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
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
The Chilean high court approved the proceedings a week ago, the latest
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
"The wheels of justice sometimes are very slow," said Isabel Letelier,
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
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,
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
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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