Declassifying U.S. Intervention in Chile

September 25, 2007

"In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here," then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger privately confided to the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, in June 1976. At the height of the military regime's repression, according to a recently declassified memorandum of conversation, Kissinger told Pinochet that the junta was "a victim of all left-wing groups around the world" and that Washington "wishes you well."

Kissinger was fully aware of what General Pinochet was "trying to do" in Chile. A secret briefing paper prepared for the Secretary of State after the September 11, 1973 coup d'état reported that in the 19 days following the coup, the new military junta had summarily executed 320 individuals—three times as many people as was then publicly acknowledged. The memorandum, entitled "Chilean Executions" and based on intelligence sources in Santiago, estimated "total dead" at 1,500 from the coup. It also reported on how the United States was expediting military and economic assistance to the new regime, despite concrete documentation of its atrocities.

These are but two of many documents that have emerged recently on Washington's role in supporting General Pinochet, and on the human rights atrocities committed during his rule. While the full story remains hidden in secret U.S. government vaults in Washington, public pressure in the aftermath of Pinochet's stunning arrest in London on October 16, 1998—from the families of U.S. and Chilean victims, from organizations like the Institute for Policy Studies, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the National Security Archive, and from the Spanish courts—has forced the Clinton Administration to undertake a major review of its classified archives on Chile.

That review, ordered by a National Security Council "tasker" on February 1, is expected to yield hundreds of never-before-seen CIA, State and Defense Department records on "human rights abuses, terrorism and political violence" committed during Pinochet's 17-year reign. If the White House follows through with a major declassification of documents—as it has recently done on Guatemala and El Salvador—a long hidden history of massive U.S. intervention in Chile and extensive U.S. support for General Pinochet's abuses may finally be revealed.

As of this writing, the few dozen documents that have been released over the last several years chronicle dramatic events in Chile—starting with the election of Salvador Allende in September 1970, and moving on to the coup and the early years of military rule, including Chile's involvement in international terrorism in the mid-1970s when the secret police conducted assassination missions in Argentina, Washington, D.C. and Rome. Stamped "SECRET/SENSITIVE," "EYES ONLY," "NODIS" (no distribution to other agencies) and "NOFORN" (no foreign distribution), the documents include State Department cables, CIA memoranda and National Security Council (NSC) option papers. They disclose new details on what was already known about human rights abuses under General Pinochet, the decisions of the Nixon and Ford White House, activities of the U.S. Embassy, and covert operations of the CIA in Chilean politics.

"Salvador Allende's election cannot be charged to lack of early warning," states a CIA "Postmortem on the Chilean Presidential Election" drafted for Henry Kissinger in November 1970. In 1968, CIA analysts first anticipated that Allende's Popular Unity coalition could win in Chile. On March 25, June 27, and August 7, 1970, Henry Kissinger chaired meetings of the 40 Committee—a high-level interagency group that authorized covert operations to "denigrate Allende and his Popular Unity coalition," as one CIA summary prepared for Kissinger two days after the coup described them. On August 18, the State Department submitted a 23-page "review of U.S. policy and strategy in the event of an Allende victory" to the White House.

"We identify no vital U.S. national interests within Chile," that assessment concluded. "In examining the potential threat posed by Allende, it is important to bear in mind that some of the problems foreseen for the United States in the event of his election are likely to arise no matter who becomes Chile's next president."

Nevertheless, U.S. Embassy reports (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the author) reveal a frantic, minute-by-minute reaction to the events of September 4, 1970. Dozens of cables written by Ambassador Edward Korry—known in the Department of State as "Korrygrams" for their unique language and undiplomatic opinions—flowed to Washington. On election day, Korry sent no fewer than 18 election updates on the vote count. On September 5, he reported that he could hear "the mounting roar of Allendistas acclaiming their victory" from the streets. "We have suffered a grievous defeat," Korry wrote, blaming the political "poverty" of the Christian Democrats and the "myopia of arrogant stupidity" of Chile's right-wing upper class.

"Leadership depends upon, if I may use Spanish, cabeza, corazon and cojones (brains, heart and balls)," Korry concluded his cable. "In Chile they counted upon chachara (chatter)."

Over the next three weeks, the Ambassador sent a constant series of SECRET/NOFORN reports with such titles as "No Hopes for Chile," and "Some Hope for Chile?" A number of cables focused on what Korry skeptically described as "an undercover organizational operation" in which the Chilean Congress would vote on October 24 for National Party candidate Jorge Alessandri, "who would renounce the presidency and thus provoke new elections in which Frei would run."

Korry's cables show that he viewed then-President Eduardo Frei as the only possible obstacle to Allende's ascension to the presidency. In a secret September 9 cable, titled "One and Only One Hope for Chile," Korry argued that "the future of Chile would be decided by only one man: Frei. I believe he is playing his cards with extraordinary astuteness in the circumstances."

In a September 22 cable, "Frei: Transacting the Future," Korry described the President as "the central figure" whose "moves determine the pace, the direction and the form of a situation that has far more flux than 99.99 pct. of the Chileans know." The U.S. Ambassador repeatedly met secretly with Frei to urge him to annul the election.

The CIA pursued a more forceful set of operations to pressure Frei. "CIA mobilized an interlocking political action and propaganda campaign designed both to goad and entice Frei" into the "so-called Frei re-election gambit," according to a declassified "Report on CIA Chilean Task Force Activities."

The political action program had "only one purpose," CIA Director Richard Helms told the National Security Council:

to induce President Frei to prevent Allende's election by the Congress on 24 October, and, failing that, to support—by benevolent neutrality at the least and conspiratorial benediction at the most—a military coup which would prevent Allende from taking office.

The task, as the CIA put it, was to use propaganda and pressure "to recast Frei as a political personality, in a role demanding decisiveness and 'machismo' to a degree that, thus far, had eluded him."

The pressures the CIA brought on Frei included offering substantial sums of money to his "re-election" campaign, bribing fellow Christian Democrats to prod him and oppose Allende, and orchestrating visits and calls from respected leaders abroad. In an effort to influence Chile's president through his wife, the CIA instigated a series of telegrams to Mrs. Frei from women's groups in other Latin American nations, as well as mailings of CIA-planted news articles on Chile's peril from around the world. These were part of a covert black propaganda campaign which, the CIA boasted, resulted in at least 726 stories, broadcasts and editorials against an Allende presidency.

"On 3 November 1970, Dr. Salvador Allende became the first democratically elected Marxist head of state in the history of Latin America—despite the opposition of the U.S. Government," CIA director Helms wrote in a "Postmortem on the Chilean Presidential Election." As a result, "U.S. prestige and interests ... are being affected materially at a time when the U.S. can ill afford problems in an area that has been traditionally accepted as the U.S. 'backyard.' "

Indeed, CIA operations had failed. Frei refused to influence the Christian Democrat party to block Allende's ratification. "Frei did manage to confide to several top-ranking military officers that he would not oppose a coup, with a guarded implication he might even welcome one," Helms reported to Kissinger. But when the "coup opportunity" presented itself with the October 22, 1970 assassination of General René Schneider, "Frei moved quickly away from it," according to the CIA.

The Agency's extensive efforts to promote a military coup in Chile—known as Track II—were revealed by the U.S. Senate Select Committee led by Senator Frank Church in the mid-1970s. For the first time, however, the actual CIA documents on "Project FUBELT"—codename for the covert operations to destabilize the Allende government and foment a military takeover—have been publicly released.

For example, a secret/sensitive "eyes only" memorandum, "Genesis of Project FUBELT," dated September 16, 1970, records the first CIA meeting on the Chile operations. "President Nixon had decided that an Allende regime in Chile was not acceptable to the United States," Helms told CIA officials from the Directorate of Plans—the CIA's covert operations section—and the Western Hemisphere Division. "The President asked the Agency to prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him." Within 48 hours, according to a secret summary of the meeting, the CIA was to provide an action plan to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

In testimony before Congress, and in his memoirs, Kissinger claimed that CIA coup plotting was "turned off" before Schneider's assassination. "On October 15, I called off Track II before it was ever implemented," Kissinger again falsely asserts in his new book, Years of Renewal. But a declassified Top Secret memorandum of conversation of the October 15 meeting between Kissinger, CIA deputy director of plans Thomas Karamessines and General Alexander Haig confirms that Nixon's National Security adviser actually ordered:

that the Agency should continue keeping the pressure on every Allende weak spot in sight—now, after the 24th of October, after 5 November, and into the future until such time as new marching orders are given.

A secret "eyes only" cable the next day from CIA headquarters to the CIA station chief in Santiago, Henry Hecksher, stated that the "conclusions" of the Kissinger review of covert coup plotting had yielded this "operational guide":

It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It would be much preferable to have this transpire prior to 24 October. But efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date. We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource.

During Allende's aborted tenure in office, the CIA continued attempting to foment a coup climate in Chile. Covert funds were funnelled into the Chilean congressional campaigns to bolster anti-Allende politicians, according to a still-heavily censored summary of covert political action prepared by CIA director William Colby two days after the coup. Even more important, the CIA secretly poured $1.5 million into the conservative newspaper, El Mercurio—an operation, according to CIA documents, that "played a significant role in setting the stage for the military coup of September 11, 1973."

Covert agents also maintained close liaison with disgruntled Chilean military officers. To keep the military on edge, the CIA planted false propaganda suggesting that the Chilean left planned to take control of the armed forces. According to the Senate Select Committee report, the CIA even prepared arrest lists of Allende supporters in the event of a military takeover.

"Track II was never really ended," Thomas Karamessines, the CIA official in charge of the Chile operations, testified before the Senate Select Committee in 1975. "What we were told to do was to continue our efforts. Stay alert, and do what we could to contribute to the eventual achievement of the objectives and purposes of Track II."

CIA operations constituted the covert leg of what U.S. officials called "a triad" of policy approaches to Chile. The public approach, according to National Security Decision Memorandum 93 titled "Policy Toward Chile," was defined as a "correct but cool" diplomatic posture. Overt hostility, cautioned recently declassified SECRET/SENSITIVE strategy papers prepared for Henry Kissinger on the day of Allende's inauguration, would "serve Allende's purpose of rallying the Chilean people around him in the face of the 'foreign devil.' "

The third leg of U.S. policy has come to be known as the "invisible blockade" of loans and credits to Chile. For years historians have debated if such a blockade existed, or whether Allende's socialist economic policies led to a loss of economic credit. Recently declassified NSC records on Chile show conclusively that the Nixon Administration moved quickly to shut down multilateral and bilateral foreign aid to Chile—before Allende had completed a month in office.

At the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the NSC simply informed the U.S. representative that he did not have authority to vote for loans to Chile. According to a SECRET/NODIS "Status Report on U.S. Stance on IDB Lending to Chile"—prepared for Dr. Kissinger several weeks after Allende's inauguration—"the U.S. Executive Director of the Inter-American Development Bank understands that he will remain uninstructed until further notice on pending loans to Chile. As ... an affirmative vote by the U.S. is required for loan approval, this will effectively bar approval of the loans."

At the World Bank, U.S. officials worked behind the scenes to assure that Chile would be disqualified for a pending $21 million livestock-improvement credit and future loans. Unable to simply veto loans, the State Department's Bureau of Inter-American Affairs prepared a series of questions for a World Bank delegation to pose to authorites in Santiago in an effort to show that Allende's economic policies did not meet criteria for credits. "The Executive Director will routinely and discreetly convey these questions to Bank staff members," another NSC "status report" noted, "as to insure adequate attention to them by the team visiting Chile and by other staff elements within the Bank, but without the hand of the U.S. Government showing in the process."

In addition, the president of the Export-Import Bank agreed to "cooperate fully" with Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Charles Meyer on the discontinuation of new credits and guarantees to Chile.

The Nixon Administration also moved to isolate Allende's government diplomatically around the world. A SECRET/NODIS set of strategy papers, drawn up by an interagency Ad Hoc Working Group on Chile and presented to Kissinger in early December 1970, reported on "USG [U.S. government] consultation with selected Latin American governments ... to promote their sharing of our concern over Chile." A 26-page "Study of Options for U.S. Strategy Concerning Chile's Future Participation in the Organization of American States" seriously weighed the possibility of forcing the Chileans to withdraw or be expelled from the OAS. The analysts concluded, however, that "such tactics are likely to boomerang for lack of support or sympathy from other OAS members." In the absence of gross provocation by the Allende government, they warned Kissinger, efforts to exclude Chile from the OAS:

would be most unlikely to win sufficient support. Such an effort would, in addition, be highly divisive; would, if sponsored by the U.S., be a decisive and dramatic act of open hostility toward Chile; would alienate many of our Latin American supporters; and would project an unfavorable public image.

"Chile's coup d'état was close to perfect," states a "SitRep" (situation report) from the U.S. military group in Valparaíso. The report, written by Marine Lt. Col. Patrick Ryan, characterized September 11, 1973 as Chile's "day of destiny," and "Our D-Day."

Washington's warm reception of the military junta was the antithesis of its approach to the Popular Unity government. National Security Decision Directive 93, signed by Kissinger on November 9, 1970, called for the United States to "maximize pressures on the Allende government to prevent its consolidation." U.S. policy toward the military junta, by contrast, was designed to alleviate pressure on the generals so they could quickly consolidate power.

CIA records on clandestine operations in the days following the coup remain highly classified. It is known, however, that the 40 Committee, chaired by Dr. Kissinger, immediately authorized the CIA to "assist the junta in gaining a more positive image, both at home and abroad," according to documents seen by the Senate Select Committee. The CIA helped the junta write the "White Book of Change of Government in Chile" to justify the coup; paid for military spokesmen to travel around the world to promote the new regime; used its own media assets to cast the junta in a positive light; and financed the military's new advisors to prepare a new economic plan for the country.

Publicly, the Nixon White House supported the junta by turning on the spigot of economic assistance to alleviate food shortages in Chile. Three weeks after the coup, the Nixon Administration authorized $24 million in commodity credits to buy wheat—credits that had been denied to Allende's government. In the same briefing paper on Chilean executions, Assistant Secretary Jack Kubisch informed Kissinger that the United States had provided a second $24 million in commodity credits to Chile for feed corn and planned to transfer two destroyers to the Chilean Navy.

The secret situation report also stated that junta President Pinochet had ruled out "any time table for turning Chile back to the civilians."

"Internationally, the Junta's repressive image continues to plague it," states the Kissinger briefing paper, drafted on November 16, 1973. Reports of mass arrests—U.S. intelligence put the number at 13,500—summary executions, torture and disappearances of Chilean citizens appeared in the world press almost immediately following the coup.

The Nixon Administration, declassified U.S. embassy cables show, was concerned primarily with two problematic American casualties: the execution of Charles Horman and Frank Terruggi in the National Stadium after the coup. Their deaths constituted a "difficult public relations situation," as one October 21, 1973 cable stated. The Kubisch report to Kissinger cited "heavy" media criticism and congressional inquiries on these two cases. In February 1974, Assistant Secretary Kubisch himself raised these cases with Chilean Foriegn Minister Ismael Huerta, according to a declassified memorandum of conversation, "in the context of the need to be careful to keep relatively small issues in our relationship from making our cooperation more difficult."

The records show, however, that continuing human rights atrocities became the dominant issue in U.S.-Chilean relations. By 1975, both in Congress and within the executive branch itself, human rights advocates were highly critical of the Ford Administration's continuing support for the Pinochet government.

A confidential July 1, 1975 NSC memorandum, for example, revealed a mutiny inside the U.S. Embassy. "A number of officers in the Embassy at Santiago have written a dissent," according to a memo prepared for National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, "strongly supported by the Policy Planning office in ARA, calling for cutting off all economic and military assistance to Chile until the human rights situation improved."

According to the memo, the Embassy staff was overruled by Ambassador David Popper, who wanted continued support along with stepped up representations on human rights.

A declassified cable, recording a discreet conversation between Chilean Minister of Economic Coordination, Raul Sáez, and Ambassador Popper on April 6, 1975 reveals how those "representations" were made. Popper stated that "the most difficult problem we had in our embassy had to do with allegations of torture. The root of the problem seemed to me to be the absolute power of DINA [the Chilean secret police] to do whatever it desired in detaining and handling suspects."

Sáez replied that "he had remonstrated with Pinochet about DINA, so far without much success." Human rights abuses, he said, were the result of the "fascist advisors" to the president—a veiled reference to DINA chieftain Manuel Contreras.

But according to Contreras himself, and U.S. intelligence reports at the time, General Pinochet exercised close control of the secret police operations. Contreras, jailed in 1995 for his role in the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, has told Chile's Supreme Court that Pinochet "approved all major missions" of the DINA. An April 15, 1975 Defense Intelligence Agency report—"DINA Expands Operations and Facilities"—clearly stated their relationship:

since the promulgation of Decree Law No. 521, officially establishing DINA as the national intelligence arm of the government, Colonel Contreras has reported exclusively to, and received orders only from, President Pinochet.

The DINA was responsible for hundreds of disappearances, thousands of cases of vicious torture, and numerous acts of international terrorism—all documented by mid-1976 when the OAS General Assembly met in Santiago to discuss a major report on the regime's human rights violations. Kissinger, pushed hard by his staff, gave a speech on human rights before the assembly on June 9. On June 8, however, he met privately with Pinochet to brief him in advance on the content of the speech, blaming the U.S. Congress for forcing him to speak to the issue of Chile's atrocities. "I can do no less, without producing a reaction in the U.S. which would lead to legislative restrictions," Kissinger told the General, according to the declassified memorandum of conversation. "The speech is not aimed at Chile. I wanted to tell you about this. My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government that was going Communist."

Kissinger did ask Pinochet to "alert" the United States as to the improvements on human rights he planned to make to give the Ford Administration "ammunition" in its fight over legislation restricting aide to Chile. "I want to see our relations and friendship improve," Kissinger concluded the meeting, according to the memorandum of conversation. "We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende."

Three months after Kissinger's tête-à-tête with Pinochet, agents of the Chilean secret police detonated a car-bomb in Washington, D.C., killing former ambassador Orlando Letelier and an associate, Ronni Moffitt. The assassination has become the most infamous act of international terrorism ever to take place in the U.S. Capital. After a long investigation, the FBI determined that DINA, supported by the secret police in Paraguay and Argentina, had carried out the murders as part of Operation Condor—a network of Southern Cone intelligence services that tracked, abducted and assassinated opponents of their regimes.

General Pinochet's role in Operation Condor was key to his arrest in Britain, and is central to the Spanish case against him. Spain wants to know what documents the U.S. government has on Pinochet's personal involvement in Condor—as do the victims of those operations. "The government of the United States must assist in the effort to hold Pinochet accountable for his crimes," Michael Moffitt, the sole survivor of the car bomb that killed his wife and her supervisor, wrote to President Clinton last year.

In response to calls by Moffitt, members of Congress and other human rights advocates, in February Clinton's NSC distributed a "tasker" on the president's behalf to the CIA, State and Defense Departments' and other key agencies, ordering "a compilation and review for release of all documents that shed light on human rights abuses, terrorism and other acts of political violence during and prior to the Pinochet era in Chile." Although it remains unlikely the CIA will fully comply with the directive, the declassification review is likely to shed significant light on the U.S. role in Chile.

Indeed, the holdings of the U.S. national security agencies are likely to answer numerous outstanding questions sought by Chileans and U.S. citizens alike: details on the still unsolved disappearances after the coup; the extent of the relationship between the DINA and the CIA, and between U.S. intelligence and specific members of Chile's military; why Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi were killed; and the degree to which the United States was involved in the overthrow of Allende.

The still-classified documents include thousands of pages of secret Defense Intelligence Agency biographies on Generals Pinochet and Contreras, State Department Intelligence and Research studies on human rights atrocities in the mid-1970s, and CIA cable traffic on Operation Condor.

"Support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression was wrong," President Clinton stated in Guatemala City on March 10, "and the United States must not repeat that mistake." The same process that the Administration used recently in the case of Guatemala—the release of long-held secrets of state and public repudiation of the horrors they reveal—will hopefully now be applied to the case of the hidden history of U.S. intervention in Chile.

Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and a member of the NACLA Editorial Board. He is editor, most recently, of The Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba (The New Press, 1998).

Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, US foreign policy, paper trail, intervention

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