Operation Condor: New Pieces of the Puzzle

September 25, 2007

New evidence sheds light on links between the U.S. national security apparatus and Operation Condor, the shadowy Latin American military network created in the 1970s whose key members were Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil, later joined by Peru and Ecuador.

Condor was a covert intelligence and operations system that enabled the Latin American military states to hunt down, seize, and execute political opponents across borders. The most secret operations, known as “Phase III,” were assassinations carried out by special teams that traveled worldwide to terminate “subversive enemies.”

Recently declassified documents indicate that U.S. forces considered Condor a legitimate “counterterror” organization. In 1978, for example, the CIA wrote that by July 1976 “the Agency was receiving reports that Condor planned to engage in ‘executive action’ outside the territory of member countries.” A 1976 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report stated that one Condor team was “structured much like a U.S. Special Forces Team,” and described Condor’s “joint counterinsurgency operations” to “eliminate Marxist terrorist activities.”

Condor employed a powerful telecommunications system (Condortel) to coordinate its intelligence, planning, and operations. In a 1988 book, Saul Landau reported that in 1976 an Argentine military source told a U.S. Embassy contact that the CIA had played a key role in setting up the computerized links among the intelligence and operations units of the Condor states. Additionally, a State Department cable discovered by this researcher in February 2001 linked Condor’s communications system to the former U.S. military base in the Panama Canal Zone.

The 1978 cable, from Robert White, then Ambassador to Paraguay, to the Secretary of State, reported a meeting with Paraguayan armed forces chief General Alejandro Fretes Dávalos. Fretes identified a facility at the Panama base as the site of a secure transnational communications center for Condor. He said intelligence chiefs from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay used “an encrypted system within the U.S. telecommunications net[work],” which covered all of Latin America, to “coordinate intelligence information.” White drew the connection to Operation Condor and questioned whether the arrangement was in the U.S. interest. He never received a response.

The former director of the DIA stated to the New York Times in March 2001 that “if such an arrangement existed on an institutional basis, I would have known about it, and I did not then and do not now,” but added, “that such an arrangement could have been made locally on an ad hoc basis is not beyond the realm of probability.” Despite this rather ambiguous half-denial, there is earlier evidence of institutionalized arrangements much like the one described by Fretes.

Scholar Michael McClintock and journalist Kathy Kadane have both documented earlier U.S.-backed communications systems set up in Central America and in Indonesia in the context of counterinsurgency collaboration. In a 1985 book, McClintock described a secure Central American telecommunications network established in 1964 by the U.S. military under cover of the U.S. Public Safety Program. The Central American and Panama Telecommunications Security Network linked the intelligence agencies of each country with the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, where the parent station was located. As McClintock showed, such intelligence coordination was a key component of the new kind of unconventional political warfare espoused by the Pentagon: the capacity to “execute paramilitary, sabotage, and/or terrorist activities” against the subversive enemy. The sophisticated communications network allowed intelligence forces to relay messages among themselves as they tracked the movements of persons within and among countries.

Kadane revealed in a 1990 Washington Post report that U.S. officials had played a significant role in the bloody Indonesian military campaign in 1965 in which some half a million civilians were killed and General Suharto was installed in power. Top U.S. officials told her of providing lists of thousands of leftists to the counterinsurgent forces, which used the lists to kill those named. According to Kadane, the CIA also supplied advanced field radios—Collins KWM-2s, single-sideband high-frequency transceivers—to the Indonesian army. The mobile radios transmitted to a tall, portable antenna provided by the U.S. military, located in front of Suharto’s headquarters, using frequencies known to the U.S. National Security Agency. The NSA intercepted the signals from a secure site in Southeast Asia. Moreover, U.S. officials systematically monitored Indonesian army radio communications, including those in which Suharto’s intelligence units ordered commandos to murder targeted persons in precise locations.

Both earlier cases suggest that the provision of telecommunications systems and expertise to allied anti-Communist militaries was an integral component of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy—and both substantiate Peter Kornbluh’s observation that White’s cable implied U.S. “foreknowledge, cooperation, and total access” to Condor plans and operations. Although many sources continue to be classified, emerging evidence adds weight to the thesis that the U.S. national security apparatus was a secret sponsor of Operation Condor.

J. Patrice McSherry is associate professor of political science at Long Island University, a member of NACLA’s Editorial Board, and author of Incomplete Transition: Military Power and Democracy in Argentina (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997). Her research on Condor, begun in the early 1990s, has been carried out in Paraguay, Chile, Argentina and the United States.


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