Operation Condor: Setting precedent from one ‘war on terrorism’ to the next

With the knowledge of the United States, Latin American dictators used terrorism to wage their war on terrorism.

Military dictators like Augusto Pinochet used 'war on terror' as a pretext for crushing dissent and 'disappearing' citizens [AFP]

A car-bomb explodes in the streets of Washington, DC. The security forces of several non-democratic states are “coordinating intelligence activities closely”, “operating in the territory of one another’s countries” and have established a program “to find and kill terrorists” anywhere around the world as part of a “war” against “terrorism.”

The program is Operation Condor. It involves the military regimes of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. The words used to describe it here are those of Assistant Secretary for Latin America Harry Shlaudeman, in a secret memorandum sent to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on August 3, 1976.

Between 1976 and 1980, the six countries closely collaborated to “disappear” hundreds of people across state borders, among them some members of guerrilla movements but mostly political opponents, former legislators and even presidents, journalists, religious personalities, often killed after having been submitted to the worst kinds of torture.

The car-bomb assassination plot took place on Embassy Row on September21, 1976. It was, to date, the most visible and high-profile Condor operation. In the explosion, Orlando Letelier, a Chilean citizen and vocal opponent of the Pinochet regime, and his colleague (and American citizen) Ronni Moffitt, were both killed.

Claims of waging war on terrorism

The Shlaudeman memorandum is entitled “The ‘Third World War and South America.” It highlights how, over 35 years ago, close allies of the US had developed both a set of specific practices implemented in secret and aimed at fighting “the terrorists”, and a full discourse emphasising at every turn the fact that they were “at war” against “terrorism”.

It also shows that the US government was clearly aware of the extreme nature of the methods used by the Condor states. Thus, Shlaudeman explains that “the terrorists … have provoked repressive reactions, including torture and quasi-governmental death squads”, and that these governments resorted to “bloody counter terrorism”. Nonetheless, in the memorandum such forms of violence are mostly referred to through euphemisms, as when the author writes about Argentina: “We expect the military to pull up their socks and win. They have precedents to guide them, and the terrorists have no handy refuge in neighbouring countries.”

This document, like countless other declassified memoranda and cables, demonstrates that US officials thought of Operation Condor as a program aimed at “fighting terrorism”, and repeatedly described it as such. Until the mid-1990s, the only known document referencing Condor was an FBI cable from late September 1976. This is how its author described the program:

“‘Operation Condor’ is the code name for the collection, exchange and storage of intelligence data concerning so called ‘leftists’, communists and Marxists, which was recently established between cooperating intelligence services in South America in order to eliminate Marxist terrorist activities in the area. In addition, operation Condor provides for joint operations against terrorist targets in member countries of ‘Operation Condor.'”

The Shlaudeman account is also extremely valuable due to its author’s insights into the power of the discourse on “terrorism” as well as its potentially dangerous consequences. Thus, being able to claim to be fighting a “Third World War” against the “terrorists” was greatly beneficial to the Condor states since, “It justifies harsh and sweeping ‘wartime’ measures [and] emphasises the international and institutional aspect, thereby justifying the exercise of power beyond national borders.”

But such rhetoric could also present long term dangers precisely because these military regimes’ power was becoming more and more intimately tied to such claims:

“What will remain is a chain of governments, started by Brazil in 1964, whose origin was in battle against the extreme left. It is important to their ego, their salaries, and their equipment-budgets to believe in a Third World War. At best, when Argentina stabilises, we can hope to convince them that they have already won. The warriors will not like this.”

Finally, and despite his own repeated use of the word “terrorism” or “terrorist”, Shlaudeman was quite aware of the problematic nature of a discourse where the concepts of “subversion” and “terrorism” were often used as synonyms, and seemed to include any form of political opposition to these regimes:

“The problem begins with the definition of ‘subversion’ – never the most precise of terms. One reporter writes that “‘ubversion has grown to include nearly anyone who opposes government policy.’ In countries where everyone knows that subversives can wind up dead or tortured, educated people have an understandable concern about the boundaries of dissent.”

The Letelier assassination

On September 21, the profound immorality and illegality of the Condormethods was exposed for the whole world

 Tracing the shadows of ‘Operation Condor’

to see as Letelier’s car exploded in the streets of Washington, DC. As John Dinges, probably the foremost American expert on Condor, notes, “Letelier was targeted as a dangerous democrat rather than a violent terrorist,” a man whose work against the Pinochet regime took place “not in secret but in public corridors of power”. Indeed, Letelier’s presence in the capital was due to his efforts to lobby Congress into stopping US aid to Chile.

Following Letelier’s assassination, Chilean Ambassador Manuel Trucco immediately condemned it as an “outrageous act of terrorism,” while blaming it on unidentified “hostile elements” and insisting that accusations against his government were “irresponsible” and represented a further “invitation to violence”.

These were, of course, lies. Following the confession of Michael Townley (an American citizen who worked for the Chilean intelligence services, the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional or DINA) the US indicted three high-level members of DINA, including its former director (and Augusto Pinochet’s right-hand) Manuel Contreras. Chile rejected US extradition requests, in turn leading President Jimmy Carter to cut all aid to that country. The aid would resume under President Reagan.

Ambassador Truco’s shocked denials highlight a central aspect of Condor and of the Latin American regimes’ purely domestic modes of repression: secrecy. Indeed, these programs were implemented fully covertly, thus giving these regimes “plausible deniability” while enabling them to deliver an extremely clear message to their political opponents. It is this system of shadows, of illegal activities fully visible but denied by the authorities, of supposedly “out of control” and “independent” death squads targeting political opponents while official responsibility is hidden, of people being “disappeared”, leaving their families with no possible recourse and faced with official silence, that created the pervasive feeling of dread and terror that hovered over Latin America for so many years.

Playing the terrorism card then and now

In his recent interview with Charlie Rose, President Bashar al-Assad repeatedly referred to the opposition forces fighting against his regime as terrorists. Similarly, the Egyptian military has been quick to, in the words of Paul Pillar, “play the terrorism card” to explain and justify its recent uses of force.

As Pillar pointedly notes, it seems clear that “the fact that the United States has made the subject such a preoccupation following one event twelve years ago has unquestionably increased the value of this particular card”. But it is just as evident that “many dictators and crackdown artists would shout the T-word as a justification for their actions regardless of what the United States does or says”.

Countless states and governments have used the concept of terrorism to delegitimise their enemies (and the cause they claim to fight for) and thus justify the use of often profoundly immoral methods against them. Pillar mentions Russia and Chechens, China and the Uighurs, or Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. To this list one could add, among many others, France and the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) in the 1950s, or South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress from the 1960s onward. Operation Condor is yet another such case, a fascinating example of a group of states insisting that they are fighting terrorism while operating what can only be described as an international terrorist network of their own.

Secrecy is fundamentally inimical to democratic rule, as it erodes trust while distorting and polluting public discourse. The chain of secrecy and unaccountability must be broken, and transparency restored, illuminating today’s practices as well as yesterday’s.

Operation Condor also warrants special attention because of the central place that Latin America played in the birth of the American discourse on terrorism in the 1980s. Indeed, when Reagan decided, for the first time, to put the “fight against terrorism” at the heart of the American foreign policy discourse, he did so mostly in reference to the Western Hemisphere, and specifically to El Salvador and Nicaragua. In doing so, the Republican president essentially imported the discourse[Fr.] described in the Shlaudeman memorandum and that Latin American authoritarian regimes had been using throughout the previous decade.

In El Salvador, military aid went to a regime with intimate ties to the infamous death squads and whose extraordinarily gruesome methods clearly amounted to terrorism. In Nicaragua, the CIA mined harbours, produced torture manuals and funded, trained and armed the “Contras”, whose methods often fit any reasonable definition of terrorism. In sum, and just as the Condor states had done before, during the 1980s the US claimed to be fighting terrorism while resorting, directly and indirectly, to terrorism.

Secrecy and impunity: setting bad precedents

All over Latin America, various Truth Commissions and high profile trials have brought some level of legal and historical accountability. Former leaders have been convicted of a variety of extremely serious crimes, and have served long prison sentences. To a great extent, these developments were made possible by ambitious declassification projects undertaken under Presidents Bill Clinton (Chile) and George W Bush (Argentina.)

However, no US official has ever been held accountable for his (or her) role in Latin America. For example, Kissinger has been called to testify several times by Latin American judges. These demands have all been rejected by the US.

Last March, Argentina opened a major trial into Operation Condor. For John Dinges, the US should welcome this trial as an opportunity to learn the right lessons from history. As he explains after observing some troubling similarities between the Letelier assassination and the logic that appears to underlie certain targeted killings practices of the Obama administration, “the tendency of a state to feel that they can move against their enemies in the most effective way possible is still there, and it is certainly not limited to dictatorships”. During a visit to France in May 2001, Kissinger received a summons to appear at the Palais de Justice in Paris to answer questions about his role in Condor. The next day, he was on a plane back to the US. None of this was covered in the American media, while the US government continues to block the declassification of hundreds of documents related to Condor.

Similarly, over the last few years, legal scholars as well as major civil rights and human rights organisations have strongly criticised President Obama for the lack of transparency and accountability that have so far characterised many of his “counter-terrorism” policies, and notably the practice of targeted killings.

They have also expressed the fear that current US practices may “set a dangerous precedent for abusive regimes around the globe to conduct drone attacks or other strikes against persons who they describe in vague or overly broad terms as terrorists”, a prospect that appears more and more likely as, for example, China is reported to be “dispatching its own drones into potential combat arenas”.

Shlaudeman notes that the Condor states themselves made mention of such a precedent in order to justify their counter-terrorism operation: “They consider their counter-terrorism every bit as justified as Israeli actions against Palestinian terrorists and they believe that the criticism from democracies of their war on terrorism reflects a double standard.”

As this remark clearly highlights, precedents get set on the basis of cold, realist assessments of the impunity that has historically accompanied such policies when used by powerful enough states. Regrettably, when President Obama’s suggested, in January 2009, that we need to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards”, thus putting behind us what appear to have been very serious crimes, he further strengthened just such a logic.

Secrecy is fundamentally inimical to democratic rule, as it erodes trust while distorting and polluting public discourse. The chain of secrecy and unaccountability must be broken, and transparency restored, illuminating today’s practices as well as yesterday’s. Only then can we hope to avoid the setting of dangerous precedents. Only then can we hope to make sure that the past represented by Condor was not simply a prologue of things to come.

Dr Rémi Brulin is a research fellow at New York University’s Journalism Institute and a teaching fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

Follow Remi Brulin on Twitter: @RBrulin