With Official Washington abuzz over a bizarre U.S. accusation that Iran's Quds spy agency plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, it might be worth recalling how American authorities responded to an actual terror bombing in Washington 35 years ago that killed a former Chilean foreign minister and an American co-worker.
Because that 1976 assassination was carried out by an allied intelligence agency, Chile's DINA, against a perceived "leftist," Orlando Letelier, the CIA -- then run by George H.W. Bush -- hid evidence of Chile's guilt and circulated false cover stories of Chile's innocence that were picked up by the major U.S. news media.
Shortly after Letelier and a female co-worker, Ronni Moffitt, were killed by a bomb planted under his car, Bush's CIA leaked a false report clearing Chile's military dictatorship, misinformation that was spread through Newsweek magazine, the New York Times and other U.S. news outlets.
The CIA disseminated the exonerating report despite later admissions that the CIA was aware in 1976 that Chile was participating in Operation Condor, a cross-border campaign targeting political dissidents, and despite the CIA's own suspicions that the Chilean junta was behind Letelier's murder, the first terrorist bombing of its type in Washington D.C.'s history.
In a report to Congress in September 2000, the CIA officially admitted for the first time that the mastermind of the terrorist attack, Chilean intelligence chief Manuel Contreras, was a paid asset of the CIA. The CIA also acknowledged publicly 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 Letelier-Moffitt murders at the time and included that suspicion in an internal cable. "CIA's first intelligence report containing this allegation was dated 6 October 1976," a little more than two weeks after the bombing on Sept. 21, 1976, the CIA disclosed.
Nevertheless, the CIA -- then under CIA Director George H.W. Bush -- leaked for public consumption an assessment clearing 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 became vice president in 1981 and president in 1989, 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.
A Newsweek Story
As a Newsweek correspondent in 1988, when Bush was running for president, I prepared a detailed story about Bush's handling of the Letelier assassination. 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, Virginia, Contreras's self-serving 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, a deception that Bush's CIA and right-wing media allies used to muddy the investigative waters in fall 1976.
In 1988, my story draft also described how Bush's CIA had been forewarned in 1976 about DINA's secret plans to send agents, including DINA's assassin Michael Townley, into the United States on false passports.
Upon learning of this strange mission at the time, 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.