially made the case that Pinochet was inherently linked to any crime committed by Contreras. “None of the government’s [domestic] critics and few of its supporters would be willing to swallow claims that Contreras acted without presidential concurrence,” it stated. “The former secret police chief is known to have reported directly to the president, who had exclusive responsibility for the organization’s activities.”

Another document, a State Department brief memorandum from March 1978, noted that a “high Paraguyan source” had informed the United States that Pinochet had personally called the president of Paraguay to arrange false passports for DINA agents involved in the Letelier assassination.

The US government’s failure to act on this information is remarkable for several reasons. For one, it contrasts markedly with its zealous prosecution of terrorists in the ensuing decades. Secondly, as Shultz noted, Letelier’s killing was not just particularly brazen because of its location — right in the heart of the nation’s capital on a weekday morning — but because it also involved the killing of an innocent US citizen.

This would not be the last time the United States looked the other way when a friendly government killed one of its citizens. In 2010, a nineteen-year-old American citizen who lived in Turkey and had joined the Gaza flotilla was shot five times by Israeli security forces at a distance of less than forty-five centimeters while lying on his back, including once in the face and once in the back of the head.

While the incident resulted in a rift between Israel and Turkey, as one might expect, it had little impact on the relationship between the United States and Israel, which just received the largest military aid package in US history.

An Unsatisfying Ending

The Letelier story does not have a happy ending. Many of the assassination’s perpetrators saw little justice.

Contreras, whom the United States wanted to extradite, was instead convicted in Chile for the crimes committed by DINA, serving his last twenty years in two special military detention centers. Nine of those years were spent at a luxury prison that came complete with a tennis court, pool, and barbecues. He finally died at age eighty-six.

Espinoza was likewise convicted, and given up for arrest by the army. “With my arrest, the traditional military history of Chile has been demolished,” he told reporters at the time. He was placed in the same luxury prison as Contreras.

Pinochet also lived to a ripe old age, dying wealthy and surprisingly beloved in Chile at ninety-one. For a brief moment, when Pinochet was arrested in London and awaited extradition to Spain to be tried for human rights abuses, it seemed he might actually face justice. He was ultimately freed and sent back to Chile in a hugely controversial decision on the basis that he was not healthy enough to face trial.

Two of the anti-Castro Cubans were convicted of murder over their involvement in the plot in 1979, while a third was found guilty of lying to authorities about the murder. The murder convictions were overturned, however, and the men were acquitted, due to the government improperly using testimony from the men’s jailmates.

Michael Townley was finally extradited to the United States in 1978, where he was convicted for his role in spearheading the killing. He ended up only serving a short prison term, however, and now lives under the witness protection program.

Armando Fernandez Larios, a DINA agent who carried out surveillance on Letelier — though he claimed was he never informed about the full truth of the mission — surrendered to US officials. He reached a plea bargain, however, and now lives in Miami.

The immediate consequences for the relatives of the victims were not so light. “For approximately five years following the bombing, my life was a living hell marked by total preoccupation with the bombing, sleeplessness, crying, alcohol abuse,” wrote Michael Moffitt in 1990. “To this day I am still plagued by the persistent memory of the horror and find that much of my life is occupied with efforts to avoid any situation which might rekindle the pain.”

Isabel Letelier, Orlando’s wife, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the bombing. To make things worse, much of her family, terrified of being killed by Pinochet, turned away from her. Her friends, also scared of being murdered, did not visit her or ride in her car, while Orlando’s coworkers blamed her for putting them at risk.

Letelier’s sons — the oldest of which was twenty-one — were deeply affected by the loss of their father, both economically and emotionally. Apart from the pain of losing their father at a relatively young age, they, too, experienced hostility instead of sympathy from once-friendly individuals, with former friends forbidden by their parents to see them, out of fear for their safety.

Letelier’s assassination might have served as a cautionary tale against making alliances with dictatorships based on perceived strategic interests, due, if nothing else, to the blowback that can result. This wasn’t the case.

Murders like Letelier’s were very much a feature, not a bug, of the government’s friendship with Pinochet. While we may never know exactly how much high-ranking officials like Kissinger knew about the plot to assassinate Letelier, there’s no doubt they lost little sleep over it.

After all, it was Kissinger who had, upon Allende’s ascension to power, famously said: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” An international campaign of terror aimed at destroying the Left in Latin America was a cost of doing business that those in the know were more than willing to pay.