The Washington Post
March 23, 2000
U.S. Probe Of Pinochet Reopened
1976 Car Bombing Here Killed Chilean Ex-Envoy Letelier

                  By Vernon Loeb and David A. Vise
                  Washington Post Staff Writers
                  Thursday, March 23, 2000; Page A01

                  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

                  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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