The Washington Post
Sunday, May 28, 2000; Page A01

Pinochet Probers Tout New Evidence

                  Some See Chilean As Indictable in '76 Bombing Here

                  By Vernon Loeb and David A. Vise
                  Washington Post Staff Writers

                  Federal investigators have uncovered evidence that some of them believe is
                  sufficient to indict Gen. Augusto Pinochet for conspiracy to commit murder
                  in the 1976 car bombing that killed a former Chilean diplomat and
                  opposition politician, Orlando Letelier, on Washington's Embassy Row.

                  Among the evidence is testimony that an angry Pinochet intervened to strip
                  Letelier of his Chilean citizenship days before the assassination on Sept.
                  21, 1976, which also killed a 25-year-old American colleague of
                  Letelier's, Ronni Moffitt.

                  Justice Department officials said they do not minimize the difficulty of
                  indicting Pinochet for acts that took place 24 years ago in a foreign
                  country. And even if he is indicted, the officials said, a trial in the United
                  States is highly unlikely because he recently was excused from trial in
                  Britain on grounds of ill health and has returned to Chile.

                  Still, the officials said, Attorney General Janet Reno is committed to
                  pursuing the investigation of the Letelier assassination, which the Justice
                  Department considers a state-sponsored act of terrorism on U.S. soil.
                  "She is extremely committed to seeing that justice is done in the case but
                  has not reached a decision that the evidence supports an indictment," a
                  senior Justice Department official said.

                  The U.S. government backed the 1973 coup in which Pinochet led a
                  military junta that took power from Chile's elected president, Salvador
                  Allende, and human rights groups have criticized the Justice Department
                  for failing to go after Pinochet before he was arrested in Britain in 1998.
                  But Reno and seven top aides briefed Letelier's widow, Isabel, on the
                  status of the probe earlier this month and promised to pursue Pinochet and
                  other possible suspects for as long as it takes to close the case, according
                  to Samuel J. Buffone, an attorney for the Letelier family.

                  Buffone declined to comment on the briefing but said Isabel Letelier
                  thanked Reno for reviving the probe. He quoted Reno as saying that she
                  and her top deputies were "satisfied with the investigation" and were
                  "proceeding with vigor."

                  At one point during the briefing, Buffone recalled, Reno gestured to a
                  1930s mural on her conference room wall depicting "Justice Denied" and
                  told Isabel Letelier that she had been denied justice for too long. The
                  attorney general then glanced over her shoulder at "Justice Granted" and
                  said that is what she is trying to achieve in this case, according to Buffone.

                  "Does the United States government have the will to prosecute Pinochet?
                  Yes, it does, and I do not hesitate in that at all," Buffone said.

                  While prosecutors still have no direct evidence that Pinochet ordered
                  Letelier's assassination, they believe the former dictator's effort to strip
                  Letelier of his citizenship goes a long way toward showing that Pinochet
                  had a motive for the murder of the well-known leftist.

                  E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., a former federal prosecutor who two decades
                  ago won convictions against low-level Chilean operatives in the
                  assassination, said the government's evidence detailing Pinochet's
                  obsession with Letelier immediately before the bombing--evidence
                  prosecutors did not possess when the case first went to court--is extremely

                  "You build a case against the head of a criminal organization piece by
                  piece, and circumstantial evidence is how you build the case," Barcella
                  said. "What was important to me about the stripping of his citizenship was
                  the timing of it--just 10 days before the assassination. It clearly showed
                  that the efforts Letelier was making to bring pressure on Chile were
                  working. He was getting under the junta's skin."

                  The government's new understanding of Pinochet's personal involvement,
                  Barcella said, comes on top of solid evidence that Letelier's assassination
                  was masterminded by Manuel Contreras, the former head of Chile's
                  National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA.

                  Contreras, convicted of the crime by Chilean prosecutors in 1993, claimed
                  in a recent clemency petition that he met daily with Pinochet around the
                  time of the assassination and that Pinochet approved and supervised all
                  major DINA operations, Barcella said.

                  A federal grand jury in Washington initially indicted Contreras and seven
                  others in 1978 on charges of killing Letelier as part of a global operation to
                  eliminate exiled critics of Pinochet's junta. Evidence at the time came close
                  to implicating Pinochet, and former prosecutors say they remain convinced
                  that Pinochet authorized Letelier's murder.

                  In trials between 1978 and 1990, two DINA operatives and two Cuban
                  exiles were convicted and imprisoned in the United States for the bombing.
                  Pedro Espinoza, the DINA's operations director, was convicted with
                  Contreras in Chile, and both remain in prison there.

                  According to evidence in the various trials, DINA operatives destroyed
                  Letelier's car 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. Michael Moffitt, her husband,
                  survived in the car's back seat, only to see his bride of four months die on
                  the street.

                  The Justice Department reopened its long-dormant investigation,
                  code-named CHILBOM, after Pinochet was arrested in Britain 19 months

                  On March 3, Pinochet, 84, made an emotional return to Chile from Britain,
                  where authorities had released him on grounds of poor health. But he now
                  faces charges in Chile of involvement in thousands of murders and incidents
                  of torture during his rule from 1973 to 1990.

                  U.S. prosecutors first found evidence of Pinochet's effort to strip Letelier
                  of his citizenship when they began reviewing classified cables in the files of
                  the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency this year. The cables from
                  1976 provided a wealth of information about whom Pinochet met and
                  what he was reported to have said in the days before Letelier's

                  That information enabled a team of prosecutors and FBI agents--including
                  a lawyer from the Justice Department and one from the U.S. attorney's
                  office here, several investigators from the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the
                  FBI's Washington Field Office and the FBI's legal attache in Santiago--to
                  search for new witnesses during a month-long visit to Chile in March and
                  April. They were allowed to submit questions through a Chilean attorney
                  during court proceedings in which a Chilean judge questioned 42 people
                  subpoenaed by Chile's Supreme Court at the request of the U.S.

                  Numerous witnesses interviewed inside and outside the court proceeding
                  provided valuable information about the activities of Pinochet, his aides and
                  other top Chilean officials around the time of the assassination, often
                  without realizing the importance of what they were saying, officials said.

                  In a 1980 book on the Letelier case, "Assassination on Embassy Row,"
                  John Dinges and Saul Landau wrote that Letelier learned in early
                  September 1976 that Chile's military government had stripped him of his
                  citizenship for "carrying out in foreign lands a publicity campaign aimed at
                  bringing about the political, economic and cultural isolation of Chile."

                  After a reporter called Letelier with the news shortly before a speaking
                  engagement in New York, Dinges and Landau wrote, Letelier announced
                  at Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum that he had just been stripped of
                  his citizenship by Pinochet and members of his Cabinet.

                  "I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean, and I will die a Chilean," Letelier
                  said. "They, the fascists, were born traitors, live as traitors, and will be
                  forever remembered as fascist traitors."

                  Less than two weeks later, the powerful bomb ripped through Letelier's
                  Chevrolet Chevelle as he drove into Sheridan Circle here, killing him