March 6, 2001
New Files Tie U.S. to Deaths of Latin Leftists in 1970's
By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO
WASHINGTON, March 5 - A recently declassified State Department document
shows that Latin
American officers involved in Operation Condor, the joint effort in the
1970's by right-wing governments to crush left-wing opposition, used an
American communications installation to share intelligence.
A cable to the State Department in 1978 from the United States ambassador
to Paraguay at the time, Robert E. White, quoted the chief of staff to the
dictator Alfredo Stroessner as saying an American installation in the Canal
Zone was "employed to coordinate intelligence information" among South
America countries. "Obviously," the cable said, "this is the Condor
network, which all of us have heard about over the last few years."
Mr. White wrote that he had not independently confirmed the accuracy of the
Paraguayan's report. But he recommended that Secretary of State Cyrus
R. Vance "review this arrangement to insure that its continuation is in
the U.S. interest."
To Mr. White's knowledge, he said recently, the review was never done.
But the cable appeared to open new avenues of inquiry about the American
role in Condor, a shadowy operation to stamp out the Latin American left
that, among other things, dispatched death squads to kill critics at home
Documents already made public have shown that the F.B.I. helped Condor's
efforts early on by investigating South American leftists who were arrested
and, in at least one case, tortured.
The cable was discovered by a Long Island University professor, Patrice
McSherry, among thousands of documents being declassified on American
relations with South American dictatorships.
If Latin American officers did use American facilities to transmit
intelligence, this would have provided United States officials the
opportunity to monitor Condor activities closely.
Lt. Gen. Samuel Wilson, retired, who was director of the Defense
Intelligence Agency through August 1977, said, "If such an arrangement
existed on an institutional basis, I would have known about it, and I did
not then and do not now."
However, he added, "that such an arrangement could have been made locally
on an ad hoc basis is not beyond the realm of probability."
But Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, said
the cable implied "foreknowledge, cooperation and total access" to the
plans and operations of Condor.
"The degree to which the U.S.A. knew about and supported these operations
has remained secret until now," he said. "The layers of the onion are
peeling away here."
Officially, Condor arose as a defense against Communist-inspired terrorism,
but its victims included government officials ousted in United
States-supported military coups, trade unionists, rights advocates and
suspected socialists. By 1978 investigators were tying Condor to the
killing of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean foreign minister, and Ronni
Moffitt, an American colleague, in 1976 when the car in which they were
riding exploded in Washington.
In his cable, Ambassador White recounted a meeting with a Paraguayan
general, Alejandro Fretes Davalos, shortly after a Chilean official visited
Paraguay to discuss the Letelier case. Mr. White surmised that in telling
him American channels were being used to transmit intelligence for Condor,
the generals hoped to fend off questions from the United States Justice
Department about their role in the killings.
The cable said Condor nations "keep in touch with one another through a
U.S. communications installation in the Panama Canal zone, which covers
all of Latin America."
"This U.S. communications facility is used mainly by student officers to
call home to Latin America," the cable continued, "but it is also employed
to coordinate intelligence information among the Southern Cone countries.
They maintain the confidentiality of their communication through the U.S.
facility in Panama by using bilateral codes."
Mr. White, who currently runs the Center for International Policy, a
research organization, sent his message directly to Secretary Vance in
recognition of its sensitivity and his recommendation. In a recent
interview, however, he said he had received no response: "Nobody reacted in
any way, shape or form."
"What it suggests to me is that people in the U.S. government really
actively worked not to have this knowledge, this evidence, in play," he
said. "There are thousands of telegrams that come in each day. It's very
easy to just drop one down that big memory hole."
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