On Memorial Day, I read the following in a Chilean magazine: “In November 1977, ‘Mamo’ [General Manuel Contreras, chief of DINA, Chile's Secret Police and Intelligence] asked him to cook up a bacteria soup to ‘incapacitate’ Mena [General Odlanier Mena, head of CNIA, the secret police-Intelligence agency that would replace DINA]. ‘I spoke with Eugenio Berrios [DINA's chemist] … he told me he would make a tetanus or botulism poison… and give the concoction to Major Vianel Valdivieso – who could drop it in his tea.’” These are Michael Townley’s words from a 2005 deposition about how Contreras planned to kill Mena. (Jorge Molina Sanhueza, La NaciÃ³n, May 23, 2006)
To understand what lay behind such a Macbethian act of murder, described by Townley, one of DINA’s assassins, one must remember a scene in the Oval Office, in September 1970, 36 years earlier. Dr. Salvador Allende had just won the presidential election. President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger ordered the CIA Director into the Oval Office.
According to Kissinger, Nixon told CIA director Richard Helms “that he wanted a major effort to see what could be done to prevent Allende’s accession to power. If there were one chance in ten of getting rid of Allende we should try it; if Helms needed $10 million he would approve it.”
Helms later boasted to a Senate committee: “If I ever carried the marshal’s baton out of the Oval Office it was that day.” The Senate report published Helms’ notes of the meeting with Nixon.
One in ten chance perhaps, but save Chile
not concerned risks involved
no involvement of embassy
$10,000,000 available, more if necessary
full-time job -best men we have
make the economy scream
48 hours for plan of action (1975 Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities or Church Committee, named after Senator Frank Church, D-ID)
To provoke a coup before Allende’s slated November inauguration, CIA officials paid $50,000 to gunmen from Patria y Libertad (a pseudo Nazi gang) to assassinate Chief of Staff General Rene Schneider. Agency officials also bribed generals and admirals to launch a coup and paid congressional leaders to create legislative obstacles to Allende’s assumption of power.
The plots failed. In November 1970, Allende took the oath of office. But the CIA continued to “destabilize” Chile. They made the Chilean economy scream. Mysteriously, international lending agencies cut Chilean credit and denied loans. The CIA financed strikes in strategic sectors – like truck drivers, doctors and bank clerks. The attack on the Allende government also included routine violence and sabotage carried out by CIA thugs, and a concerted disinformation campaign run through the anti-Allende media to diminish confidence in the Allende government. In June 1973, some military commanders even rehearsed coup (el tancazo).
When the actual coup took place in September, according to a former National Security official who would not allow his name to be used, U.S. Navy ships, coincidentally on maneuvers off the Chilean coast, used their eavesdropping equipment to monitor Chilean military bases so that they could warn the coup makers about units that might remain loyal to Allende. By alerting the plotters, the Navy provided assurance that the uprising would not result in a dreaded civil war.
Army General Augusto Pinochet led the new junta. He became one in a steady stream of U.S.-backed military dictators. In the mid 1970s, military rulers from six countries worked with the CIA, who offered a centralized computer in Chile to weave together a network of their secret police and intelligence agencies, which they called Condor.
This network of intelligence services also included Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. According to a memo written by FBI Special Agent Robert Scherrer, stationed in Buenos Aires, Condor formed “special teams from member countries to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions [including] assassinations…”
In January 1979, Michael Vernon Townley, a Condor agent, told a defense lawyer in a Washington DC court that he had no regrets about assassinating Orlando Letelier, Allende’s Ambassador to Washington (1970-72) and Defense Minister at the time of the coup. Letelier worked at the Institute for Policy Studies at the time of his death, as did Ronni Moffitt, a passenger in his car.
“He was a soldier and I was a soldier,” declared Townley, as if the jury would see the clarity in his explanation for his designing and placing a bomb in Letelier’s car, killing him and his associate, Ronni Moffitt.
“I received an order,” Townley explained, “and I carried it out to the best of my ability.”
Had he memorized a script written by Adolph Eichmann from his trial for war crimes in Jerusalem, where he repeatedly stated that he was “only following orders” when he supervised the massacres of millions in Nazi death camps? Like a miniature Eichmann, Townley gave hollow testimony, which has become a macabre joke.
Townley signed a plea bargain with the Justice Department in which he would serve only five years for killing Letelier and Moffitt and could not be prosecuted for other crimes. In exchange, Townley agreed to rat out all of his former “army” buddies – all murderers, like him. Semper fi! Each time Townley gives a deposition – and he has give them regularly – he reveals more sordid information about how the U.S.-backed Pinochet regime murdered its opponents – above and beyond the 3,000 officially dead and disappeared and tens of thousands tortured and the hundreds of thousands forced into exile.
What Townley described included not only “bacteria soup” that DINA chemist Berrios would prepare for General Mena, but possibly a brew that felled former President Frei in 1982. Frei family lawyers are investigating Pinochet’s role in the former President’s death.
Townley told FBI agents how in 1974 he assassinated by a car bomb former Chilean Chief of staff General Carlos Prats and his wife in Argentina, and how in 1975 he set up the kill for exiles Chilean Christian Democratic leader Bernardo Leighton and his wife in Rome. They were both critically wounded but did not die. He also related details about his orders to kill Socialist Party leaders Carlos Altamirano and Claudio Almeida, exiled in Europe, and how he with his wife and Virgilio Paz, an anti Castro Cuban who also helped kill Letelier and Moffitt, tried to assassinate the entire exiled leadership of Allende’s Unidad Popular government in Mexico.
FBI Agents also heard Townley confess to carrying Sarin gas from Chile into the United States, which he intended to use against Letelier before he convinced himself that a bomb would prove more convenient. FBI Agent Scherrer testified to that fact before a House FAA oversight committee in 1981. The FAA did not take action against Lan Chile, the Chilean airline, even though Scherrer proved that high Lan officials had collaborated in the Letelier assassination plan (knowingly or unknowingly) by violating FAA rules.
Washington’s progeny, the Pinochet regime, played with biological and chemical weapons. Instead of going after these dangerous “criminals,” U.S. Presidents backed 17 years of military fascism in Chile. In 1975, Treasury Secretary William Simon and Kissinger provided legitimacy for Pinochet by visiting him as he disappeared and tortured his political opponents. They advised him to clean up his image, not his act. Currently, as details leak thanks to a civilian government that has finally begun to investigate the crimes committed during those years, some memory cells should become activated, the ones that scream for a measure of justice.
Presidents did not think about bombing Chile or invading it after its agents struck down people in Washington DC and elsewhere, even though any of them could have stated correctly that “the world is better off without Pinochet.”
The public still doesn’t know how much the CIA involved itself in the Pinochet crimes, in the little laboratory where they made botulism soup and nerve gas – weapons of mass destruction.
Berrios, the chemist, fled to Uruguay and was assassinated there before he could tell about his venomous cocktails and soups, and how many people had imbibed from his deadly brews.
On Memorial Day, Americans supposedly recall their deaths in war. How many of them thought about the deaths imposed by the United States not only in dubious wars like Vietnam and Iraq, where millions died, but in the covert CIA wars, like the one Nixon and Kissinger waged on 9/11? 9/11/73, that is!
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow.