Washington, D.C. - Military officials of Uruguay, who
were members of a secret Southern Cone intelligence alliance called
Operation Condor, threatened to assassinate U.S. Congressman Edward
Koch in mid-1976, according to a just published book, The
Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three
Continents (The New Press 2004). Written by investigative
journalist John Dinges, the book reveals that the CIA intercepted the
threat but failed to take any actions in response to it or to warn Congressman
Koch for more than two months.
In an interview for the book, Koch said that the then Director of
Central Intelligence, George Herbert Walker Bush, informed him in
October 1976 that his sponsorship of legislation to cut off U.S. military
assistance to Uruguay on human rights grounds had provoked secret
police officials to "put a contract out for you."
According to documents obtained by Dinges and interviews he conducted
Condor Years, the CIA station chief in Montevideo received
information in late July 1976 that two high-level Uruguayan intelligence
officers had discussed their ability to have Chile's secret police,
DINA, send agents to the United States to kill Koch. The station chief,
identified in the book as Frederick Latrash, reported the conversation
to CIA headquarters but recommended that the Agency take no action
because the officers had been drinking at a cocktail party when the
threat was made.
Only after Chilean operatives carried out the September 21, 1976,
assassination of former ambassador Orlando Letelier did the CIA warn
Koch and share the intelligence with the FBI and the State Department,
according to the new book. A car bomb planted by those agents killed
Letelier and an American woman, Ronni Moffitt on Massachusetts Avenue
in Washington D.C. Considered at the time to be the most egregious
act of international terrorism ever committed in the U.S. capital,
the Letelier-Moffitt assassination was quickly linked by the FBI to
a shadowy six-country alliance, Operation Condor, created by Chile
to enable the military governments to track down and kill their opponents
inside and outside of Latin America.
The basic Condor method of operation, according to FBI and CIA documents,
was for member countries to assist each other in carrying out assassinations
against each other's enemies. Col. Jose Fons, one of the two officers
identified as discussing the plan to kill Koch, was Uruguay's representative
to a November 1975 secret meeting in Santiago, Chile, at which Operation
Condor was created, according to secret Chilean documents obtained
by Dinges. The other officer, Major Jose Nino Gavazzo, who is described
in a secret State Department memorandum
as "apparently a dangerous type," was also a Condor operative.
He headed a team of intelligence officers working in Argentina in
1976 in operations that resulted in the kidnapping and deaths of more
than 100 Uruguayans.
In addition to the CIA intelligence about targeting Koch, Dinges
has compiled more than 30 CIA, State Department and Pentagon documents
discussing Operation Condor and coordination of assassinations among
Chile, Argentina and Uruguay--all dated in the months leading up to
the Letelier assassination. The US intelligence community, he concludes,
had detailed and timely information on planned Condor terrorism, which
officials obtained from their contacts inside the Latin American security
forces. But they were loath to act on the information because of the
friendly nature of their relationship with those agencies and because
the U.S. government and the Latin American regimes shared the overall
goal of defeating communism.
During a July 30, 1976, meeting between CIA and State Department
officials, a CIA representative, for the first time, shared intelligence
on Operation Condor, which he described as "organization [that]
was emerging as one with a far more activist role, including specifically
that of identifying, locating, and 'hitting' guerrilla leaders."
The CIA official described these as "disturbing developments
in [Condor's] operational attitudes."
In The Condor Years, Dinges concludes that had US officials
acted on this intelligence, the Letelier assassination might well
have been prevented. "When terrorist plots by our enemies are
discovered the threat is greatly exaggerated and given major publicity,"
he said, drawing a parallel with the current debate over intelligence
failures in Iraq. "But when terrorist plans by our allies are
discovered, they are minimized and kept secret. That is what happened
with the Condor information that could have prevented the Letelier
assassination; and that is what the CIA did with the information on
the plot against Koch."
In mid October 1976, Koch wrote to the Justice
Department asking for FBI protection and requesting "any
additional information relating to this matter in your files
I should be made aware of." None was provided to him. In his
1991 autobiography, Koch wrote that Bush had called him and told him
to "be careful." But, until Dinges told the former mayor
of New York City about Operation Condor in an interview in 2001, Koch
was not aware of the connection between the threat on his life and
the assassination operations of Condor, on which the CIA had concrete
intelligence in the summer of 1976.
As a result of his meeting with Dinges, Koch petitioned the CIA and
other agencies for more information on why he had not been expeditiously
warned of a terrorist threat on his life. The CIA declined to declassify
the relevant reports, but sent Koch a letter with this explanation
for the delay: "The Agency's initial analysis of these comments
[the military officers' discussion of killing Koch] was that they
represented nothing more than alcohol-induced bravado. In the aftermath
of the assassination of Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC, U.S. officials
questioned their assumption that other countries would not conduct
assassinations in the U.S." (see Document
Details of the threat have also been deleted from State and Justice
Department documents released to Koch. But the documents reveal that
the State Department took action after the fact to prevent the two
officers from entering the United States. In late 1976, Colonel Fons
and Major Gavazzo were assigned to prominent diplomatic posts in Washington
D.C., but the State Department forced the Uruguayan government to
withdraw their appointments with the public explanation that "Fons
and Gavazzo could be the objects of unpleasant publicity
The real reason, according to the documents, was the threat against
Koch (see Document 3).
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1: Koch letter to U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi: October 19, 1976
After receiving a phone call from an FBI agent who briefs him on
the "possible danger" to his life, Koch writes to the Attorney
General. He asks: "should my staff and I not have F.B.I. protection?"
He also requests that the Justice Department provide him with any
additional information in their files, or the CIA files. Finally,
he suggests that it would "be sensible to advise the Uruguayan
government that it would be held responsible in the event of an assault
upon me or my staff."
2: Edward Levi letter to Henry Kissinger, November 5, 1976
Two weeks after the Koch letter to Levi is sent, the Attorney General
writes to Secretary of State Kissinger to suggest that the demarche
Koch proposed to the Uruguayan military regime "appears to be
a matter within your jurisdiction, and I therefore refer it to you
for your attention
3: State Department SECRET Action Memorandum, "Uruguayan Threat
Against Congressman Koch," December 13, 1976
This heavily censored memorandum to Philip Habib from Assistant Secretary
for Inter-American Affairs, Harry Shlaudeman reviews the death threat
against Koch and poses "one additional problem": that the
Uruguayan officers who made the assassination threat are due to be
appointed to high-level diplomatic posts in Washington D.C. U.S. Ambassador
to Montevideo, Ernest Siracusa, has urged the State Department to
inform the Uruguayan government that "these two gentlemen would
not be welcome in the United States." Shlaudeman recommends,
and Habib approves, vetoing the appointment of Col. Jose Fons and
Major Jose Gavazzo on the excuse that they would become objects of
"unpleasant publicity" because of their involvement in human
rights atrocities in Uruguay.
4: CIA Letter to Edward Koch, September 26, 2001
The CIA responds to a request from Koch (made after his interview
with author John Dinges) for additional information in Agency files
on the assassination threat against him. The Agency letter suggests
that the CIA did not take the threat seriously at first because the
officer making it was "reportedly in the state of intoxication."
But, after the September 21, 1976, Washington D.C. car-bombing that
killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt "U.S. officials questioned
their assumption that other countries would not conduct assassinations
in the U.S." The letter reveals that weeks after the threat was
made, and one week after the carbombing, the CIA directorate of operations
disseminated this intelligence to the FBI and State Department. The
letter concludes with the CIA's refusal to declassify any actual documents
on the Koch threat "because to do so would disclose the intelligence
sources and methods by which the CIA obtained the above information."