Published on Thursday, March 23, 2000 in the Washington Post
US Reopens Probe Into Pinochet's Role In DC's 1976 Embassy Row Murders
by Vernon Loeb and David A. Vise
The Justice Department has reopened a long-dormant grand jury investigation aimed at indicting Gen. Augusto Pinochet for a notorious 1976 car bombing that killed former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and an American colleague on Washington's Embassy Row.
Six people were sent to prison years ago for the bombing, but the U.S. government had not targeted Pinochet for prosecution until the former dictator was arrested in Britain 17 months ago on a warrant from a Spanish judge looking into the murder of Spanish citizens in Chile during the 1970s.
Galvanized by the Spanish effort, U.S. human rights activists and victims' relatives demanded that the Justice Department revive its investigation into whether Pinochet ordered the assassination of Letelier, a prominent opponent of his regime. The powerful blast on Sept. 21, 1976, tore through Letelier's car as he drove into Sheridan Circle, killing him instantly and fatally wounding his 25-year-old American colleague, Ronni Moffitt.
The chances that Pinochet, if indicted, would be extradited to the United States to stand trial are remote, given his failing health and a host of legal problems posed by the antiquated extradition treaty between the two nations. But U.S. officials say an indictment would have symbolic value and could ratchet up the pressure on Chile to try Pinochet for human rights abuses during his 17 years in power.
"You've got to send a message with [terrorist] investigations, no matter how far back they go," said Thomas P. Carey, a counterterrorism official in the FBI's Washington Field Office. "This was really a heinous crime."
As part of the grand jury investigation, U.S. prosecutors have been seeking to interview witnesses in Chile. Yesterday, a team of American law enforcement officials arrived in Santiago for court proceedings involving 42 potential witnesses subpoenaed by Chile's Supreme Court on behalf of the U.S. government.
The Chilean high court approved the proceedings a week ago, the latest in a dramatic series of legal turns that have raised the possibility that Pinochet may be held responsible for thousands of murders and incidents of torture during his rule from 1973 through 1990. The court acted on the U.S. request less than two weeks after Pinochet's emotional return to Chile on March 3 from Britain, where authorities had released him on grounds of poor health.
"The wheels of justice sometimes are very slow," said Isabel Letelier, the ambassador's widow, who lived for 30 years in Washington and now resides in Santiago.
Letelier said she received assurances last week from a senior Justice Department official that the U.S. government is "vigorously" pursuing the case. She also said that Chile's new government, headed by Ricardo Lagos, a Pinochet-era dissident and the country's first socialist president in 27 years, is committed to working with U.S. investigators.
"I think they are trying," Letelier said, referring to Justice Department officials. "Why would they say that to me if it were not true? I don't have any power. I only have the conviction that Pinochet was behind many murders, and my husband's is one of them."
Federal prosecutors in Washington have begun gathering evidence in an attempt to link Pinochet to Letelier's murder and, possibly, to expand the probe to include obstruction of justice. Strong cooperation from the CIA has helped the investigation gather momentum, and officials now are considering impaneling a new grand jury, law enforcement officials said.
An earlier grand jury indicted the former head of Chile's secret police--the National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA--and seven others in 1978 for killing Letelier as part of a global operation to eliminate the exiled critics of Pinochet's junta, which overthrew the socialist government of President Salvador Allende in 1973. Evidence at the time came close to implicating Pinochet, and former prosecutors say they are convinced that Pinochet authorized Letelier's murder.
In a series of trials between 1978 and 1990, two DINA operatives and two Cuban exiles were convicted and imprisoned in the United States for the bombing. In 1993, Chilean courts, using evidence developed largely by U.S. prosecutors, convicted the head of DINA, Manuel Contreras, and DINA's operations director, Pedro Espinoza, for masterminding the plot. Both are still in prison.
According to evidence in the various trials, DINA operatives destroyed Letelier's Chevrolet Chevelle with a remote-control bomb. Sitting next to him in the front seat was Moffitt, a colleague at Washington's Institute for Policy Studies, who was hit in the neck by a metal shard from the blast. Michael Moffitt, her husband, survived in the car's back seat, only to watch his bride of four months die on the street.
The bombing is still considered the most notorious act of international terrorism ever committed in Washington, and some law enforcement officers note that it is the only fully-proven case of state-sponsored terrorism on American soil. FBI officials also say that they feel a sense of urgency to complete the investigation--still known by its original case name, CHILBOM--while the 84-year-old Pinochet is still alive.
Investigators from the FBI Washington Field Office's Joint Terrorism Task Force began working with CIA officers in recent months to refine lists of individuals who might have had close access to Pinochet in the weeks surrounding the Letelier bombing.
"The Department of Justice, fairly recently, reinvigorated its investigation of the Letelier case," one senior intelligence official said. "They asked us for help, and we were happy to provide it."
The FBI has also sent investigators to Santiago. But officials said U.S. agents have been able to conduct only informal interviews there because of the lack of a formal relationship with Chilean investigators, which U.S. officials may seek in the future.
The process approved last week by the Chilean Supreme Court's criminal bench requires all 42 witnesses to appear for sworn interviews before a Chilean judge, who will ask questions provided by U.S. authorities in January. U.S. prosecutors and FBI agents will not be allowed in the courtroom, where U.S. interests will be represented by a Chilean attorney, Alfredo Etcheberry.
Contreras and Espinoza are among those on the list, in addition to numerous other former military officers, DINA officials and Cabinet ministers.
The most intriguing new evidence to surface is an affidavit, written by Espinoza in 1978, saying that the operation against Letelier was ordered by the president of Chile, according to John Dinges, a journalist and author who said he obtained the affidavit from a Chilean reporter.
If Espinoza corroborates the document during his interview, former federal prosecutor E. Lawrence Barcella Jr. said, his testimony could give prosecutors enough evidence to seek an indictment of Pinochet for conspiracy to murder a foreign official.
The Justice Department first filed court papers, known as letters rogatory, requesting the interviews in August. The papers were sent to the Chilean Justice Ministry after Samuel J. Buffone, a lawyer for the Letelier and Moffitt families, and other legal and human rights activists lobbied officials at the Justice and State departments to reopen the case as international legal pressure grew to bring Pinochet to justice.
A recently declassified 1978 CIA analysis, entitled "Chile: Implications of the Letelier Case," concluded that it would be hard to imagine that Pinochet wasn't involved in the car bombing. "None of the government's critics and few of its supporters," the analysis stated, "would be willing to swallow claims that Contreras acted without presidential concurrence."
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