Newly released files set the record straight
on U.S. support for Pinochet
by Lucy Komisar
The Progressive magazine, September 1999
On June 30, the State Department declassified and made public
5,000 documents relating to U.S. policy toward Chilean General
Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew the democratically elected government
of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. The release of the
State Department documents-along with about 800 CIA, Defense Department,
and FBI papers-came in response to demands by members of Congress
and by the Spanish prosecutors of Pinochet.
For the Spaniards, the documents provide detailed proof that
Pinochet controlled DINA, the Chilean Directorate of Intelligence,
which was responsible for the most egregious human rights violations
in the three years following the coup.
For U.S. citizens, they are a fascinating and sometimes surreal
window onto a U.S. policy fraught with arrogance and, for the
most part, unconcerned about the wholesale human rights abuses
Pinochet was carrying out. His regime detained 40,000 people,
tortured large numbers of them, exiled 9,000, and murdered 4,000.
The papers, redacted and incomplete, cover 1973-1978. They
show that Washington had knowledge of Pinochet's coup plans, his
barbarism upon seizing power, and the establishment of his international
terrorist network. They also show that the U.S. government, at
the highest levels, covered up for Pinochet, lied to the American
public, and did everything in its power to support the junta.
These documents are crucial in setting the historical record straight.
That the United States knew in advance about the coup can
no longer be in doubt.
One CIA document, dated September 8, 1973, reports that the
Chilean navy was planning an action in Valparaiso at 8:30 A.M.
on September 10 to overthrow the Allende government, that the
Chilean armed forces would support this, and that air force commander
Gustavo Leigh had gotten in contact with Pinochet, who assured
him the army wouldn't oppose the navy's action. The CIA informant
said the army would join the coup after the air force supported
the navy. "The coup could occur on 10 September or at least
during the week of 10 September," the document notes.
Another CIA document, dated September 10, is even more blunt:
"The coup attempt will begin September 11. All three branches
of the armed forces and the Carabineros are involved in this action.
A declaration will be read on Radio Agricultura at 7 A.M. on 11
These documents make a mockery of the assertion by Deputy
Assistant Secretary of State Jack Kubisch, who testified before
the House Subcommittee on InterAmerican Affairs on September 20,
1973: "Gentlemen, I wish to state as flatly and as categorically
as I possibly can that we did not have advance knowledge of the
coup that took place on September 11."
From the start, the U.S. was eager to help. A State Department
document dated September 28, 1973, reveals that Chile's new defense
minister asked Washington for an expert adviser on detention centers,
saying Chile expected to hold 3,000 people for at least a year.
U.S. Ambassador Nathaniel Davis, aware of "obvious political
problems," still tried to find a way to meet the request:
"Dept. may wish to consider feasibility of material assistance
in form of tents, blankets, etc., which need not be publicly and
specifically earmarked for prisoners."
Nor was the State Department in the dark about the brutalities
Pinochet's forces were committing.
A CIA cable dated September 21, 1973, says, "Severe repression
is planned." Messages from the CIA and the State Department
would follow for months and years detailing killings, torture,
and secret detentions.
On September 24, the CIA says that the figures of civilian
dead during the coup and "cleanup" operations are not
trustworthy because they reflect only the deaths of people processed
by hospitals and other such institutions that provided death certifications.
It says the great majority of deaths are not registered. "There
will never be an accurate tally of the total deaths," the
document states. "Only the junta members will have a really
clear idea of the correct death figures, which they will probably
keep secret." It notes a source's report of several thousand
deaths, even though the junta was publicly admitting only 244.
Two days later, a CIA document notes that "between 20
and 24 September, twenty-seven cadavers were recovered from the
Mapocho River in Santiago, some of which showed signs of torture
and mutilation. The victims were low-ranking and working-class
members of UP [Popular Unity] parties."
Another CIA document reports that "to eliminate completely
all remaining resistance, beginning the week of 15 October the
military will make no more arrests. An order has been given to
shoot to kill all those caught or suspected of resistance, especially
in rural areas."
Dozens of cables and policy papers every year reported matter-of-factly
that detention and torture continued, that the government had
failed to reform. One document offers an American official's chilling
eyewitness account of abuse. U.S. Defense Attaché Captain
J.R. Switzer informed the Pentagon on February 2,1976: "Responding
to call from source, DATT [defense attache] and AIRA [air attache]
proceeded to hangar/warehouse building about 100 yards south of
interrogation building. Source stated that two Chilean air force
buses had recently arrived, each vehicle off-loaded ten to twelve
bound and blindfolded persons, most of whom entered building accompanied
by guards. Prisoners were male, probably under thirty years of
age, in addition to a boy about twelve years old and an elderly
man. Source reportedly observed civilian guards strike the boy
repeatedly and bang the elderly man's head against the building
"From cover within hangar/warehouse building, DATT and
AIRA observed events outside interrogation building from approximately
1500 to 1730 local standard time. Armed with police-type billy
clubs, guards in civilian clothes intermittently struck prisoners
on various body parts, most frequently at the rear of knee joints.
Six such guards were observed. Also present were three officers
in Chilean air force uniforms and three enlisted men dressed in
fatigue clothing. At approximately 1700 hours, prisoner emerged
from building in obvious agony and rolled on ground unable to
stand. Chilean air force ambulance arrived promptly and carried
prisoner away on stretcher. Two other prisoners were observed
emerging from building also in apparent pain. Small boy was led
away blindfolded a considerable distance from the building and
Switzer concluded that these abuses were most likely approved
from on high. "Proximity of interrogation building to Chilean
AF [air force] transport group strongly infers knowledge of such
activities by unit commander," he wrote. "Further, Chilean
military tendency to share responsibility up the chain of command
suggests awareness by senior officers as well."
The documents will help the Spanish judges in their case against
Pinochet because they show that the main government terror operation
was run by DINA and was under Pinochet's control. DINA was set
up in November 1973 by Colonel Manuel Contreras, a protégé
of Pinochet from his time as his aide at the War Academy. Now
imprisoned in Chile for the 1976 Washington murders of former
Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and an American colleague
Ronni Moffitt, Contreras claims he never acted without Pinochet's
A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report of February 2,1974,
confirms, "The DINA, contrary to original plans, is directly
subordinate to Junta President General Pinochet." It notes
that a "major problem of the DINA is its system of interrogation.
Sources said that their techniques are straight out of the Spanish
Inquisition and often leave the person interrogated with visible
bodily damage. The CECIFA (Armed Forces Counterintelligence Center)
and service intelligence departments are upset about this, essentially
feeling that in this day and age there is no excuse for the use
of such primitive techniques. Sources said that CECIFA and service
intelligence department interrogations usually take place in the
presence of a qualified medical doctor to insure no permanent
physical damage is done of the person being interrogated."
One year later, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency compared
Pinochet's brutality not to the Spanish Inquisition but to the
Third Reich. An April 10,1975, document reports: "The apprehension
of many senior Chilean military authorities regarding the possibility
of DINA becoming a modern-day Gestapo may very well be coming
to fruition.... Junta members are apparently unable to influence
President Pinochet's decisions concerning DINA activities in any
The documents show the United States was also fully aware
of Operation Condor, a conspiracy by Chile, Argentina, Bolivia,
Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay to murder their political opponents
around the world. The documents suggest how it developed and how
the United States reacted.
A CIA cable from November 27, 1973, notes that General Sergio
Arellano Stark "left Santiago on a special mission at the
request of junta leadership.... In Buenos Aires, Arellano will
discuss with the Argentine military any information they have
regarding the activities of General (retired) Carlos Prats, former
Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army. Arellano will also attempt
to gain an agreement whereby the Argentines maintain scrutiny
over Prats and regularly inform the Chileans of his activities."
Prats was murdered in Buenos Aires by DINA agents on September
A CIA document dated July 30, 1975, says that most of 119
Chileans reported by Argentine newspapers as killed in conflicts
there were probably detained in Chile by air force security. It
noted "a strong possibility that right-wing Argentines under
the control of former presidential adviser Lopez Rega collaborated
with Chilean intelligence forces to plant false reports of the
A 1975 Defense Intelligence report on the structure of DINA
mentions a "secret brigade-function unknown, a foreign relations
section that plans intelligence operations outside the country,
and an "exterior brigade-DINA operatives who conduct traditional
intelligence operations in foreign countries."
U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay George Landau in July 1976 reported
to the State Department and the CIA that two Chileans had tried
to get American visas using phony Paraguayan passports. The first
explicit reference to Operation Condor in the documents comes
a month later in an August 16, 1976, State Department cable to
embassies in Santiago, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Brasilia, and
Asuncion. It says, "You are aware of a series of reports
on 'Operation Condor.' The coordination of security and intelligence
information is probably understandable. However, government planned
and directed assassinations within and outside the territory of
Condor members has most serious implications which we must face
squarely and rapidly."
The cable told embassies in Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo
to get appointments with top officials (preferably chiefs of state)
and tell them that the United States considered the information
exchange and coordination among Southern Cone countries "with
regard to subversive activities.... useful." But U.S. officials
were supposed to express concern about the rumors that this cooperation
extended to "plans for the assassination of subversives-politicians
and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain
Southern Cone countries and abroad." The ambassadors were
to say, "While we cannot substantiate the assassination rumors,
we feel impelled to bring to your attention our deep concern.
If these rumors were to have any shred of truth, they would create
a most serious moral and political problem."
Six weeks later, on September 21, Operation Condor claimed
the lives of Letelier and Moffitt. The murder investigation would
lead to the phony Paraguayan passports. They had been issued with
the photos of Michael Townley, an American, and Fernandez Larios,
a Chilean army officer, the men who set up the fatal car bombing.
A Defense Intelligence cable from Buenos Aires on October
1 reports, "More and more is being heard about Operation
Condor in the Southern Cone. Military officers who heretofore
had been mum on the subject have begun to talk openly about it.
A favorite remark is that one of their colleagues is out of country
because he is flying like a condor." But there are no more
reports on the subject.
The documents present a fascinating and damning view of the
cynicism of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, as well as the
failure of American officials who, with a few exceptions, lacked
the courage and character to challenge a policy they saw wasn't
Much of 1975 was a period of severe repression in Chile. The
State Department's Latin America bureau was pressing Chile on
human rights, albeit without using muscle. It had been angered
in July when Pinochet refused admission to U.N. human rights investigators,
leaving them sitting on the tarmac in Lima. And various Department
bureaus had recommended against arms aid to Chile, citing "increased
On September 29, 1975, Kissinger met with Chile's top diplomats.
According to a State Department memorandum of that meeting, Kissinger
opened his talk with quintessential sarcasm. "Well,"
he said, "I read the briefing paper for this meeting and
it was nothing but human rights. The State Department is made
up of people who have a vocation for the ministry. Because there
were not enough churches for them, they went into the Department
of State!" Foreign Minister Patricio Carvajal, an admiral
who had helped make the coup, must have been astonished.
Kissinger didn't buy into the criticism of Chile, telling
Carvajal and Chile's ambassadors to Washington and the U.N., "My
view on the question of human rights is that it is on two levels.
One is that it is a total injustice. Nobody goes around making
statements regarding what is going on in Kampala or the Central
African Republic or hundreds of other countries around the world.
The other is the problem of helping your government under the
present conditions, which we did not create, but which make it
difficult for us. It would help enormously if something can be
He admitted, "I have not read fully all the briefing
papers," then asked, "Why did you cancel the United
Nations group? You shouldn't have invited them in the first place.
Why did you invite them?" As Carvajal struggled to answer
the first question, explaining that his government didn't think
the report would be fair, Kissinger repeated, "Why did you
invite the group to begin with?" Thoroughly perplexed, Carvajal
declared that his government had to take measures to control terrorism,
that it was a serious problem all over the world. Kissinger quipped,
"That does not happen in the United States. In this country
they only shoot at the President." He concluded, "I
have no precise suggestions to make. I don't know the conditions.
Our point of view is if you do something, let us know so we can
use it with Congress."
Though William Rogers, who was Assistant Secretary for Inter-American
Affairs, has a reputation as a liberal, there's nothing in these
papers that shows him demanding a tougher policy against Pinochet.
Instead, he carries Kissinger's water and in one defining incident,
rails at Robert White, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of
American States, for raising the issue of democracy at the June
1976 OAS assembly.
White had said, "What we are talking about is prohibition
on political parties, lack of respect for political rights of
persons who under no circumstances can be classed as enemies of
the state." He had criticized Chile's restrictions on foreign
reporters and stressed the importance of respect for dissent and
press freedom. Kissinger was infuriated by a press report of his
Rogers wrote the State Department cable of June 17, which
upbraided White: "Although we have expressed as a general
proposition our preference for democracy in the hemisphere, we
refrain from criticizing or passing judgment on the internal political
systems of other countries.... The failure to draw that distinction
was inconsistent with U.S. policy in this highly sensitive and
important field." He said the "interventionism"
suggested by White's statements was "very likely to dilute
the effectiveness of our efforts to promote hemispheric respect
for basic human life and dignity. What occurred, therefore, is
a real disappointment," and "a false note," which
Kissinger once scolded U.S. Ambassador David Popper, ordering
him "to cut out the political science lectures" about
human rights, according to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.
But the documents show Popper as a cautious bureaucrat, ever careful
about how far he pushed the envelope. He and other embassy officers
talked about human rights with the Chileans. But they also made
it clear to Chile that the problem was with Congress and the U.S.
public, not with the Administration. They never made Pinochet
that the withdrawal of U.S. friendship, aid, and support was
a serious possibility and thus a greater threat to him than restoring
human rights, much less democracy. On the contrary, they repeated
that they wanted to help Chile economically and militarily. Pinochet
concluded the problem was image and public relations.
Though several embassy officers wrote an early dissent-channel
memorandum, warning that it wasn't in U.S. interests to support
Pinochet, the documents include only two critical memos. A lucid
and eloquent July 11,1975, analysis by Richard J. Bloomfield,
an officer in the Latin America bureau, comments on a policy paper
"The Ambassador characterizes our present stance as one
of disapproval,' but the image is otherwise, at least as far as
the Executive Branch is concerned. We are solicitous about Chile's
debt problem and deploy our diplomacy to promote a debt rescheduling.
We use our influence in the IFIs [international financial institutions]
to assure that Chilean loans are not held up. We vote against
or abstain on resolutions in international organizations that
condemn the GOC's [Government of Chile's] human rights record.
We assure the GOC that we want to sell it arms and that we regret
Congressional restrictions. How would the junta ever get the impression
that the USG [U.S. Government] disapproves?
"The Ambassador says that any stronger signs of our (read
Executive Branch) disapproval would not improve the human rights
situation (which I am willing to concede). Conclusion: We must
provide economic and military assistance; in fact . . . we are
worrying about our responsibilities for making the junta's economic
program a success. Why? Because 'preventing the reemergence of
a Chilean Government essentially hostile to us is our chief interest
and the human rights problem is secondary. 'This argument overlooks
the possibility that the human rights problem in Chile may not
be 'secondary' but may be a major U.S. interest in the present
domestic and international context. In the minds of the world
at large, we are closely associated with this junta, ergo with
fascists and torturers.... Chile is just the latest example for
a lot of people in this country of the United States not being
true to its values."
Rudy Fimbres, a deputy assistant secretary, wrote his boss,
Assistant Secretary Rogers, on September 15 the same year: "For
the last two years our policy has been to maintain and strengthen
the present Chilean government. The rationale was that on a worst-case
basis a likely ultimate alternative to the junta would be a leftist
dictatorship. As a result, we have sought to help. While we have
been frustrated on the military side, we have been able to move
forward on other fronts to help stabilize the economy."
But, he said, "Our approach has not worked." Pinochet
was "firm in his refusal to take any appreciable internal
security risks to restore human rights.... It is time for the
U.S. to apply more energetically its power and influence to encourage
the GOC to improve human rights practices. . . . We cannot continue
our past policy without U.S. public support. The continued GOC
approach on human rights will assure this is not forthcoming.
Right or wrong, many hold the USG responsible for the Pinochet
government.... Our interests in Chile are not significant. The
strategic argument is overdrawn; we don't import Chilean copper,
and the potential for instability in the area has diminished...."
Kissinger knew how the United States could end Chile's human
rights abuses: Cut off U.S. aid to Chile. The fear of such a cutoff
was uppermost in the minds of Chilean officials.
A CIA political analysis, dated October 21,1975, noted, "Chile
has had little success in obtaining weapons abroad and its luck
is not likely to change soon. Most of the Western governments
that would be likely arms suppliers are disinclined to deal with
the present military regime.... The Pinochet government still
considers the U.S. to be its major ally and hopefully the chief
source of capital and technology."
This same memo indicated that a tougher U.S. policy might
persuade Pinochet to respect human rights. There is "widespread
sentiment within the armed forces for broader civilian participation
in the government," the document said, adding that economic
and weapons pressures could open things up. The memo said it was
"possible that more trenchant economic considerations such
as problems in renegotiating its foreign debt will convince the
regime that adoption of a more democratic orientation is in its
own best interests."
But Kissinger was not interested in this approach. When he
met with Rogers and Popper on July 18,1975, he erupted at what
he thought was inadequate help for Chile. "I want to know
what happened to the $50 million that we were going to give the
Chileans in housing guarantees," he demanded. "How did
that get cut in half?" Rogers calmed him down: "It didn't
get cut. It was split in half for optical purposes. We anticipate
going ahead with the second half in the next fiscal year.... We
did not want to appear too generous with the Chileans in FY 1975."
The Department had reported on April 27, 1974, that Chilean
Ambassador Walter Heitmann called on Deputy Assistant Secretary
of State Jack Kubisch and said the F5 fighter plane decision was
more important than ever "especially in view of the information
that Chileans have that the workers at Rolls Royce have refused
to repair Hawker Hunter engines destined for Chile." Kubisch
said Kissinger had made clear U.S. intentions to support Chile
and that the decision to sell arms had symbolic importance. Heitmann
agreed, observing, "No other country will sell us aircraft
But Congress wasn't about to permit arms sales to Chile and
passed legislation banning it. Kissinger told President Gerald
Ford on October 6, 1975, in the Oval Office, "I had opposed
not putting Chile on the FMS [Foreign Military Sales] because
it would be knocked off. Now State wants to list them as non-complying
with human rights and that is why they were knocked off. Now I
think we should put Chile back on and let Congress knock it off
I don't think we should link FMS with human rights."
Ford replied, "I agree. That would be setting a very
bad precedent. It could be applied almost any place."
Then, on November 16,1976, the U.S. embassy in Santiago flashed
"an extraordinary decision" by the junta-to release
virtually all the 323 persons still detained without charge. Soon
after, it announced the release of people in internal exile, bringing
the total freed to 500. It would permanently close some DINA detention
centers. The embassy reported "widespread belief" that
these actions were "the first significant step toward loosening
the reins." The junta said they had nothing to do with the
American election two weeks before, but nobody believed it. Even
the pro-government El Mercurio ran a front-page banner, CARTER
Within a few weeks, most people being tried or serving sentences
were out on bail, on parole, or under house arrest, and the government
was taking steps to commute the sentences of others. Some 1,220
were granted permission to go into exile. In the next months,
there were no new cases of illegal detentions or killings. Though
human rights abuses continued through Pinochet's rule, they would
be at a much lower level.
Jimmy Carter had talked about Chile in one of his debates
with Ford. He had used Chile as an example of repression in a
key campaign speech. He had made Pinochet a watchword for human
rights policy. Even before Carter took office, he had more of
an impact on human rights in Chile than Kissinger, who didn't
much care, or Rogers, Popper, and their Department colleagues,
most of whom lacked the courage of their convictions.
In August 1977, on the day of a visit to Santiago by the new
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Terence Todman, Pinochet announced
the release of the last prisoners in detention centers. He also
declared the end of DINA, which would be transformed into an agency
with more limited powers. Three months later, Pinochet fired Contreras.
Lucy Komisar is working on a book, "Heroes and Scoundrels,"
about U.S. foreign policy and human rights in Chile and five other
countries in the 1970s and 1980s She has received support from
the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the John Simon
Guggenheim Foundation, and the Fund for Investigative Journalism,
Policy and Pentagon