The CIA’s Other Untold Scandal

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Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a public-interest documentation center, and the author of the forthcoming book, "The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability."

As Chileans confront their bloody past by moving to put Gen. Augusto Pinochet on trial for human-rights atrocities, the United States is finally beginning to address its own dark history of covert ties to his brutal regime.

An official cover-up of those ties for more than a quarter century is finally unraveling. The Central Intelligence Agency’s admission in a report sent to Congress last month that it used U.S. taxpayer dollars to buy close relations with Gen. Manuel Contreras, the man most directly culpable for the torture, murder and disappearance of thousands in Chile, as well as multiple acts of international terrorism abroad, marks the first step toward an accounting of this shameful era of U.S. support for Pinochet’s dictatorship.

The next step must be full disclosure of the documentary record of covert operations in Chile.


When the scandal of CIA efforts to destabilize the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende broke in 1974, the world first learned of the ugly details of a massive covert intervention program, ordered by President Richard M. Nixon, to undermine Chilean democracy and usher in a military dictatorship. A special Senate committee, chaired by the late Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), conducted the first major investigation of what it called “extensive and continuous” covert operations to undermine Allende. “Make the economy scream,” Nixon ordered CIA director Richard Helms, according to the first document declassified by the Church committee. Another memorandum records then-National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger directing CIA officials, in October 1970, to keep the “pressure on every Allende weak spot in sight now--and into the future until such time as new marching orders are given.”

But while much is known about Washington’s clandestine effort to undermine democracy in Chile, little information has been available on an equal, if not greater scandal: covert assistance for the consolidation of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Over the last 25 years, the CIA has obstructed all efforts to force the declassification of any records on its “liaison” relations with Pinochet’s military forces. Agency censors have denied dozens of requests for documents filed under the Freedom of Information Act. The CIA has resisted even presidential mandates to declassify the record. In a veritable mutiny against President Bill Clinton, CIA director George Tenet informed the White House in August that the agency would block the scheduled release of hundreds of secret documents recording the history of covert operations in Chile, including numerous records on CIA activities during the first several years of Pinochet’s regime.

It has taken the leverage of legislation to overcome the agency’s pathology of secrecy. An amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act directed the CIA to produce a detailed report on its involvement with Pinochet. Perhaps mindful that former CIA director Richard Helms was convicted of lying to Congress in 1973 about covert operations in Chile, the agency has now decided to be more forthcoming.

The declassified version of its report, “CIA Activities in Chile,” presented to Congress on Sept. 18, acknowledges officially for the first time that the “CIA actively supported the military junta after the overthrow of Allende.” It concedes that a number of Pinochet’s officers “involved in systematic and widespread human rights abuses were contacts or agents of the CIA or U.S. military.”

The most important CIA asset was Contreras, the head of Chile’s feared secret police known as DINA. The report details three years of “contacts” with Contreras. It acknowledges that the CIA knew that Contreras was “the principal obstacle” to improving the regime’s human rights record and a principal proponent of tracking and killing political opponents outside Chile. Even so, CIA officials who worked with him “recommended establishing a paid relationship” in mid-1975, and U.S. funds were passed to Contreras, ostensibly to obtain intelligence useful to U.S. interests.

He returned the CIA’s largess by ordering a hit team to travel to Washington and assassinate former Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his 25-year-old American associate, Ronni Moffitt, with a car bomb on Sept. 21, 1976. It was an unprecedented act of international terrorism in the nation’s capital. The report does not address how CIA officials could have failed to detect and deter the terrorist threat to U.S. security posed by its very own asset.


Putting a torturer and terrorist on the U.S. payroll is not what Americans imagine when their national-security managers say they are protecting freedom and democracy abroad. But the CIA does not deserve to take the rap on Chile alone. After all, the agency was acting under orders of Presidents Nixon and Gerald Ford, as well as Kissinger. It was Kissinger who set the tone for U.S. policy, privately confiding to Pinochet at the height of his repression that “in the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.”

In both attitude and action, the United States bears some responsibility for the horrors that occurred in Chile. Accountability, however, demands a full accounting. Now that the history that the CIA has held hostage for all these years is finally coming out, it is time to release the hundreds of still-secret files on our covert operations in Chile. “I believe you are entitled to know what happened back then, and how it happened,” Clinton told reporters about the CIA records. We are indeed.

Last week, CIA officials finally yielded to pressure from the White House and agreed to declassify most of the hundreds of records on the history of covert operations in Chile that they had refused to release in August. A major declassification of State Department, Defense Department, FBI and CIA records is now scheduled for Nov. 13, 2000. But the agency’s reversal is only a partial victory for the principle of openness. Since the forthcoming documents are known to be heavily censored--the agency has wielded a black magic marker in the name of national security--significant portions of the historical record of U.S. involvement in Chile will remain concealed. Until there is full disclosure, there cannot be a full accounting and accountability for the U.S. ties to Pinochet’s repression.

By pursuing Pinochet, Chileans are courageously opening the door to a painful past and searching for what they call “the cleansing power of the truth.” In the United States, it is our responsibility to do the same.