Ghosts of Chile

It is an uncanny historic coincidence that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred exactly twenty-eight years after General Augusto Pinochet toppled the elected government of Socialist President Salvador Allende in Chile. The bloody coup in Santiago on September 11, 1973, which I lived through, is widely believed to have had the backing of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

It marked the advent of a regime that systematically employed terror at home and abroad to remain in power for almost seventeen years. Prior to the attack on the Pentagon, the most sensational foreign-lead terrorist action in the capitol had been carried out by a team of operatives sent by the Pinochet regime. On September 21, 1976, agents of the Chilean secret police organization, DINA, detonated a car bomb just blocks from the White House, killing a leading opponent of Pinochet's, Orlando Letelier, and his assistant Ronni Moffitt. Letelier, who I spoke to at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. before his death, was a man deeply committed to democracy and a more humane world who had served at the highest levels of the Allende government.

These assassinations were linked to the first international terrorist network in the Western Hemisphere, known as Operation Condor. Begun in 1974 at the instigation of the Chilean secret police, Operation Condor was a sinister cabal comprised of the intelligence services of at least six South American countries that collaborated in tracking, kidnapping and assassinating political opponents. Based on documents recently divulged under the Chile Declassification Project of the Clinton administration, it is now recognized that the CIA knew about these international terrorist activities and may have even abetted them.

The Chilean secret police, often with the assistance of other Condor partners, carried out a number of international terrorist operations. On September 30, 1974, retired General Carlos Pratts, who Pinochet replaced as head of the Chilean military shortly before the 1973 coup, was killed by a car bomb while living in exile in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In Rome in 1975, DINA operatives attacked and seriously maimed Chilean Christian Democratic politician Bernardo Leighton and his wife.

Papers found in Paraguayan archives in the 1990s reveal that Operation Condor was also linked to the assassination of a Brazilian general and two Uruguayan parliamentarians, as well as to scores of lesser-known political activists. After the murders of Letelier- Moffitt in Washington D.C., the CIA appears to have concluded that Condor was a rogue operation and may have tried to contain its activities. However, the network of Southern Cone military and intelligence operations continued to act throughout Latin America at least until the early 1980s. Chilean and Argentine military units assisted the dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and helped set up death squads in El Salvador. Argentine units also aided and supervised Honduran military death squads that began operating in the early 1980s with the direct assistance and collaboration the CIA.

All these terrorist operations of course need to be placed in the context of the Cold War. It is no secret that the US government in its conflict with the Soviet bloc countries often engaged in unsavory operations, particularly in the third world. But many of these activities have come back to haunt the US. In another ironic historic twist, on the day before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the family of assassinated General Rene Schneider announced that they intend to press charges in the Chilean courts against Henry Kissinger. Their charges are based on declassified US government documents discussed earlier this month on CBS' Sixty Minutes that were provided by the National Security Archive, an independent research and documentation center based in Washington D.C. These documents indicate that after the election of Salvador Allende in September 1970 Kissinger approved a CIA plot to prevent Allende from being inaugurated. This conspiracy lead to the assassination of Schneider over a month later, who as commander in chief of the Chilean army insisted on upholding the will of Chilean voters and the country's constitution.

There are many parallels between the emergence of the terrorist network in Latin America and events in the Middle East and Asia. Osama bin Laden of Saudi Arabia, who is widely believed to be directing the attacks on the United States, first became involved in militant Islamic activities when he went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight with the Mujahidin against the Soviet- backed regime that had taken power in the country. According to the CIA 2000 Fact Book, the Mujahidin were "supplied and trained by the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others." Even in the 1980s it was widely recognized that many of those fighting against the Soviets and the Afghan government were religious fanatics who had no loyalty to their U.S. sponsors, let alone to "American values" like democracy, religious tolerance and gender equality.

As we now know the most radical and fundamentalist sector of the Mujahidin, the Taliban, gained control of most of the country by the late 1990s. Some Taliban leaders openly acknowledge that they allow Osama bin Laden to operate in their country because they are indebted to a man who supported and assisted their rise to power.

What is now disconcerting is that in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon former US government officials and conservative pundits are arguing that bin Laden's international terrorist network has flourished because earlier U.S. collaboration with terrorists were constrained or curtailed. Henry Kissinger who was in Germany on September 11, told the TV networks that the controls imposed on US intelligence operations over the years have facilitated the rise of international terrorism. He alluded to the hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1975 headed by Senator Frank Church, which strongly criticized the covert operations approved by Kissinger when he headed up the National Security Council. The Church hearings lead to the first legal restrictions on CIA activities, including the prohibition of US assassinations of foreign leaders.

Other Republicans, including George Bush Sr. who was director of the CIA when the agency worked with many of these terrorist networks, are pointing the finger at the Clinton administration for allegedly undermining foreign intelligence operations. They argue vehemently against the 1995 presidential order prohibiting the CIA from paying and retaining foreign operatives involved in torture and death squads. These foreign policy hawks are standing historic reality on its head. What happened in New York and Washington is a massive human tragedy. But unless we acknowledge that the U.S. government has been intricately involved in the creation of international terrorist networks and abandon that practice once and for all, the cycle of violence and terrorism will only deepen in the months and years to come. The events of September 11 demonstrate that our borders are no longer impregnable in a globalized world. We must behave more responsibly, ending our own role in the globalization of terror, or there will be many more Septembers as history continues to repeat itself.

Roger Burbach is director of Global Alternatives of CENSA (Center for Emerging National Security Affairs), and author of "Globalization and Postmodern Politics: The Zapatistas and High Tech Robber Barons," Pluto Press, 2001. He is currently working on a book on Pinochet's terrorist activities and on the global human rights movement that opposed his regime.

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