Here is a well-told story of murder, mystery, mistresses, dictators, stool pigeons, love affairs, foreign agents, that ends in the best possible way—the FBI gets its man. The only sour note is that the story is true and the victims are real. Former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his assistant, Ronni Moffitt, were assassinated by a bomb detonated in the car they were driving on Sheridan Circle, part of Washington’s Embassy Row. To a reader who confesses to knowing only the outlines of the case, this book appears to be a fine piece of reporting, a work that may not answer every question but that tells us far more about the people and events surrounding September 21, 1976, the date of the killing, than we can expect to know of such foul and secret affairs.

The authors did not intend to write a mystery-adventure story. Theirs is an investigative work with revelatory intent, but the first part of the book recalls The Day of the Jackal as it describes the people, motives, and passions leading up to the staging of the crime. Then, with amazingly detailed exactitude, we learn how the assassination was done, and, finally, how it appeared to Ronni Moffitt’s husband, who escaped death that day because he was in the back seat of the car and the bomb was under the front one:

“The car was picked off the ground,” Moffitt recalled. “I started to smell the most unbelievable stench that I have ever smelled in my life…and there was a lot of heat…. We seemed to come to a stop. I was on the floor on my knees, and I couldn’t feel anything below my waist, and there was smoke.”

Moffitt tumbled out of the car, one shoe off, stunned. He pulled fresh air into his seared lungs. “I saw Ronni from the back, kind of walking or stumbling toward the curb.” He did not see Orlando [Letelier].

Moffitt ran around the wreckage to the driver’s side. Then he saw him. “There was a huge hole in the car, and Orlando was turned around, facing the back of the car, and his head was more or less hanging back and he was moving his head back and forth….” Moffitt reached into the smoking car, around jagged metal edges, and “managed to get my wrists and part of my forearm under his shoulders and tried to lift him, and he just seemed to be very heavy…. I looked down and I could see the bare flesh, the bottom half of his body blown off.”

Before this terrible moment the reader has followed the life and career of Letelier, a man of unusual charm, intelligence, and humane dedication to his country. But also depicted is the childhood and youth of the Jackal, Michael Townley, son of an American businessman stationed in Chile, who chose to stay there after his parents left. The two authors have collected an astonishing amount of information about this assassin, drawing a picture of an uncertain young man, stretched between two national identities, who apparently felt compelled to serve one with an ineffably obedient tenacity. But there were also two Chiles for Townley to choose between. In one fashion or another, perhaps because his American father was a man of conservative politics, he pumped himself up with the sort of anti-communism that led him to embrace the Chile of Augusto Pinochet rather than the Chile of Salvador Allende.

Townley combined a talent for electronic gadgetry with a knowledge of explosives, making himself useful to rightist terrorist groups before the coup d’état and afterward to the new fascist government. Townley fled back to Chile after committing his murder and was eventually coughed up by the Chilean government. Much information on him turned up in the course of the trial of his Cuban confederates—he himself pleaded guilty. Nevertheless, to give so detailed a portrait Dinges and Landau must have extracted a great deal of information from people who could not have been eager to volunteer colorful details. The fullness of this account is what makes it so readable.

After the first story, that of the murder, there comes the detective story, the tale of how the plot was exposed and how the killer, although not the man who ordered the murders, was brought into a court of law. That could be part two for a TV “docudrama” based on this book: the story of how the FBI, which was biased against Letelier for his Marxism, suspicious that his own team might have arranged the bombing to discredit the new Chile of the concentration camp and torture dungeon—how this FBI was still able to see the evidence for what it was. Within a week a cable arrived in Washington from Special Agent Robert Scherrer, stationed in Buenos Aires. He had smelled out the plot, though it would take a year of counterplotting to get near proving Scherrer’s suspicions:


Subject: Operation Condor, possible relation to Letelier assassination. Operation Condor is the code name for the collection, exchange and storage of intelligence data concerning leftists, communists and Marxists which was recently established between the cooperating services in South America in order to eliminate terrorists and their activities in the area…. Chile is the center for Operation Condor, and in addition it includes Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. Brazil has also tentatively agreed to supply input for Operation Condor.

A…more secret phase of Operation Condor involves the formation of special teams from member countries to travel anywhere in the world to nonmember countries to carry out sanctions, [including] assassinations….

It went against the grain and the ideals of these law enforcement officers, including the supervising attorneys in the Justice Department, to test the hypothesis that in this case it was the anticommunists who were the bad guys. But that’s where the evidence pointed and that’s where they went. It may have been doubly difficult because Letelier, during the period after his release from Pinochet’s concentration camp and his exile in the United States, was associated with the Institute for Policy Studies, the only left-wing, although not Marxist, think-tank in the country.

The authors write that only two years before the murder,

IPS had filed suit for damages against the FBI. Based on the reports of two former FBI informants, the Institute charged the bureau with illegally planting informants inside IPS, tapping its phones, opening its mail, and keeping fellows under surveillance over the years 1968-1972…. The FBI admitted to a House Investigating Committee in 1975 that it had placed sixty-two informants in IPS.

So, given honorable and competent leadership, which it apparently had under Attorney General Edward Levi, the bureau can be trusted. The authors don’t fail to praise the agents, one of whom had a girlfriend, an airline flight attendant who was stopped at JFK by a man who told her, “Your little friend had better keep his fucking nose out of Chile’s business. Or you won’t be so pretty any more. Boom. Boom. You know what I mean?” Nevertheless, the quality of the book’s praise for officialdom is strained. The writers believe that the government did not put enough pressure on Chile to deliver Manuel Contreras, the head of the Chilean secret police, for trial here for ordering the murders. Since the book explains at close hand, and often in colorful detail, how close Contreras is to Pinochet, it’s unlikely that any amount of pushing on our part would have won us this dangerous condor. Any dictator who turns over his closest collaborators to a foreign country for trial and imprisonment isn’t likely to stay seated on his white horse for long.

The authors also charge that the government didn’t make the investigation into violent, anti-leftist groups wide enough or public enough. Their opinion is understandable given that one of them. Saul Landau, was a good friend of Letelier’s as well as a colleague at the Institute, but to other eyes the case or at least its victim may appear more complicated. That Letelier was receiving money from the dead Allende’s daughter. Tati, who is living in Cuba and is married to a Cuban official, could have given the background to the murder a different aspect to Americans who find a phrase like Third World Liberation Struggle sitting awkwardly on their tongues.

If the writers’ criticism of the Justice Department strikes the reader as not so much wrong as rather too demanding, not so with the CIA. In particular, it seems that George Bush, who was the agency’s director during the period of the investigation, preferred for reasons of state not to assist in the discovery of the culprits if they were going to turn out to be the agents of a friendly foreign government’s anticommunist zealotry.

It takes some explaining to understand what Bush did. Townley and a fellow officer in DINA, the Chilean version of SAVAK, were ordered to proceed with Letelier’s assassination by assuming Romeral and Williams as phony last names, going to Paraguay to get United States entry visas, and then coming here to do the job. The American ambassador in Paraguay, George Landau, smelled something funny, revoked the visas, and sent Xeroxes of the passports as well as copies of Townley’s and the other man’s pictures to Washington with a request that anyone using these names be stopped at the port of entry. Landau also cabled an account of all this to the CIA.

Since DINA still wanted Townley to do the hit, the Chileans decided it would be necessary to throw the Americans off the trail by having two other DINA men, using the names of Romeral and Williams, come to Washington. The decoys arrived in Washington and made themselves conspicuous, calling on the CIA and generally making sure their presence was noted. If the FBI had known of these shenanigans designed to put them onto a false investigatory path, the writers say the case would have been solved sooner and perhaps more fully:


…several Justice Department officials met CIA Director Bush to discuss procedures for CIA cooperation in the Letelier case investigation. At that meeting, according to one of those present, Bush talked about Operation Condor but did not say a word about the Romeral and Williams pictures and the Paraguay incident. Nor did Bush…or anyone else from the CIA subsequently volunteer their information about Chile’s undercover mission to…the FBI. Instead of providing information that pointed the finger of suspicion at DINA and Chile, the CIA seems to have done just the opposite. Stories appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Washington Star and The New York Times saying the CIA had concluded that DINA had nothing to do with the Letelier assassination. CIA director Bush was reported to have personally informed Secretary of State Kissinger of his conclusion about DINA’s innocence.

What of Mr. Bush’s innocence? Who will inform us of that? Perhaps as the campaign grinds along, he will tell us his version of these transactions so that we’re not left with the suspicion that Mr. Bush is the sort of chap who is soft on street crime if committed for the right motives.

Assassination on Embassy Row deals with men like George Bush only peripherally but it does deal with them frequently enough to suggest that there are a lot of people in middling to high places who aren’t excessively bothered by the crime of murder. We see those who will overlook it for reasons of state, others in the State Department bureaucracy who see nothing without a hint from their superiors, and still others who look past it to focus on grander ideals.

These last are “the Chicago Boys,” as they’re referred to in the book, protégés or at least disciples of Milton Friedman’s, called to the other end of the Western Hemisphere to advise on the expunging of Allende’s socialism and its replacement with the free market system. Dinges and Landau maintain that it was the free market group inside Pinochet’s government, afraid that bad publicity in America would imperil economic relations, which pushed the Chileans into putting Townley on a plane where the FBI was waiting to escort him home.

To that extent, “the Chicago Boys” appear to have served the cause of justice. Still, questions of propriety if not ethics remain. Should one go to work for or rent out expert skills to a government that achieved power by murdering its predecessors and that has kept its more vociferous living opponents in concentration camps and torture chambers? We sell the most advanced equipment to the Russians. It’s said that they rode into Afghanistan in trucks manufactured at the American-designed. American-built Kama River truck factory. Dr. Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum has become something of a national business hero selling every imaginable sort of thing to the Russians for six decades. Then why shouldn’t Mr. Friedman’s apostolic messengers rent out their services to the Chileans? Are Pinochet’s concentration camps worse than Brezhnev’s? If the free market won’t set you free from the camps, at least it leaves you free to pick the soap with the scent that pleases you.

As for Sr. Pinochet, he should know or his protocol chief should have told him that he injures the accepted norms and the etiquette of nations by murdering an opponent on the territory of a friend and ally. That’s the kind of thing that ill-brought-up Bulgarians and Libyans do. In his defense, let it be said that when he issued the order, he was still relatively new to the work of dictating or junta-izing.

Murder is done here so often, there are nights when the country reverberates like a shooting gallery, but the crime statistics reveal that most murders are committed on victims known to their killers. This fact can be taken as a measure of our fabled American friendliness and as reason for our resentment at people being sent here from afar to do it at the behest of foreigners and strangers.

Michael Townley will be eligible for parole a year from this October. He says he’s glad he did it, proud of the deed, and that he wants to go back to Chile where he will presumably resume his life as a 007, for even the Jackal must eat.

This Issue

September 25, 1980