Official Washington has changed its criteria for evaluating terrorism. In October 1976, before suspected terrorists had Arab names and received indeterminate sentences without charges, lawyers or trials at the Guantanamo Gulag, Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch planted a bomb on a Cuban commercial airliner flying over Barbados. More than 70 people died. Three weeks earlier, on September 21, the Iowa-born Michael Townley, working for Chile’s secret police, planted a bomb under Orlando Letelier’s car in Washington, DC.
In the early and mid 1970s and throughout the 1980s (except Jimmy Carter’s years 1977-81), the United States installed and backed murderous regimes throughout the third world. Indeed, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger under Nixon and Ford preferred “authoritarian regimes,” the euphemism Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick subsequently used for pro-US military dictatorships, because they caused fewer problems than elected governments.
Kissinger and Nixon had encouraged the 1973 coup in Chile, led by General Augusto Pinochet, against the elected government of Socialist President Salvador Allende. With US approval, Pinochet then established DINA, a secret police-intelligence apparatus that over his 17 years of rule (ending in 1990) murdered more than 3,190 people and tortured tens of thousands more. In addition, he initiated Operation Condor in 1975, a network of intelligence-secret police agencies throughout Latin America, so that he and fellow military dictators could assassinate their “enemies” abroad.
DINA recruited brutes to torture and murder as well as “specialists.” Townley, who hadn’t fulfilled his business executive-father’s expectations, did teach himself (via manuals) electronics and explosives.
I first saw Townley in 1979, testifying in Washington’s Federal Court, against his fellow conspirators. He admitted to attaching a bomb to the I-beam of a Chevrolet belonging to Orlando Letelier, Allende’s Defense Minister. He had equipped the “device” with a two-stage remote control detonator that two anti-Castro Cubans activated on September 21, 1976 as Letelier’s car entered Washington’s Sheridan Circle.
The Embassy Row blast, less than a mile from the White House, severed Letelier’s legs and sent lethal shrapnel into 25 year old Ronni Moffitt’s throat. She had been sitting next to Letelier. They had both worked together at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her husband, Michael, miraculously escaped with minor injuries.
Townley confessed that his superiors in DINA had ordered him to kill Letelier, and that he had recruited five anti-Castro Cuban exiles to help him with the task. Townley reached a plea bargain with the federal prosecutors and ratted out his fellow conspirators. The bargai8n included a clause requiring Townley to testify truthfully about other crimes in which he had taken part.
So, in February of this year, Chilean judge Alejandro Solis deposed Michael Townley still protected of course by his plea bargain — about he had assassinated another Pinochet enemy.
Townley readily admitted that he had assassinated the exiled Chilean General Carlos Prats and his wife in Buenos Aires, but that he was only “following orders” of his DINA bosses.
Although his story doesn’t have the trendy qualities of modern suicide bombings in Western cities, Townley’s words should nevertheless send chills down the spine of sensitive people. This terrorist, who has been living under the witness protection program in the United States for many of the last 20 years, described in cold and precise language how he made, then “installed and detonated the bomb in General Prats’ car using two radios and pieces of a walkie talkie” (Andrea Chaparro La Nacion, July 30).
“I made a call from one transmitter to the other and the electronic impulse activated the explosion,” he explained. Ironically, the fanatic Muslim killers used similar devices to set off their March 11, 2004 explosions in Madrid — using cell phones rather than the more primitive electronics of the 1970s.
Twenty five years earlier, Townley’s monotone brought silence to the courtroom as he told a jury about the problems he encountered and overcame in making and planting the Letelier car bomb. He had to crawl under Letelier’s car at 3 a.m. on a quiet residential street in Bethesda, Maryland and tape the bomb to the car. At one point, a patrol car drove down the street and Townley described how sweat dripped from his face, and his heart pounded with fear that the cop would see him.
Letelier’s car carried the bomb for two days. On Sunday night, some twenty hours after Townley had installed the deadly device, Letelier and I rested our elbows on the car’s hood, parked safely in his driveway.
Similarly, Townley told Judge Solis of his vicissitudes in getting the bomb on Prats’ car. “One day I found Prats’ garage door open and went in, but I had to hide at a lower parking level for several hours because the concierge was really on the job. When I could finally go up to the level where he parked his car, I went under it and attached the bomb with a cord to a cross piece underneath the car’s engine.” Townley also had to wait anxiously for the opportunity to leave the garage unseen.
Prior to that, he had “spent several days trying to find the General until finally I caught up with him on the night of September 30, 1974. I saw him near the entrance to his garage. The detonator I inserted into the C-4 and TNT explosive had remained armed. So, I detonated it. I didn’t notice anyone else in the general’s car.” Did he not see Prats’ wife, Sofia Cuthbert, sitting next to him?
So poof! Parts of the Prats sailed as high as nine floors. Townley later told the FBI how he had perfected both his bomb making and detonating skills in the ensuing two years between killing Prats and Letelier. In Letelier’s case, he had shaped the charge to blow straight up, thus severing his legs and not spreading his parts all over the place.
In 1975, Townley also confessed to the FBI with immunity from prosecution–that he had arranged under DINA orders the assassination of Bernardo Leighton, a Christian Democratic leader exiled in Rome. Townley contracted with Italian fascists to shoot Leighton and his wife in their heads. They both survived, but were effectively “neutralized.”
Townley also told of DINA plans to kill other exiled Chilean political leaders in Europe and Mexico. These lethal plots included using his then wife Mariana as part of the hit team. Fortunately, several of these plans went awry.
Now in his mid 60s and using a new name, but no longer in the Witness Protection Program, Townley told Judge Solis what he had already reported previously to FBI agents more than 25 years earlier. At a “friendly dinner” his DINA bosses explained why Prats needed killing.
Lt. Col. Pedro Espinoza, DINA’s operations chief said: “You know, General Prats is a menace in Argentina we’d like to get rid of him. But we haven’t figured out how to do it.”
By challenging his manhood and talents, Espinoza successfully baited Townley, who replied: “OK, I think I can do it, but you have to help me with some specifics, his address, personal details and very important, if he drives a car, because then I can install a bomb.”
Espinoza and Col. Raúl Iturriaga Neumann, head of DINA’s foreign bureau, explained that Prats might lead an uprising against the regime that would include units of the armed forces. Since Prats still enjoyed substantial prestige in certain sectors of the army, he constituted a menace to the State (Jorge Escalante La Nación July 29).
DINA chief Col. Manuel Contreras, Townley said, ordered these international hits and then created an organization out of the ingenious notion of networking state terror through intelligence agencies. FBI agents Scherrrer and L. Carter Cornick, who investigated the assassinations, concluded that it was “inconceivable” that the hit had taken place without Pinochet’s authorization. The Attorney General has yet to indict Pinochet for the crime.
The US government had known that Pinochet had given orders to kill Prats and Leighton in 1974 and 1975, so it didn’t require Sherlock Holmes to link him to Letelier’s assassination as well. But in those days, the Cold War, not the threat of Muslim terror, justified massive deviations from Christian morality. Indeed, lots of people like Michael Townley killed in the name of anti communism. Townley called himself “a soldier in my army” and defined his enemies as “soldiers in their army,” despite the fact that neither Letelier nor Prats belonged to an army at the time he assassinated them. The “enemy” was communism, socialism, whatever appeared even vaguely linked to the Soviet Union.
Thanks to the generous plea bargain offered by the US government, Townley served only five years of a ten year sentence and now walks freely on US streets. In the prison cells of Guantanamo, the inmates might well compare the treatment of terrorists in the days of “authoritarian regimes” and those held in the “spreading of democracy era” because a suspicion exists that they might think of planning terrorism.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He wrote Assassination on Embassy Row (with John Dinges) on the Letelier Moffitt murders.