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My bloody brush with America’s secret foreign policy

Charles Lewis found out in the most horrific way that America’s self-image as the reluctant global warrior couldn’t be more wrong.

Letelier assassination, Washington DC, 1976

Since the 1890s, the United States has deposed or helped to depose more than a dozen foreign governments. Journalist and ICIJ founder Charles Lewis found out in the most horrific way that America’s self-image as the reluctant global warrior couldn’t be further from the truth.

One of my closest encounters with the harsh realities underlying America’s supposedly idealistic foreign policy came in early 1975, when I was researching and writing an undergraduate thesis about the role of the United States in Chilean politics in the early years of the decade. As part of this project, I was able to meet with Dr. Orlando Letelier, who had been the Chilean ambassador to the United States under its former president, Salvador Allende, as well as the country’s defense minister at the time of the September 11, 1973, military coup d’état that ended Allende’s regime—and his life.

Letelier himself had been arrested that day and imprisoned along with other top government officials in a “desolate concentration camp.”. Following a yearlong international campaign to have him released, Letelier was expelled by the Chilean government under its then head, General Augusto Pinochet. But before he left, according to authors John Dinges and Saul Landau, the camp commander ominously warned him, “General Pinochet will not and does not tolerate activities against his government” and punishment could be rendered “no matter where the violator lives.”

Letelier relocated to Washington, DC, and, with his long, distinguished background in government, and his forceful, fearless public statements about the military junta in Chile, became that country’s most prominent political figure in exile.

Orlando LetelierWe met at his suburban Washington home, on a cul-de-sac in Bethesda, Maryland. The slim, mustachioed Letelier could not have been more gracious during my hour-long visit. But the information he wanted to share with me was very disturbing for anyone who harbored illusions about the American overseas role.

Letelier showed me secret Chilean intelligence cables indicating that US naval forces had been off the coast of Santiago on that fateful morning of September 11. He spoke of his strong sense of anger and personal betrayal toward Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had repeatedly assured him that the United States was not trying to foment dissent in Chile. These reassurances, which Letelier had passed on directly to Allende, were all bald-faced lies, delivered by a master diplomat with no compunctions about deceiving and manipulating a high official of another government.

Letelier was also convinced that a May 1972 break-in at the Chilean Embassy in Washington, which he described to me in intricate detail, had been the handiwork of the White House Watergate “plumbers” as part of the US “infernal machine” of covert intervention against Allende. We now know he was correct. In 1999, newly available Oval Office recordings from May 1973, revealed President Nixon telling his aide General Alexander Haig, “There are times, you know, when, good God, I’d authorize any means to achieve a goal abroad,” including “the breaking-in of embassies and so forth.”

Days later, in another conversation, Nixon told White House lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt, “When we get down, for example, to the break-in, the Chilean Embassy—that thing was a part of the burglars’ plan, as a cover . . . a CIA cover.” Indeed, electronic surveillance planted during the break-in enabled the CIA to learn the Chilean government’s intentions about its nationalization efforts, which the White House then secretly passed on to the US companies with operations there, all major Nixon and Republican Party donors.

I left my conversation with Letelier feeling troubled, as almost any American would, over the notion that our nation’s highest authorities would unhesitatingly undermine a duly elected foreign government and then brazenly lie about it, all in the service of US financial interests. But the denouement of my encounter with Letelier would be even more horrific.

Roughly eighteen months after our conversation, in the darkness before dawn just outside his Bethesda home, an assassin sent to Washington by the Chilean secret police—with the personal knowledge of General Pinochet—taped a remote-control bomb to the driver’s-side chassis of Letelier’s Chevrolet Chevelle. On the morning of September 21, 1976, driving with his young, recently wed IPS colleagues Michael and Ronni Moffit to work downtown, one of the assassins trailing them “pressed the button on an electronic paging device,” triggering a massive explosion that was heard at the State Department half a mile away. A piece of shrapnel cut twenty-five-year-old Ronni Moffitt’s jugular vein, and she literally drowned in her own blood. Letelier’s legs were blown off, and he died before the ambulance reached George Washington University Hospital. The backseat passenger, Michael Moffitt, only slightly injured by comparison, tried in vain to help the pair amid the bloody mayhem.

Few Americans fully understand the repellent nature of the Pinochet regime we helped to install.

It was the first time in US history that a foreign government had conducted a political execution on the streets of Washington, DC—at least, so far as we know. Of course, it took years for the truth to seep out, and it’s still not all out yet. But, in time, the world learned that Augusto Pinochet had authorized a series of political assassinations outside Chile, with Letelier just one of the victims. 

It’s a terrible story. But also terrible, for me as an American citizen, is the fact that the US government helped to bring about Chile’s decades-long international nightmare. To this day, no American president has ever apologized to Chileans for the violence our government helped to cause.

935 Lies, book coverFew Americans fully understand the repellent nature of the Pinochet regime we helped to install. In 2004 and 2005, reports issued by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations made it clear that Pinochet was not only a thuggish murderer and dictator, but also a drug trafficker for whom Riggs National Bank—the Washington bank for seventeen presidents—had laundered millions of dollars of dirty money through its Bahamian trust company and two offshore shell corporations.

Even the Letelier murder can be laid, at least indirectly, at the feet of US influence. Over the years, it has become evident that US officials understood the deadly nature of Operation Condor and the state-sponsored terrorism it was supporting around the world, including the possibility it might also occur in Washington. Hewson Ryan, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Ford administration, acknowledged not long before his death, “We knew fairly early on that the governments of the Southern Cone countries were planning, or at least talking about, some assassinations abroad in the summer of 1976 . . . Whether if we had gone in, we might have prevented this, I don’t know. But we didn’t. We were extremely reticent about taking a forward public posture, and even a private posture in certain cases, as was this case in the Chilean [Letelier] assassination.”

The plot thickened in April 2010, when historian Peter Kornbluh posted on the National Security Archive website newly declassified documents indicating that five days before the Letelier bombing, Secretary of State Kissinger withdrew an order he planned to deliver to the Pinochet government, warning against orchestrating assassinations abroad. Why did Kissinger do that? He’s never said.

Other questions linger more than thirty-five years after the murder of Letelier. For example, why was Colonel Contreras, the head of Pinochet’s deadly Directorate of National Intelligence, on the CIA’s payroll in 1975? Why didn’t the CIA cooperate fully with the Justice Department lawyers prosecuting Letelier’s killers? And in the weeks following the assassination, why did the CIA plant stories in major media outlets alleging that the intelligence community believed Letelier may have been assassinated by Chilean left-wing extremists rather than by agents of the Chilean military junta? 

The Clinton administration, to its great credit, initiated the Chile Declassification Project, which resulted in the release of roughly 24,000 secret documents pertaining to the two-decade US foreign policy disaster. The most stubbornly intransigent agencies, not surprisingly, were the CIA and the National Security Agency, which to this day refuse to declassify hundreds of documents. Kissinger had, for decades, prevented anyone from accessing records related to his tenure as National Security adviser and secretary of state to two presidents; when he left government, he literally took with him his recorded telephone conversations between 1970 and 1976. Public officials frequently pull such shenanigans—absconding with public documents and getting others declassified for their high-priced memoirs, while withholding the negative, unflattering, or even potentially criminal material. Kornbluh calls it “holding history hostage.” Call it whatever you want, it obscures and distorts the truth as we know it. And that’s wrong.

Charles LewisThis is an edited excerpt from Charles Lewis's new book 935 Lies: the Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity, reprinted with permission from Charles Lewis and Public Affairs Books. Find out more at

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