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A secret memo to President Reagan cites CIA conclusions that Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, ordered a terrorist carbombing in Washington D.C.

SECRET CIA REPORT: Pinochet "Personally Ordered" Washington Car-Bombing


PRESIDENT REAGAN INFORMED THAT PINOCHET's ROLE WAS "a blatant example of a chief of state's direct involvement in an act of state terrorism"

National Security Archive Seeks Declassification of CIA Assessment in the Letelier-Moffitt Assassinations


National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 532

Edited by Peter Kornbluh

Posted - October 8, 2015

For more information, contact:
Peter Kornbluh: 202.994.7116 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu.

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Washington D.C., October 8, 2015 – The CIA concluded that there was “convincing evidence” that Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet “personally ordered his intelligence chief to carry out the murder” of exiled critic Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C., according to a SECRET memo prepared for President Ronald Reagan in 1987. "Pinochet decided to stonewall on the US investigation to hide his involvement," the CIA review also noted, and as part of the cover-up considered "even the elimination of his former intelligence chief," DINA director Manuel Contreras, who had overseen the assassination plot.

The CIA intelligence review remains classified. But it was quoted in a dramatic report to President Reagan, dated on October 6, 1987, from his Secretary of State, George Shultz, as part of his efforts to convince the president to cut U.S. ties to Pinochet and press for the return of democracy in Chile. “The CIA has never before drawn and presented its conclusion that such strong evidence exists of his [Pinochet’s] leadership role in this act of terrorism,” the Secretary of State informed the President.

The National Security Archive today said it would file a Freedom of Information Act petition to secure the declassification of the CIA assessment and the raw intelligence reports it was based on. “This document is clearly the holy grail of the Letelier-Moffitt case,” said Peter Kornbluh who directs the Archive’s Chile Documentation Project. Kornbluh called on the agency “to release this document to complete the Obama administration’s special declassification project on Chile.”

Letelier, a former minister in the Allende government, and his 25-year old colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, were killed by a car-bomb planted by agents of the Chilean secret police on September 21, 1976, as they drove to work down Massachusetts avenue in Washington D.C. Moffitt’s husband, Michael, was the sole survivor of the bombing.

“It is not clear whether we can or would want to consider indicting Pinochet,” Shultz wrote to Reagan. “Nevertheless, this is a blatant example of a chief of state's direct involvement in an act of state terrorism, one that is particularly disturbing both because it occurred in our capital and since his government is generally considered to be friendly.”

The Shultz memorandum was among 282 newly declassified documents on the Letelier case that were personally provided to Chilean president Michelle Bachelet by Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit to Santiago this week. Among the over 1000 pages of documentation were transcripts of depositions from retired DINA officials and aides to Pinochet made by FBI agents working with Chilean detectives during a unique investigation undertaken in 1999/2000 by the Clinton Justice Department into General Pinochet’s personal role in ordering and covering up an act of international terrorism in Washington D.C. on September 21, 1976.

The documents also included a 1987 cable drafted by the State Department's intelligence bureau summarizing a series of informants' reports from years earlier in 1978, including the assertion by the head of Chile's intelligence agency, Manuel Contreras, that "he authorized the assassination of Letelier on orders from Pinochet.” That document included intelligence that Contreras had stated that “all foreign operations had been approved by Pinochet and that [Contreras] had left sealed documents in several places in the event of his, Contreras’ death.”

Kornbluh, who is author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier of Atrocity and Accountability (New York: New Press, 2003, 2013), described the State Department’s release of the documents as “a triumph for declassified diplomacy.” He characterized the Shultz-Reagan memo as “fundamental evidence for the verdict of history on Pinochet and his regime.”

Kornbluh's essay posted on the National Security Archive web site, www.nsarchive.org, explains the background of the Letelier case documents, and the lengthy behind-the-scenes effort to obtain their declassifcation and release.

Along with the Shultz memo to Reagan, the Archive also posted the January 22, 1987, cable summarizing intelligence on Pinochet and DINA’s role in the assassination which quotes Contreras as telling a confidant “he authorized the assassination of Letelier on orders from Pinochet.”

Image 1
The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability
By Peter Kornbluh, New Press (September 11, 2013)

Read the Documents

1. DOS, “Pinochet and the Letelier-Moffitt Murders: Implications for US Policy,” SECRET, Memorandum for the President, October 6, 1987.

In an effort to convince President Reagan that the time had come to terminate U.S. support for the Pinochet regime, Secretary of State George Shultz reports that the CIA has “convincing evidence” that Pinochet “personally ordered” the assassination of Orlando Letelier in Washington. “The CIA's conclusions and our own judgments as to Pinochet's direct involvement must affect…our overall policy towards Chile,” he advises the President. “What we now know about Pinochet's role in these assassinations is of the greatest seriousness and adds further impetus to the need to work toward complete democratization of Chile.”

2. DOS, “Proposed Memorandum to the President: Pinochet and the Letelier-Moffitt Murders,” SECRET/NODIS, October 8, 1987

This SECRET memorandum, prepared for Secretary of State Shultz, reveals that Shultz has met with CIA Director William Webster to discuss the Agency’s assessment “implicating Pinochet as responsible for ordering the assassination of former Foreign Minister Letelier, which also resulted in the death of Ronni Moffitt.” Webster and Shultz agreed that the CIA would brief Department of Justice officials on the intelligence the CIA has gathered. Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Elliott Abrams and other State Department officials recommend to Shultz that he send a summary of the CIA assessment to President Reagan since the CIA has not briefed him on its findings. 

3. DOS, “Letelier Case,” SECRET/ROGER CHANNEL, drafted by INR officer Frank McNeil, January 22, 1987.

This cable is sent to Brazil under the name of Secretary of State George Shultz. (All outgoing cables during Shultz’s tenure contained his signature when he was in Washington, even though he is unlikely to have written them.) At the time, one of the DINA officials involved in the Letelier assassination, Armando Fernandez Larios, has asked the FBI to give him sanctuary in return for his testimony against Pinochet in the Letelier/Moffitt assassination. McNeil has reviewed CIA intelligence reports from years earlier on Pinochet, DINA and Fernandez’s role in the assassination and is reporting on what they say. The intelligence, he writes, is “sourced to extremely sensitive informants.” One of them has stated that Manuel Contreras said in confidence that “he authorized the assassination of Letelier on orders from Pinochet.”



By Peter Kornbluh


When the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with President Bachelet on Monday, October 5, he engaged in an important act of what I call “declassified diplomacy.” He gave her a pen drive on which was stored 1000 pages of once TOP SECRET U.S. national security documents relating to Pinochet’s role in an act of terrorism in the capital city of the United States—the 1976 assassination by car bomb of Orlando Letelier and his colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt.

In a rather extraordinary act of diplomatic collaboration both the Chilean foreign ministry and the U.S. Department of State are posting them on their websites for all U.S. and Chilean citizens, and indeed the entire world community, to read and evaluate.

These records are among the most sensitive and secret in the holdings of the CIA, FBI, Defense and State Departments, because they shed light on the worst pre-9/11 act of international terrorism in Washington D.C. Had these documents been declassified at the time they were written in the aftermath of the car-bombing, they might have resulted in the indictment of the dictator himself.

The Defense Intelligence Agency biographic documents on General Augusto Pinochet, censored different ways by different declassification officers.

Indeed, in a now declassified report to President Ronald Reagan, titled “Pinochet and the Letelier-Moffitt Murders: Implications for US Policy,” his own secretary of state George Shultz wondered whether Pinochet should be indicted in the U.S. for the car-bomb assassinations. The CIA had “convincing evidence,” Shultz reported to the president, that Pinochet had “personally ordered” his secret police chief, Manuel Contreras, to assassinate Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C. Shultz called Pinochet’s role in the car-bombing “a blatant example of a chief of state's direct involvement in an act of state terrorism, one that is particularly disturbing both because it occurred in our capital and since his government is generally considered to be friendly.”

Pinochet managed to escape legal accountability as an international terrorist. But almost 40 years after that heinous crime, this form of documentary evidence remains vital for the verdict of history on his role.

The genesis of this unique collection dates back to the time of General Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1998, when the families and key agencies in Washington, including the Institute for Policy Studies where Letelier and Moffitt worked and my organization--the National Security Archive--pressed the Clinton Administration to re-open a formal investigation into Pinochet’s personal role in the car-bombing assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, and his efforts to hide his regime’s culpability. Our argument to the Clinton White House was that the United States had stronger legal reason to prosecute Pinochet than did Spain, and that he should be extradited to Washington to stand trial for the murders of Letelier and Moffitt.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno actually approved an FBI/Justice Department inquiry; indeed, in April/May 2000 a team of U.S. government investigators were in Santiago working with the Chilean PDI on this case. They eventually concluded, in a still secret report, that Pinochet should be indicted. But by that time, Clinton had come to the end of his tenure and George W. Bush had been elected. The Bush administration refused to pursue the prosecution of Pinochet, even after a major terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, made the fight against terrorism the President’s number one priority.

The investigation into Pinochet’s role had one unforeseen consequence: it resulted in important documents being withheld from the Clinton Administration’s special declassification project on Chile. That project resulted in the centralization, review, and declassification of 23,000 CIA, State Department, Defense Department, White House and FBI records. Among those documents were hundreds of records implicating Pinochet personally in the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations. But instead of being released along with the thousands of other records, these documents were withheld as potential evidence for the investigation.

An internal report on the special declassification obtained by my office states: “some 250 documents related to the Letelier/Moffitt case will be withheld for further review by DOJ prosecutors as part of a renewed effort to investigate the case.”

For the sake of truth and justice, these 250 documents tying Pinochet to an act of international terrorism in Washington D.C. were among the most important in the secret archives of the United States. After Pinochet died, my organization, the National Security Archive, attempted to obtain the declassification of these records, without success.

It has taken until now for all the stars to align to make this important declassification possible. With the reelection of Michelle Bachelet, Chile had key diplomats, among them Canciller Heraldo Munoz, and Ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdes (who was working with Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C. at the time of his assassination) who had a personal commitment to this advancing the cause of justice in this atrocity. Inside the Obama administration were key policy makers who understood the value of “declassified diplomacy”—for the families of the victims, for the appropriate use of U.S. documentation to advance the cause of human rights, and for the simple sake of history. They proved to be very receptive to a formal initiative earlier this year (with the strategic support of the National Security Archive) to obtain this documentation.

Secretary Kerry’s trip to Santiago this week provided an opportunity to turn over the records that have been recovered so far to the Chilean government and make them public. 

More documents relating to Augusto Pinochet that will be made available to Chile in the near future. Moreover, this positive and successful effort at “declassified diplomacy” also creates a useful and important precedent for the future release of still-secret U.S. documents relating to cases that remain judicially unresolved: among them the case of disappeared U.S. citizen Boris Weisfeiler, the death of former president Eduardo Frei, as well as the origins and activities of Operation Condor which facilitated the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. 

Pinochet will never stand trial for this atrocity and the thousands of others he committed. But this special declassification on the Letelier-Moffitt case dramatically demonstrates how important U.S. government documents can be—in the court of history where the ultimate public verdict can be rendered.

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