30 Years Ago Today: Terrorism at Sheridan Circle
Terrorism struck then as it does now, without warning. At about 9:45 on Tuesday morning, September 21, 1976, the phone rang. I put down my coffee cup. "I just saw the worst accident," she said, with distress in her voice. My wife then described what she saw on Massachusetts Avenue as she drove to work. "Smoke was pouring out of this wreck of a car. There was blood and stuff all over Sheridan Circle. Someone might have died," she said, clearly shaken. "The Secret Service guys were running around in a panic."
"Sorry you had to see it. What a way to start your work day."
The second phone call, five minutes later, made my hands shake. A bomb had caused the Sheridan Circle "accident." The receptionist at the Institute for Policy Studies, in between shrieks and sobs, informed me of the identity of the three people in the sabotaged car, Orlando Letelier, Ronni and Michael Moffitt - my colleagues, my friends.
The bomb taped to the car's I beam blew upwards and severed Letelier's legs. He died minutes later. Ronni took metal slivers in the throat, one of which sliced an artery. She drowned in her own blood.
The blast blew off the car's back door. Michael flew out, escaping with scrapes and cuts and a lifelong trauma.
The secret service police who guard embassies said he kept screaming: "Pinochet did it" and "DINA did it." They thought he was crazy. In fact, he had identified the killers 30 seconds after they had struck.
When FBI agents interviewed me hours later and asked me who might have done the dirty deed, I replied "DINA." The agent asked: "Do you know her last name?"
I had foolishly assumed that an FBI Agent would know that DINA stood for Chile's intelligence and secret police agency. The Bureau soon learned. Its Agents discovered that in June 1976 General Augusto Pinochet, self proclaimed President and military dictator of Chile, gave orders to DINA's boss Col. Manuel Contreras to assassinate Letelier.
In less than two years, FBI investigators uncovered the relevant details of the terrorist plot that took place less than a mile from the White House. The Bureau concluded that Pinochet himself had to have authorized an assassination in Washington, DC.
Contreras dispatched Michael Townley, an American working for DINA, to coordinate the plot. Townley then engaged Guillermo Novo and his gang of anti-Castro Cubans (Cuban Nationalist Movement) from New Jersey who helped him acquire parts for his bomb. Two of them (Jose Dionisio Suarez and Virgilio Paz) pleaded guilty to "conspiring to assassinate." Each received a 12 year sentence and got paroled after 7. These two were in the car preceding Letelier into Sheridan Circle. One drove and the other pushed the remote control buttons to set off the bomb as Letelier's car entered Sheridan Circle. A jury found Novo and two other conspirators guilty, but their convictions got reversed on appeal. Novo was ultimately convicted of perjury, lying to the grand jury about his knowledge of the assassination plot.
In 1978, when Townley confessed in a plea bargain agreement, he told the FBI the details of how he had gotten orders from Contreras, received the surveillance report on Letelier from Capt. Armando Fernandez Larios and then recruited the Cubans to help finish the dirty deed. He explained at the Washington DC trial in 1980 how he had taped the bomb to Letelier's car two days before the detonation.
In 1979, I watched Townley tell the story to a Federal Court jury as he ratted out his fellow conspirators. He almost boasted about his clever design of a two-stage remote control detonator that the anti-Castro Cubans activated as Letelier's car entered Sheridan Circle.
Townley's quiet monotone in a hushed courtroom made my head throb. His voice had a trace of self pity as he told the jury about problems he encountered in planting the bomb. At 3 a.m. on a quiet residential street in Bethesda, Maryland, he crawled under the parked car and taped the "device" to the I beam. As he was securing his creation, a patrol car flashed its lights down the street. Townley said sweat dripped from his face. His heart pounded with fear. Letelier's car carried that bomb for two days.
The FBI had first learned about Townley from an informant placed inside the Cuban terrorist group. He told the Bureau that a Chilean agent named Wilson had come to recruit the Castro-haters for an assassination job.
Indictments came down some two years after the bloody deed. The Justice Department named Contreras and another high DINA official, Townley and the DINA agent who did the surveillance on Letelier and five Cuban exiles. But the name Pinochet did not appear on the indictment.
FBI Agents shrugged when asked about this "oversight." Larry Barcella, one of the prosecutors, agreed that it was "inconceivable" that such a crime could have occurred without Pinochet's authorization. But that was the world of politics - something the FBI and prosecutors accepted as a given.
That was before 9/11. In his September 21, 2001 address to Congress Bush promised to "pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."
Even though all the evidence in the terrorist bombing of Letelier and Moffitt points directly to Pinochet, Bush has not demanded that Chile extradite him to the United States. Nor did previous Administrations put the bite on Chile. Indeed, Bush has harbored anti-Castro terrorists like Luis Posada Carrilles and Orlando Bosch, both implicated in the sabotage of a Cuban commercial airliner three weeks after the Letelier bombing. Seventy-three people died in that terrorist act.
President Bush I admitted Bosch into the United States. He lives in South Florida and plots with other geezers more terrorism in Cuba - and proudly admits it. Bosch claimed the bombing was "a legitimate act of war," and thus "there were no innocents on that plane." He called all the dead passengers and crew "collaborators." (Kirk Nielsen, Righteous Bombers? Miami New Times, Dec. 5, 2002)
Posada, who not only co-authored the airliner bombing with Bosch, but tried in 1999 to assassinate Castro in Panama, sits in a U.S. jail, charged with illegal entry - not terrorism. Indeed, a federal judge has proposed to free Posada and the U.S. government has made no protest. Such a move would take "harboring" to a new level.
Terrorism, for those who experience it, means death to family members and friends. It signifies future trauma, violent dreams and long-term anxiety. Terrorism means striking terror into people's hearts and minds, whether the means chosen include jet planes firing rockets, planting IEDs or people taping bombs under cars.
Bush, like previous U.S. presidents, has done nothing to seek the extradition of Pinochet, who perpetrated the terrorist act of September 21, 1976. So, when we remember victims of terrorism, like Letelier and Moffitt, we should also recall the duplicitous nature of Bush's war on terrorism. He doesn't really mean it. When he speaks the "t" word, he excludes those who covered their murders with anti-Castro or anti-left rhetoric.
We should also recall that Osama bin Laden and other terrorists of today received CIA backing when they used their murderous impulses against the Soviet Union.
On September 21, 2006, Chilean President Michele Bachelet inaugurated the Orlando Letelier Salon at Chile's UN headquarters, a good way to preserve historical memory. A bust of Ronni Moffitt and Orlando on Sheridan Circle brings some passersby to ask about how a Chilean general whom the U.S. government had supported in a military coup ordered a terrorist act in Washington.
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