George H.W. Bush, the CIA
& a Case of State Terrorism
by Robert Parry
The Consortium online magazine, September 23,
Chilean government assassin had killed a Chilean
dissident and an American woman with a car bomb in Washington,
D.C., George H.W. Bush's CIA leaked a false report clearing Chile's
military dictatorship and pointing the FBI in the wrong direction.
The bogus CIA assessment, spread through Newsweek
magazine and other U.S. media outlets, was planted despite CIA's
now admitted awareness at the time that Chile was participating
in Operation Condor, a cross-border campaign targeting political
dissidents, and the CIA's own suspicions that the Chilean junta
was behind the terrorist bombing in Washington.
In a 21-page report to Congress on Sept. 18,
the CIA officially acknowledged for the first time that the mastermind
of the terrorist attack, Chilean intelligence chief Manuel Contreras,
was a paid asset of the CIA.
The new report was issued almost 24 years
to the day after the murders of former Chilean diplomat Orlando
Letelier and American co-worker Ronni Moffitt, who died on Sept.
21, 1976, when a remote-controlled bomb ripped apart Letelier's
car as they drove down Massachusetts Avenue, a stately section
of Washington known as Embassy Row.
In the new report, the CIA also acknowledged
publicly for the first time that it consulted Contreras in October
1976 about the Letelier assassination. The report added that the
CIA was aware of the alleged Chilean government role in the murders
and included that suspicion in an internal cable the same month.
"CIA's first intelligence report containing
this allegation was dated 6 October 1976," a little more
than two weeks after the bombing, the CIA disclosed.
Nevertheless, the CIA then under CIA
director George H.W. Bush leaked for public consumption
an assessment clearing the Chilean government's feared intelligence
service, DINA, which was then run by Contreras.
Relying on the word of Bush's CIA, Newsweek
reported that "the Chilean secret police were not involved"
in the Letelier assassination. "The [Central Intelligence]
agency reached its decision because the bomb was too crude to
be the work of experts and because the murder, coming while Chile's
rulers were wooing U.S. support, could only damage the Santiago
regime." [Newsweek, Oct. 11, 1976]
Bush, who later became president of the United
States and is the father of the current Republican nominee for
the presidency, has never explained his role in putting out the
false cover story that diverted attention away from the real terrorists.
Nor has Bush explained what he knew about the Chilean intelligence
operation in the weeks before Letelier and Moffitt were killed.
As a Newsweek correspondent in 1988, a dozen
years later, when the elder Bush was running for president, I
prepared a detailed story about Bush's handling of the Letelier
The draft story included the first account
from U.S. intelligence sources that Contreras was a CIA asset
in the mid-1970s. I also learned that the CIA had consulted Contreras
about the Letelier assassination, information that the CIA then
would not confirm.
The sources told me that the CIA sent its
Santiago station chief, Wiley Gilstrap, to talk with Contreras
after the bombing. Gilstrap then cabled back to CIA headquarters
in Langley, Va., Contreras's assurances that the Chilean government
was not involved. Contreras told Gilstrap that the most likely
killers were communists who wanted to make a martyr out of Letelier.
My story draft also described how Bush's CIA
had been forewarned in 1976 about DINA's secret plans to send
agents, including the assassin Michael Townley, into the United
States on false passports.
Upon learning of this strange mission, the
U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, George Landau, cabled Bush about
Chile's claim that Townley and another agent were traveling to
CIA headquarters for a meeting with Bush's deputy, Vernon Walters.
Landau also forwarded copies of the false passports to the CIA.
Walters cabled back that he was unaware of
any scheduled appointment with these Chilean agents. Landau immediately
canceled the visas, but Townley simply altered his plans and continued
on his way to the United States. After arriving, he enlisted some
right-wing Cuban-Americans in the Letelier plot and went to Washington
to plant the bomb under Letelier's car.
The CIA has never explained what action it
took, if any, after receiving Landau's warning. A natural follow-up
would have been to contact DINA and ask what was afoot or whether
a message about the trip had been misdirected. The new CIA report
made no mention of these aspects of the case.
After the assassination, Bush promised the
CIA's full cooperation in tracking down the Letelier-Moffitt killers.
But instead the CIA took contrary actions, such as planting the
false exoneration and withholding evidence that would have implicated
the Chilean junta.
"Nothing the agency gave us helped us
to break this case," said federal prosecutor Eugene Propper
in a 1988 interview for the story I was drafting for Newsweek.
The CIA never volunteered Ambassador Landau's cable about the
suspicious DINA mission nor copies of the fake passports that
included a photo of Townley, the chief assassin. Nor did Bush's
CIA divulge its knowledge of the existence of Operation Condor.
FBI agents in Washington and Latin America
broke the case two years later. They discovered Operation Condor
on their own and tracked the assassination back to Townley and
his accomplices in the United States.
In 1988, as then-Vice President Bush was citing
his CIA work as an important part of his government experience,
I submitted questions to him asking about his actions in the days
before and after the Letelier bombing. Bush's chief of staff,
Craig Fuller, wrote back, saying Bush "will have no comment
on the specific issues raised in your letter."
As it turned out, the Bush campaign had little
to fear from my discoveries. When I submitted my story draft
with its exclusive account of Contreras's role as a CIA asset
Newsweek's editors refused to run the story. Washington
bureau chief Evan Thomas told me that Editor Maynard Parker even
had accused me of being "out to get Bush."
The CIA's Admission
Now, 24 years after the Letelier assassination
and 12 years after Newsweek killed the first account of the Contreras-CIA
relationship, the CIA has admitted that it had paid Contreras
as an intelligence asset and consulted with him about the Letelier
Still, in the sketchy new report, the spy
agency seeks to portray itself as more victim than accomplice.
According to the report, the CIA was internally critical of Contreras's
human rights abuses and skeptical about his credibility. The CIA
said its skepticism predates the spy agency's contact with him
about the Letelier-Moffitt murders.
"The relationship, while correct, was
not cordial and smooth, particularly as evidence of Contreras'
role in human rights abuses emerged," the CIA reported. "In
December 1974, the CIA concluded that Contreras was not going
to improve his human rights performance.
"By April 1975, intelligence reporting
showed that Contreras was the principal obstacle to a reasonable
human rights policy within the Junta, but an interagency committee
[within the Ford administration] directed the CIA to continue
its relationship with Contreras."
The CIA report added that "a one-time
payment was given to Contreras" in 1975, a time frame when
the CIA was first hearing about Operation Condor, a cross-border
program run by South America's military dictatorships to hunt
down dissidents living in other countries.
"CIA sought from Contreras information
regarding evidence that emerged in 1975 of a formal Southern Cone
cooperative intelligence effort 'Operation Condor'
building on informal cooperation in tracking and, in at least
a few cases, killing political opponents. By October 1976, there
was sufficient information that the CIA decided to approach Contreras
on the matter. Contreras confirmed Condor's existence as an intelligence-sharing
network but denied that it had a role in extra-judicial killings."
Also, in October 1976, the CIA said it "worked
out" how it would assist the FBI in its investigation of
the Letelier assassination, which had occurred the previous month.
The spy agency's report offered no details of what it did, however.
The report added only that Contreras was already a murder suspect
by fall 1976.
"At that time, Contreras' possible role
in the Letelier assassination became an issue," the CIA's
new report said. "By the end of 1976, contacts with Contreras
were very infrequent."
Even though the CIA came to recognize the
likelihood that DINA was behind the Letelier assassination, there
never was any indication that Bush's CIA sought to correct the
false impression created by its leaks to the news media asserting
After Bush left the CIA with Jimmy Carter's
inauguration in 1977, the spy agency distanced itself from Contreras,
the new report said. "During 1977, CIA met with Contreras
about half a dozen times; three of those contacts were to request
information on the Letelier assassination," the CIA report
"On 3 November 1977, Contreras was transferred
to a function unrelated to intelligence so the CIA severed all
contact with him," the report added. "After a short
struggle to retain power, Contreras resigned from the Army in
1978. In the interim, CIA gathered specific, detailed intelligence
reporting concerning Contreras' involvement in ordering the Letelier
Though the new CIA report contains the first
official admission of a relationship with Contreras, it sheds
no light on the actions of Bush and his deputy, Walters, in the
days before and after the Letelier assassination. It also offers
no explanation why Bush's CIA planted false information in the
American press clearing Chile's military dictatorship.
While providing the 21-page summary on its
relationship with Chile's military dictatorship, the CIA has refused
to release documents from a quarter century ago on the grounds
that the disclosures might jeopardize the CIA's "sources
and methods." The refusal comes in the face of President
Clinton's specific order to release as much information as possible.
The CIA could be playing for time.
With CIA headquarters now officially named
the George Bush Center for Intelligence and with veterans of the
Reagan-Bush years still dominating the CIA's hierarchy, the spy
agency might be hoping that the election of Texas Gov. George
W. Bush will free it from demands to open up records to the American
For his part, former President Bush has declared
his intent to take a more active role in campaigning for his son's
In Florida on Sept. 22, Bush said he is "absolutely
convinced" that if his son is elected president, "we
will restore the respect, honor and decency that the White House
deserves." [NYT, Sept. 23, 2000]
In the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of
the Iran-contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek.
The Consortium online magazine www.consortiumnews.com