'A Cold Blooded Assessment'

Chile coup documents resonate in different ways today, with the U.S. facing foreign interference

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Fifty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to meddle in Chile, to stop the likely election of a socialist, Salvador Allende. If that failed, Nixon told CIA Director Richard Helms, he wanted the spy agency to make Chile’s economy “scream” until conditions were right for a military coup. It didn’t matter that the agency assessed the chance of success at 1 to 10.

On September 4, 1970, Allende won, but Nixon never relented. Four days after the election, White House National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger assembled a top-secret group of officials and asked for “a cold blooded assessment” of the pros and cons of supporting a military coup against the democratically elected government, according to documents assembled by the National Security Archive, a private research organization affiliated with the George Washington University. 

As superpower playbooks go, the result was a masterpiece: The violent coup that eventually replaced Allende with General Augusto Pinochet installed a reliably pro-U.S., pro-business regime. 

What these documents show is the unrelenting determination of the U.S., one of the world’s two superpowers, to overthrow a weak government. The first time around in 1970, Washington failed to fix the election, and it failed to engineer a military coup. But three years later, with the Chilean economy indeed screaming from American pressure, the Chilean generals were able to act—and received the U.S. government’s applause. 

A half century later, the U.S. economy is the one screaming. Staggering under the weight of a pandemic-driven health emergency, mass unemployment, racial strife and a loss of faith in American institutions, including the guarantee of free and fair elections, the government seems ripe for a takeover. But it’s a U.S. president, backed by a foreign power, and some of his cronies who are threatening election violence and even a refusal to leave office if defeated.

It’s not hard to imagine how, back in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin, like Nixon and Kissinger 50 years ago, summoned his own advisers to the Kremlin for a “cold blooded assessment” of his chances for putting his own guy in power in America. Buoyed by that success, he’s now helping paralyzing the U.S. by secretly fostering violent chaos.

The Mueller report concluded Russia “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a bipartisan report in August saying the Kremlin has waged a campaign to discredit the Mueller investigation and is using social media today to stir up cultural and racial discord.

The Russians call it active measures. In 1970, and still today, we call it covert action.

The shoe, as they say, is on the other foot.

Under Kissinger’s direction, the CIA didn’t overthrow the Chilean government, but it stirred up enough economic and political chaos to make the generals’ job easy. Their regime quickly turned murderous: During its 16-year reign of terror, Pinochet’s army and secret police not only killed and “disappeared” more than 3,000 of its own citizens, it launched a global program to hunt down and assassinate its dissidents abroad, including, most notably, Orlando Letelier, the Allende government’s former defense minister and ambassador to the U.S., who had taken refuge in Washington, D.C. On the night of September 18, 1976, a Chilean agent crawled under Letelier’s car in his Bethesda, Maryland driveway and attached a bomb, which was activated remotely three days later as he drove to work in the city. Letelier died almost instantly. Ronni Karpen Moffitt, the wife of Letelier’s young assistant Michael Moffit, was also killed in the blast. 

The “cold blooded” Kissinger memo was just one of hundreds on the Chilean coup that the Obama administration declassified and the National Security Archive has published. Since its founding in 1985 by journalists and scholars to check rising government secrecy,” the organization has been unearthing formerly classified documents on not just on Chile but many other chapters of the Cold War, such as once-secret papers pertaining to U.S. relations with Russia and China.

Kissinger’s team eventually produced National Security Study Memorandum 97, which “contained a TOP SECRET annex titled ‘Extreme Option: Overthrow Allende,’ which addressed the assumptions, advantages, and disadvantages of a military coup if Allende was elected,” according to Peter Kornbluth, who directs the archive’s Cuba and Chile documentation projects.

John Dinges, a Washington Post correspondent in Chile during the coup and author of The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents, calls the trove invaluable.

“The Chile documents have exposed the dark secrets of U.S, support for enemies of democracy abroad,” he told SpyTalk. “They give us an amazingly complete and incontrovertible record of a sordid chapter in our history, when military dictatorship was preferred to democracy to avert the specter of a successful socialist model for poor countries.”

“What happened in Chile has echoes today,” added Dinges, a SpyTalk contributing editor who is updating his Condor book with significant new information. “The U.S. government was trying to reverse a legitimate election result in a peaceful democratic country. The top Chilean military leadership was firmly opposed to the election meddling and the CIA knew it.” 

“The plot,” he says, “was a tragic failure.”

Update, Nov. 3, 2020: The National Security Archive posts a collection of documents “that provide a comprehensive record of how and why President Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, established and pursued a policy of destabilization in Chile—operations that ‘created the conditions as best as possible,’ as Kissinger later put it, for the September 11, 1973 military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power.”