Monday, April 12, 2010

Kissinger: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Firemen remove victims from a car shattered by a September 21, 1976, bomb blast on Embassy Row in Washington. Orlando Letelier, Chilean exile, and Ronne Karpen Moffitt, his aide, were both killed in the blast.

It's hard to believe, but Henry Kissinger is still making news in 2010. Nearly 35 years after what everyone assumed would become an irrelevant retirement followed by death, the former Secretary of State continues to break through the headlines. Kissinger's latest news making, granted, isn't from an order he recently issued. Nonetheless, the fact that it is just coming out now - and the fact that the man is still alive - make it very relevant today.

The item of which I speak is a recently declassified document that seems to indicate that Kissinger - while President Ford's Secretary of State - stopped his own plan to end a secret CIA-advised program of international assassinations known as 'Operation Condor'. Why an American Secretary of State would want to cancel a plan to stop a bunch of South American dictators - the orchestrators of Condo - from killing their real and perceived enemies may seem unfathomable in 2010. It is hard to imagine Secretary of State Clinton doing such a thing.

But that's because it is not 1976. And we're not still in the middle of the Cold War. I'll get into the actual declassified document in a moment, but first I think it important to give some background on Condor. During the Cold War - when international communism was seen as a global threat - it was American foreign policy to do whatever possible to keep communists from taking over any country in Central or South America [we won't even get into Korea and Vietnam]. One of the most tried and true ways to keep a country from going communist was to support a brutal dictator who would terrorize his population, kill communists, and generally support the U.S. in the U.S./U.S.S.R. showdown.

Now, the theory was faulty. For one thing, a terrorized population generally tends to resent the guy who is terrorizing them. They particularly resent foreign countries [i.e. America] who are supporting the guy who's terrorizing them. So, far from preventing communism and Left-wing governments, the policy did the opposite in many countries. Cuba is the most famous, but there were Leftist uprisings throughout Central and South America as a result of the American foreign policy [we won't even get into what it did in Iran].

In return for tamping down communism, the U.S. agreed to provide boatloads of cash - both to the country and the personal bank accounts of the dictators. The U.S. also agreed to stay out of any "internal" strife in said country [i.e. political assassinations of "enemies" of the dictator].

It is with that backdrop that Operation Condor took flight. The plan was officially implemented in 1975 by Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. The leaders/dictators of those countries - with CIA supervision - went after socialists and communists, jailing many, torturing many more, and killing even more. The plan was so secretive that Kissinger himself only learned about it from the CIA nearly a year after it was officially created. It is impossible to know exactly how many died under Condor, but the 'unofficial' death toll is at least over 60,000 and probably more.

Now, Condor was hardly the first intelligence program that was assassinating opposition members in these countries. Two years previously Argentina's dictator, Augusto Pinochet, unleashed an era of terror the likes of which the continent had never seen. In fact, many trace Condor back to years before it's formal "launch" in 1975. They claim that the 1975 agreement merely formalized a plan that had been in effect as far back as 1968.

So, with that background, we move forward to 1976 and Kissinger. By this point, Ford was in the middle of a neck-and-neck race with former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter [D] for a term in his own right, after succeeding Richard Nixon two years earlier. The House of Representatives was investigating many of the clandestine U.S. government activities - particularly those of the CIA - of the 1960s and early 1970s. There was a palpable movement in government to peel back from the kind of international clandestine operations of which Condor was the most "successful."

Indeed, when Kissinger himself was told about Condor he issued an order to U.S. ambassadors in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and other countries involved in the network to issue what are called demarches, or formal diplomatic presentations, warning leaders that "Condor activities would undermine relations with the United States." In the past, Kissinger has said, "The instructions were never rescinded." The declassified cable, however, seems to refute that [more on that in a moment].

The U.S. ambassadors to Chile and Uruguay were not pleased with Kissinger's order. Not necessarily because they disagreed with it but because they didn't want to be the ones to have to go to the dictator and tell him he could no longer count on U.S. support. Indeed, the U.S. envoy in Uruguay feared for his own safety if he had to confront the new President of Uruguay, Aparicio Méndez Manfredini.

Thus we return to the cable. After getting over his initial anger about not being told about Condor, Kissinger thought better about his order. The result was the declassified cable released by National Security Archive [NSA] analyst Peter Kornblush, on April 10, 2010. Kissinger fired off a cable on September 16, 1976 to his top Latin American deputy demanding that U.S. diplomats put a stop to any efforts to warn the governments involved in Condor that the United States would no longer support Condor. In the cable, Kissinger rejects delivering his earlier proposed warning to the government of Uruguay about Condor operations and ordered that "no further action be taken on this matter" by the State Department.

The reason why the cable matters 34 years later is that five days after it was issued - in one of the most brazen attacks ever carried out in Washington, D.C. - one of those Condor targets - Chilean exile Orlando Letelier - was blown up in a car bomb in Embassy Row, mere blocks from the White House. Afterwards, it was determined that the murder - which also took the life of an American, Ronne Karpen Moffitt, who was a passenger in the car with Letelier - was the work of the Chilean secret police working through the Condor network.

Since that day in 1976, many have believed that Kissinger, the State Department and the CIA were all - minimally - accomplices to the murders. The just-released cable, said the NSA analyst Kornbluh, "confirms that it's Kissinger's complete responsibility for having rescinded a cease-and-desist order to Condor killers." For his part, Kissinger issued a statement late Saturday night, saying Kornbluh had "distorted" the meaning of the cable and said it was intended only to disapprove a specific approach to the Uruguayan government, not to cancel the plan to issue warnings to other nations in the Condor network.

That might be a plausible explanation...if every former State Department official who had worked under Kissinger was dead. They are not, however. And many former State Department officials who worked under Kissinger during that period now say that the newly released cable did interrupt the U.S. effort to rein in Operation Condor, not just with Uruguay but with other countries in the region.

Indeed, shortly after Kissinger's order that "no further action be taken" to stop Condor, his top Latin America deputies moved to cancel U.S. warnings to other countries as well. On September 20,1976, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Harry Shlaudeman told his deputy, William Luers, to inform U.S. ambassadors in countries involved in Condor not to convey Washington's concerns about the operation. The Letelier bombing occurred the next day.

Now, there is no evidence that Kissinger knew of the Letelier plot or the specifics of any other assassination plans. But the delays in issuing the demarches meant Chile apparently received no high-level U.S. warning about Condor before the bombing.

I'm not sure I agree with the premise - held by many on the Left - that had the demarches been delivered as Kissinger had originally ordered, the deaths of Letelier and Moffitt would have been prevented.

Nonetheless, the declassified memo provides Kissinger foes with the "smoking gun" they've been waiting 34 years to find in the deaths that occurred in the neighborhood around of the White House.

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