Documented Complicity

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 September."

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 wall.

"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 released."

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 authorization.

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 way."

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 30,1974.

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 clashes."

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 working.

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 repression."

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 done."

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 statements.

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 is "regrettable."

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 believe

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 by Popper:

"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 right now."

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 IS PLEASED.

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, Inc.

Foreign Policy and Pentagon

Terrorism watch