Discover more from SpyTalk
The Perilous Path of Assassinations
India's Narendra Modi better watch his step. The knives may come for him.
I would be remiss in letting September pass without noting the car-bomb assassination of Orlando Letelier along Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., 47 years ago this month.
The September 21, 1976 murder of Letelier, a prominent Chilean dissident in exile, carried out by agents of Chile’s savage military dictatorship, proved the maxim that “there are friendly states but no friendly intelligence services,” as Yuri Kobaladze, spokesman for Russia’s post-communist foreign intelligence service, the SVR, once put it. The Chilean regime, having taken power three years earlier in a military coup encouraged by the Nixon administration, was still on friendly terms with The White House when an agent of the Chilean secret police affixed a bomb under Letelier’s car and his helpers set it off. An associate of Letelier’s at the Institute for Policy Studies, Ronni Moffitt, who was riding in the passenger seat, died in the shocking bombing as well.
Only three months earlier, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had visited Santiago and privately told Chile’s dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet—responsible at that point for jailing, torturing and “disappearing” thousands of his fellow citizens: “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.” The assassination of Letelier, who had served successively as minister of foreign affairs, interior and defense in the socialist Allende government overthrown by the generals, was just one murderous mission in a global crusade to wipe out Chilean dissidents abroad, as documented by investigative reporter and author John Dinges in his authoritative The Condor Years and (with Saul Landau) Assassination on Embassy Row.
I was prompted to revisit—and again grieve—the murder of Letelier, a gracious and generous man whom I got to know in the months before his death, by the diplomatic imbroglio that has broken out between India and Canada over the murder in June of a Sikh dissident in exile, Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday that he had “credible allegations potentially linking” India to the murder in British Columbia of Nijjar, a prominent advocate for the creation of a Sikh state known as Khalistan.
If the Letelier case is any guide, it will be several months before the Canadian security services produce court-worthy evidence against the perpetrators, and even less a chance that the suspected authors of the alleged assassination in the extreme Hindu government of Narendra Modi, are indicted, much less extradited, to face justice. But for the moment, Modi seems to have joined a malodorous club.
“If confirmed, India would join Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries credibly accused of plotting lethal attacks overseas against perceived adversaries, including their own citizens, in recent years, according to Western security officials and experts,” The Washington Post’s deeply experienced national security correspondent Greg Miller wrote on Saturday. Following Nijjar’s murder last summer, the FBI warned Sikh activists in the U.S. that their lives, too, could be in danger, according to The Intercept.
When they’re not actually killing opponents abroad, such regimes are conspiring to spy on, harass, kidnap or poison them, as cases implicating Russia, Iran, China and Egypt recently demonstrate. And in this they often get help from informants in U.S. federal, state, and municipal security forces,as SpyTalk reported last year.
And there’s evidently no ceiling to their reach: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was accused this week of giving Egyptian agents sensitive information on personnel assigned to the American embassy in Cairo and helping secure military aid for the repressive regime of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
This is an unsettling trend. Seems like everybody wants in on covert activities in the U.S. Just this week, a State Department contractor of Ethiopian heritage was charged with stealing classified information whose destination was Ethiopia, officials said.
Those are just the ones who are caught. Such “insider threats” are too easily enabled and yet difficult to catch until they turn extravagant in their larceny, it seems, as in the case of the low ranking Air National Guardsman Jack Teixera, who scattered the Internet with scores of top secret documents.
Alas, it hardly needs reminding that Washington occupies a rickety pulpit from which to lecture others on foreign bribery, kidnappings and assassinations. Presidents from Truman through Nixon all left office with bloody hands, as documented by the Church Committee. JFK’s plots to kill or overthrow Fidel Castro are well known. Under Eisenhower, the CIA overthrew elected governments in Guatemala and Iran and repeatedly plotted military coups in Syria. In Vietnam under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the CIA’s Phoenix Program, assisted by U.S and Saigon military units, “neutralized" 81,740 people suspected of Viet Cong membership, of whom 26,369 were killed, with the remainder captured or surrendering, according to a 2006 study by Dale Andrade and James Willbanks. In Indonesia, the CIA supplied the military regime with hit lists to kill the opposition.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, followed by the Sept. 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, caused the George W. Bush administration to dust off Murder Inc. ops, this time against real and suspected terrorists, augmented by torture dungeons and years of willy-nilly assassinations-by-drone.
Proofs in the Pudding
It’s not naïve to ask how that’s turned out. When the CIA gets “a baton” in its hand, as one of its directors famously described Nixon’s order to him to help spur a coup in Chile, it’s not fretting about outcomes way down the road—that’s for the big thinkers above its pay grade. Shoot now, it thinks, let somebody else sort it out later. But the butcher’s bill comes sooner or later. In Iran, it took 25 years, and came with overages.
“Hey, we got 25 years out of the Shah—that’s not so bad,” a former CIA official sardonically cracked to me shortly after the Islamist revolution. It looks a little different 40-plus years later, with a near nuclear-armed regime in Tehran roiling with hatred for the West and bent on destroying Israel.
And so neither Narendra Modi or any other autocrat is going to be lectured by us on political plots, including murder, as Indian agents are suspected of carrying out in Canada.
“This is Modi looking at the world and saying to himself, ‘The United States conducts targeted killings outside of war zones. The Israelis do it. The Saudis do it. The Russians do it. Why not us?’”a former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post's Greg Miller. “And none of the [nations] we just mentioned pay much of a price.”
Modi’s wrong. If he’s opted for murder to squash his opponents, he’ll pay a price for such reckless abandon; the only question is what the cost will be, and when.
America’s results in Vietnam and Iran, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq, speak for themselves. Putin, who obviously needs to watch his back, is paying for assassinations abroad, repression at home and overreach in Ukraine. Netanyahu and his occupation-happy thugs look to be on the ropes. Even MBS, the murderous, modernizing caliph of Riyadh, has to live a very guarded life: there are countless princes who would like to take him down.
Modi’s pretty cocky these days, but he’s playing a very dangerous game. The last Indian prime minister to crack down on the Sikhs, Indira Gandhi, was murdered by her bodyguard.
In Chile, it took decades to get rid of Pinochet. But an ignominious end did come: In October 1998, he was arrested in London, where he was recovering from back surgery, on charges of crimes against humanity. After some 500 days under house arrest, he eluded trial there, courtesy of the U.K. home minister who cited the dictator’s medical condition. But back in Chile, he would spend his remaining days staving off trials and prison until he died from a heart attack in 2006. All those years, Chile remained an international pariah.
There are lessons in this for Modi, or anyone who travels in his shoes.
SpyTalk is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.