Opening Up the Files: Chile Declassified

September 25, 2007

“It is not a part of our country’s history that we are proud of.”

—Secretary of State Colin Powell, answering a question about the morality of U.S. policy toward the September 11, 1973 military coup in Chile and its relevance to the invasion of Iraq.

In late November 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gathered her advisers in her office for a meeting on what to do about the detention, six weeks earlier, of General Augusto Pinochet in London. The Clinton administration had come under tremendous pressure—from Congress, Pinochet’s North American victims, and the international community—to support Spain’s effort to extradite the former dictator for crimes against humanity. No one at the meeting wanted to provide evidence from secret U.S. archives directly to Spain. But one official lofted the idea of doing a broad review of thousands of documents long hidden in the vaults of the CIA, National Security Council (NSC), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Pentagon and State Department, and declassifying them for the general public in the United States and Chile. Albright placed a telephone call to the President’s National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, to discuss this proposal. They agreed, as one official told me in confidence, to “declassify what we can so that we can say we did our share.”

That call marked the initiation of the Clinton administration’s Chile Declassification Project—a substantive, if problematic, effort to exhume the secrets of state on Pinochet’s repression and the still-controversial U.S. role in the 1973 overthrow of Chilean democracy and the rise of a 17-year military dictatorship. More than 24,000 documents, including several thousand records the CIA reluctantly gave up, were eventually declassified that shed significant light on what Washington knew of the military’s atrocities, and what policies, actions and operations it undertook in Chile. Thirty years after the infamous coup that brought the Pinochet regime to power the now accessible TOP SECRET written record kept by U.S. operatives and officials provides a unique monument to a dark and still debated history that demands to be remembered.

The United States possesses extensive, detailed, and highly classified government archives—tens of thousands of pages of sensitive CIA reporting, DIA analysis, NSA intercepts, and State Department cables covering the conduct, and misconduct, of most governments abroad. Given the extensive U.S. involvement in Chile—overt and covert—since the 1960s and the scandals generated by U.S. policy and Pinochet’s human rights atrocities, Washington’s holdings on that country are particularly voluminous. Indeed, secret U.S. files record every aspect of the General’s abuses from the Caravan of Death to Operation Condor—potentially pivotal evidence in Spain’s case against him. But at the same time the United States has the most to offer in bringing Pinochet to justice, it also has the most to hide. Prosecuting Pinochet, as one former senior intelligence official told the New York Times, would effectively “open up a can of worms” in the top-secret record of U.S.-Chilean relations.

In July 1996, Spain initiated unique legal proceedings against Pinochet and his men. Prompted by the efforts of Spanish lawyer and former Allende adviser Joan Garcés to hold the former dictator accountable for human rights crimes, Spanish authorities subsequently invoked a bilateral Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) with the United States—an accord mandating international cooperation and reciprocity in criminal investigations—and requested that the U.S. government supply records on Operation Condor and other human rights abuses by the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships. To press this request, the original judge in charge of the Chilean case, Judge García Castellón traveled to Washington in January 1998 and received cordial treatment from U.S. officials. “I want to assure you,” President Clinton wrote to Congress in April of that year, “that we will continue to respond as fully as we can to the request for assistance from the Government of Spain.”[1]

In fact, the Clinton administration stonewalled for more than a year before producing four boxes of “files” in response to the Spanish MLAT request. One box was filled with a thousand pages of Chilean newspaper clips, which the Spanish judge had not requested. Another held Pentagon documents on a Contra operation in Honduras called “Condor” that was unrelated to Chile’s Operation Condor. The other boxes contained thousands of pages of legal files on the prosecution of the anti-Castro Cubans who participated in the Letelier-Moffitt car bombing. None of these files contained any material of evidentiary value for Spain’s effort to prosecute Pinochet.

The arrest of the former dictator on October 16, 1998, brought intense public pressure on the Clinton White House to take a stand in the Pinochet case. Thirty-six members of Congress, led by Congressman George Miller, called upon Clinton to provide Spain with “material and testimony that the U.S. government has thus far withheld.” As Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth wrote to Clinton: “Pinochet is wanted for crimes against American citizens, and even crimes on American soil” and pressed his administration “to speak out in favor of prosecuting this tyrant.” And the families of Ronni Moffitt, Orlando Letelier and Charles Horman all petitioned the President and Attorney General Janet Reno to open the files and cooperate with the Spanish inquiry.

“There is a struggle going on in here,” a White House aide admitted privately in the aftermath of Pinochet’s arrest. “This has been an incredibly divisive issue at State and the NSC.”[2] Certainly, prosecuting Pinochet seemed to support the President’s call for more aggressive international efforts to counter terrorism. In a major speech to the United Nations General Assembly several weeks before Pinochet’s arrest (ironically on the anniversary of the Letelier-Moffitt assassination) Clinton urged all nations to “give terrorists no support, no act together to step up extradition and prosecution”—exactly what Spain was attempting to do. His staff at the National Security Council’s Office of Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and the State Department’s human rights bureau saw the benefits to U.S. policy of assisting the Spanish case. But they were stymied by two NSC officials: chief legal council Jamie Baker, who did not want to set a precedent of searching secret U.S. archives to satisfy an MLAT request, and the President’s NSC adviser on Latin America, James Dobbins, who preferred to see Pinochet return to Santiago rather than stand trial in Madrid. As one official characterized Dobbin’s position: “We don’t want to upset Chilean democracy, we want to help [then-Chilean President] Frei.”

On November 30, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright convened a meeting of her top advisors to determine what the United States should do. The prevailing position was that establishing a “Pinochet precedent” in international law would not benefit U.S. interests and that Washington, for the sake of stability and Chile’s sovereignty, should respect the Chilean government’s efforts to have Pinochet released and returned to his homeland. At the same time, congressional demands and the position of the families of Pinochet’s U.S. victims could not be ignored. Rather than provide documents directly to Spain, the new head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Office, Morton Halperin, proposed that the administration could simply undertake a major declassification review—Clinton had authorized similar projects on El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala during his first term—and open the files to the Americans, Chileans and Spaniards, indeed to the world community, all at once. Secretary Albright recommended this proposal to National Security Advisor Berger. On December 1, State Department spokesman James Rubin announced that the United States would “make public as much information as possible, consistent with U.S. laws and the national security and law enforcement interests of the United States.”[3]

For the next eight weeks U.S. officials at the National Security Council, the State Department and the CIA hammered out the language of a presidential “tasker”—a directive establishing the guidelines and timetable for a special “Chile Declassification Project.” The project would “shed light” on three major categories: “human rights abuses, terrorism, and other acts of political violence in Chile.” The date-range covered 23 years of history, from 1968 through 1991. Initially, policy makers intended the scope of the declassification to address only Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship, 1973-1990; but the Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department argued that to avoid the appearance that “we were only going after the Right,” as one official remembered this argument, the United States should declassify documents on alleged abuses during the Allende era as well—a decision that inadvertently opened the door to the release of records on U.S. covert intervention and the Nixon/Kissinger efforts to foment political violence to overthrow Chilean democracy.[4]

“On behalf of the President,” states the NSC tasker distributed on February 1, 1999 to all national security agencies, “we now ask your cooperation in undertaking 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.” To assist in computer and archival searches, the declassification directive—principally drafted by Halperin’s deputy, Theodore Piccone—included a contextual narrative, a list of key human rights cases and known perpetrators of abuses.

The project was coordinated out of the National Security Council by the Senior Director of Records Management, William Leary. Leary chaired an Interagency Working Group (IWG) responsible for monitoring and implementing the review and declassification, which held its first meeting in February 1999. The projected yield of declassified documents, the IWG determined, necessitated a multi-phased release of records. Between June 1999 and June 2000, three so-called “tranches” were actually published:

Tranche I: 5,800 records released on June 30, 1999.[5] The declassified documents chronicled the first five years of the Pinochet regime from the September 11, 1973 coup to 1978—the most repressive period of the dictatorship. The bound volumes contained some 5,000 State Department cables, memoranda and reports focused on the regime’s abysmal human rights record. The CIA declassified several hundred valuable reports, intelligence assessments and cables documenting the Pinochet regime’s internal deliberations and repressive operations but withheld thousands of other records pertaining to operational support for the regime after the coup.

Tranche II: Some 1,100 records released on October 8, 1999. These documents covered 1968 though 1973 and contained information on U.S. policy toward Allende’s election and government. CIA papers on its covert action in Chile between 1970 and 1973, including those used by the Church Committee for its reports in the mid 1970s, should have been declassified in this tranche; none of them were.

Tranche III: A special release on June 30, 2000, of approximately 1,900 mostly State Department documents specific to the cases of murdered and disappeared U.S. citizens: Charles Horman, Frank Teruggi and a hiker named Boris Weisfeiler who disappeared in January 1985.

Originally, the Tranche III records were to be part of a massive, final release scheduled for April 2000. Claiming processing delays, the White House moved the declassification date to June. But in June only the Horman, Teruggi and Weisfeiler records were released, and IWG again postponed the declassification of 16,000 other documents until the fall.[6] The delay resulted from a major behind-the-scenes battle between the White House and the CIA over Director George Tenet’s decision to renege on the Agency’s commitment to declassify operational records on Chile.

The CIA is known as the agency that keeps the secrets. Indeed, their recalcitrant attitude toward the Chile Declassification Project threatened to transform a precedent-setting exercise in openness into yet another cover-up of history. In a conversation with the author in mid 1999, one CIA official took the position that the CIA was “not legally obliged” to search its files on clandestine operations in Chile because those operations “had never been officially acknowledged.”[7] At meetings of the IWG, Agency representatives David Kamerling and Walter Hazlett surprised their colleagues by arguing that documents on covert action in Chile—to undermine Allende and then to support Pinochet—were “not relevant” to the tasker. Not even the coup itself fit the Agency’s definition of “an act of political violence,” the CIA officials insisted.[8] The CIA produced not a single page of documentation on its pivotal post-coup assistance to the regime and its liaison relations with Chile’s secret police, DINA, for the release of the first tranche of documents in June 1999, and officials let it be known that Langley did not intend to produce any covert action records for the second release in the fall, covering the 1970-1973 period of clandestine operations to bring down Allende.

The CIA was joined by the ultra-secret National Security Agency which also determined it would keep secret much if not all of its relevant holdings. In its initial search the NSA found over 660 records responsive to the tasker, many of them intelligence intercepts of Chilean military communications during and after the coup, as well as documents on the Horman case.[9] But, in an April 6, 1999 status report, “Declassification Review of Documents Related to Human Rights Abuses in Chile,” the Defense Department noted: “[A]ll the information identified as potentially responsive consists of classified signals reports, the release of which would reveal intelligence sources and methods. Therefore NSA does not anticipate recommending declassification and release of any of this material.”

To the chagrin of the intelligence community, the National Archives Records Administration (NARA) discovered copies of several hundred revealing CIA and NSA documents in the classified holdings of the Nixon and Ford Presidential libraries and submitted them to the IWG for final review. During a “joint declassification session” in early August 1999 at the NARA building, both CIA and NSA officials simply announced that they would have to remove the records to their headquarters for further evaluation—breaking the established IWG procedures for the Chile Declassification Project.[10] Once in their possession, the CIA and the NSA refused to review these papers for declassification.
As the CIA’s obstruction of the Chile Declassification Project became publicly apparent, advocates of the project charged the Agency with whitewashing history. “The failure to release these records,” the Executive Director of the National Security Archive, Thomas Blanton, wrote to the White House in September, “will be immediately viewed, nationally and internationally, as a cover-up of the past and an effort by Washington to shield itself from any historical accountability for events in Chile in the early 1970s.”[11] “The CIA is hiding key documents,” the New York Times editorialized on October 6. “The CIA needs to understand that full disclosure of Washington’s role [in Chile] is in America’s interest.”[12] “We urge you to declassify without any further delay the remainder of the documents pertaining to Pinochet in the CIA files,” six Congressmen wrote to CIA Director George Tenet. Prepped by his staff, even President Clinton signaled the Agency that it was time for full compliance and maximum disclosure. “I think you are entitled to know what happened back then,” he responded to a question about the CIA and the Chile Declassification Project at a press conference in early October, “and how it happened.”

Faced with forceful public and presidential pressure, the CIA rapidly retreated. On October 7, Agency spokesman Mark Mansfield publicly announced that the CIA “recognizes its obligation to release documents about covert action in Chile” and promised they would be declassified in the final release, then scheduled for mid 2000. Internally, Director Tenet issued a broad declassification guideline for searching Directorate of Operations files on covert actions in Chile, dating from 1962 to 1975. Over the next nine months, a team of CIA analysts compiled, reviewed and carefully arranged close to 800 records, including cables, proposals, budgets, memcons, meeting minutes and memoranda relating to dozens of covert programs, particularly coup plotting and destabilization operations between 1970 and 1973. Each of the documents was then actually marked with a stamp: DECLASSIFIED AND APPROVED FOR RELEASE, JULY 2000.

But as the final declassification neared, the CIA leadership reneged on its commitment to openness. In June, George Tenet ordered the new head of the Directorate of Operations, James Pavitt, to “prepare an assessment of the proposed release of the 1962-1975 material and its potential impact on current operational equities.” Notwithstanding the fact that most of these documents had been identified and quoted extensively in the Senate reports on Chile 25 years earlier, Pavitt concluded that the records revealed too much about the basic modus operandi used by the CIA to undermine foreign governments. In July when the CIA was supposed to turn over these documents to the State Department for processing, Tenet informed the NSC that hundreds of promised operational documents would be withheld from the final release, then scheduled for September 14, 2000. “We are in no way trying to withhold information embarrassing to the United States Government,” Tenet explained his controversial decision. “It was solely made because, in their aggregate, these materials present a pattern of activity that had the effect of revealing intelligence methods that have been employed worldwide.”[13]

Both inside and outside of government, everyone involved in the Chile Declassification Project—members of the IWG, families of U.S. victims, and advocates of openness—understood that the CIA’s position threatened to sabotage the credibility of the entire program. The Agency’s 11th hour reversal cast a black shadow over the project’s mission to provide a historically honest and accurate accounting of Pinochet’s abuses, as well as the U.S. role in his rise and consolidation of power. The CIA’s intention to cover up the most egregious aspects of U.S. intervention in Chile smelled of hypocrisy in a project designed, in large part, to assist Chile in its work on truth and reconciliation. Its effort to hide the seamy, violent aspects of U.S. involvement in Chile also threatened to jeopardize the moral basis of Washington’s international diplomatic initiatives toward Germany and Switzerland to fully acknowledge and redress the dark side of their own histories in the Holocaust. Finally, the CIA’s mutiny constituted a direct challenge to the President’s prerogative to determine and defend the public’s right-to-know. The dispute over these documents represented a classic battle over the sanctity of secrecy vs. the principle of government transparency in U.S. foreign policy.

Members of the IWG, who had devoted literally thousands of man-hours to the Chile project, initiated a substantive behind-the-scenes effort to force the CIA to meet its commitment. At the State Department, key offices mobilized to press Secretary Albright to privately express her concerns to the White House. In addition, State Department officials quietly approached the Archivist of the United States, John Carlin, to write a strong protest to National Security Advisor Berger. In a NARA letter dated July 30, Carlin warned that “such a last minute reversal will fundamentally undermine the overall integrity of the project and will result in a significantly incomplete public record of these important historical events.” He urged the White House to “make every possible effort to convince the CIA to follow through on the commitments it made.”

Berger met with Tenet on July 27 and insisted that the CIA agree to a re-review, conducted outside the Agency, of hundreds of Directorate of Operations records. Over the next month, an official from the NSC and an official from the State Department read through the heavily censored set of contested documents brought over from the Agency.[14] With the exception of CIA records on covert political operations between 1962 and 1968 that fell outside the defined date period of the President’s tasker, and two dozen or so highly sensitive documents on a particular covert operation, both the NSC and State Department evaluations recommended that the CIA collection could and should be declassified. On or about September 11, Berger talked to Tenet again and told him the White House was overruling the CIA’s decision to withhold hundreds of revealing records. The release of the documents was postponed again for the Agency to prepare. Subsequently, the public dissemination of the fourth and final release of records took place on November 13, 2000.

The value of these records cannot be overstated. For the foreseeable future, lawyers, human rights investigators and historians will be sifting through the collection, looking for evidence of all kinds of wrongdoing. Already the documents have been used in Chile to advance judicial investigations into the human rights atrocities of Pinochet’s military and to hold regime officials accountable for their crimes. Many of the documents name names, revealing atrocities and exposing those who perpetrated them. Moreover, the declassified CIA records, in particular, have also provided evidence for Chilean victims to file civil lawsuits against U.S. officials such as Henry Kissinger and the late former CIA director Richard Helms in an effort to hold the United States accountable for bloodshed in Chile.

They are also being used to rewrite the history books on the U.S. role in Chile. For a student of this history, the declassified documents offer an opportunity to be a fly on the wall as U.S. government officials debated crucial decisions and issued nation-changing orders, and to observe the minute-by-minute, day-by-day process of how those orders were implemented in Chile. The documents also permit a reexamination of many if not all of the outstanding questions that haunt this history. Questions such as:

—What role did the United States actually play in the violent September 11, 1973, coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power?

—What motivated President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to authorize and oversee a campaign to overthrow and undermine Chilean democracy?

—What support did the CIA covertly provide to help the Pinochet regime consolidate? What assistance did the CIA give to the murderous secret police, DINA?

—What did U.S. intelligence know about Operation Condor, the Chilean-led network of Southern Cone secret police agencies that organized international acts of state-sponsored terrorism to eliminate critics of their regimes?

—Could U.S. officials have detected and deterred the September 21, 1976 car-bombing that killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt? This was the most egregious act of international terrorism committed in Washington D.C. before the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon.

—And, what role did Washington play in the efforts of millions of Chileans to bring the dictatorship to an end?

On the 30th anniversary of the coup, the documents will assist Chileans and North Americans alike in revisiting the past and setting the historical record straight—a record severely and deliberately distorted by former officials such as Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and others. Like the wall of remembrance to Pinochet’s victims in the National Cemetery, and the statue to Allende near La Moneda, the Chile archives constitute a monument to history. Tens of thousands of once secret pages will contribute to what Chilean human rights activists call “the cleansing power of the truth,” offering the accountability of a collective historical memory where judicial accountability for Gen. Pinochet—and his North American supporters—appear unlikely. “If, in the end, we are unable to take to trial those who were responsible,” observes one survivor of Pinochet’s torture camps with simple eloquence, “at least memory will provide a historical trial for them.”

Peter Kornbluh heads the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive and is a member of NACLA’s Editorial Board. This article is adapted from his new book, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, to be published in September by the New Press.

1. “Prisoner Pinochet,” The Nation, December 11, 1998.
2. Author interview.
3. For Rubin’s announcement, see the Washington Post, December 2, 1998.
4. The official I interviewed recalled the argument advanced by the Chile Desk officer: “If it was just the Pinochet years it would look unbalanced to the Chileans. It would look like we were just going after the right. So it should cover Allende also.”
5. Tranche I was delayed several days because Henry Kissinger learned of the release in late June and had his office call National Security Advisor Sandy Berger to request an entire set of the documents so that he could review them in advance of the public release.
6. The NSC repeatedly promised Joyce Horman that the final declassification would take place in April, and that all remaining records, among them CIA and Pentagon documents long sought by the family, would be released. In April the date was postponed to June. After they informed her that the final release would be postponed again until the fall, she petitioned the chairman of the IWG, William Leary, to release the records relating to her case as scheduled. “The Horman family, and many others have waited patiently for these records. The CIA, NSC, NSA and Pentagon all should have released records on our case last June or last October. That they did not comply with the President’s request at that time is most unfortunate,” she wrote in May 2000. The White House agreed, and released the documents on the Teruggi and Weisfeiler case at the same time.
7. I reported this conversation in the Washington Post Outlook section, “Still Hidden: A Full Record of What the U.S. did in Chile,” October 24, 1999.
8. Interview with a member of the Interagency Working Group.
9. The National Security Agency continues to keep secret six documents on the Horman case. In a December 1, 1999, letter to the author, the agency stated, “The documents date from September 1973 through February 1974 and do not contain information which identifies who may have been responsible for Mr. Horman’s death or the circumstances surrounding his death. The documents suggest that Mr. Horman was detained and released on or about 20 September 1973, but that his whereabouts were unknown.”
10. In one of his first internal memos on the declassification process, “IWG on Chile Documents,” William Leary wrote to the CIA, DOJ, DOD, FBI and State Department that the “NSC would chair joint declassification sessions to facilitate such review by 3rd agencies.” The idea was to quickly and jointly evaluate documents that involved more than one agency—presidential records generated by the CIA for example—to determine what portions needed to be censored.
11. The Archive’s letter is dated September 16, 1999. It noted that “as the U.S. presses countries like Germany, Switzerland, and Guatemala among others, to acknowledge and rectify their mistakes of the past, the CIA’s position that we must hide our own can only undermine the credibility of our policy.” In a response to Blanton dated November 30, 1999, Berger wrote: “I have received assurances that CIA material reviewed and released in the final phase…will include relevant operational records, such as documents related to covert action, documents associated with the Church Committee hearings in 1975, and operational files disseminated outside the Directorate of Operations.”
12. New York Times editorial, “Exposing America’s Role in Chile,” October 6, 1999.
13. Tenet made this statement in a lengthy letter to Congressman George Miller, responding to a call from Miller protesting the withholding of documents on Chile. The letter is dated August 11, 2000.
14. At the NSC, William Leary reviewed the CIA records; Adolf “Hal” Eisner read them at the State Department. The CIA records were heavily edited leading to complaints that it was impossible to ascertain the actual sensitivity of the documentation.

Tags: Chile, legacy, memory, declassified, CIA, US foreign policy

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