U.S. leaders are using Pinochet's playbook

December 09, 2005|By PETER KORNBLUH

WASHINGTON -- It has been 30 years since the Chilean military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet convened a "strictly secret" convention of officers from the repressive neighboring military regimes to create a Latin American "Interpol" dedicated to fighting leftist subversion and terrorism. By the end of their clandestine three-day gathering, the delegates proposed to honor their hosts in Santiago by naming this new cross-border consortium after Chile's national bird, the Andean condor.

Operation Condor soon became one of the most sinister transnational forces in the world.

During the mid- and late 1970s, the secret police agencies of the Southern Cone - Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia - as well as Peru and Brazil, actively consorted in the surveillance, kidnapping, secret detention, torture and elimination of dozens of militant and civilian opponents of their regimes.

With General Pinochet and his officers now being prosecuted for these atrocities, three decades later, the crimes of Condor remain relevant to the international uproar that the Bush administration is facing over the methods of "rendition" and torture that the CIA is using in today's war on terrorism.

Under the leadership of the Pinochet regime, Condor became a sophisticated system of multilateral repression. Condor nations shared intelligence and communications through a special cryptographic system provided by Brazil known as Condortel. Agents from one nation would fly to another to organize kidnappings, covert transportation of suspects and brutal interrogations at secret detention centers. Often the Condor victim would be secretly rendered back to his country of origin to another secret torture camp for further interrogation before being killed.

These operations were conducted in the name of countering terrorism. "The terrorist problem is general to the entire Southern Cone. To combat it, we are encouraging joint efforts to integrate with our neighbors," Argentine Foreign Minister Cesar Guzzetti told Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in 1976, according to a secret memorandum.

In fact, these joint efforts were acts of state-sponsored international terror. Among their operations, Condor regimes targeted specific individuals for death. A declassified CIA summary noted in 1977 that the Condor nations would "undertake the assassination of allegedly subversive opponents of participating governments residing in Western Europe or Latin America."

In the most infamous of Condor missions, former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and an American associate, Ronni Moffitt, were killed by a car bomb in downtown Washington in September 1976.

Until 9/11, the assassination of Mr. Letelier and Mrs. Moffitt was considered the most egregious act of international terrorism ever to be committed in our nation's capital.

Since 9/11, the United States has conducted its own aggressive war on international terrorism, as indeed it should. The methods of dealing with suspected terrorists authorized by the Bush White House, however, are shockingly similar to those practiced by the Southern Cone secret police forces during the heyday of Operation Condor.

Just as General Pinochet ordered his secret police to create Condor, President Bush has authorized the CIA to organize a system of "rendition." The CIA also relies on covert international collaboration between secret police services to kidnap suspects, secretly transport them to a network of clandestine detention centers and brutally abuse them during indefinite interrogations.

The Condor nations were the first to practice the art of rendition. Their prisoners became known as the "disappeared." Today, suspected terrorists who have been rendered by the CIA to other nations such as Jordan, Egypt, Morocco or Romania are known as "ghost detainees."

The methods of interrogation also are similar. Condor victims were submitted to what their Southern Cone torturers called "the submarine." Mr. Bush has authorized a series of "enhanced interrogation techniques" that includes "waterboarding" - simulated drowning - which is the CIA's modernized version of the same type of torture.

Even the official denials sound the same. "We do not torture," President Bush stated recently. "The United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated as she arrived in Europe this week.

In the wake of overwhelming evidence that U.S. officials have authorized, condoned and even committed acts of torture - in some cases torturing prisoners to death in Iraq and Afghanistan - those denials carry about as much credibility as General Pinochet's did during his 17-year dictatorship.

Ms. Rice faces a furor in Europe, where citizens are condemning the CIA for engaging in human rights abuses and for using Europe to facilitate ongoing atrocities. And that repudiation also has echoes of the near-universal condemnation of the barbaric practices of the Condor nations three decades ago.

But there is a fundamental difference between then and now. The Condor countries were understood to be vicious police states. The United States purports to be the leader of the civilized world.

Peter Kornbluh is a foreign policy analyst and the author of "The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability." His e-mail is peter.kornbluh@gmail.com.

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