History Held Hostage
The CIA's Refusal to Declassify the Covert Record on Chile
by Peter Kornbluh, Director, Chile Documentation Project

More Declassified Documents on Chile:
Chile Documentation Project
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Excerpt of letter from Archivist of the United States to DCI George Tenet, July 31, 2000
--Excerpt of letter from Archivist of the United States to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, July 31, 2000--
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    On February 1st, 1999, the Clinton White House ordered the U.S. national security agencies to “retrieve and review for declassification documents that shed light on human rights abuses, terrorism, and other acts of political violence in Chile” from 1968-1990--a policy initiative taken after the arrest of General Augusto Pinochet in London.  To date, some 7,500 documents, mostly from the State Department, have been released as part of the administration’s special “Chile Declassification Project.”

CIA Non-Compliance

    In the first two “tranches” of released records, the Central Intelligence Agency (which was the principal U.S. agency involved in Chile in the 1960s and 1970s) did not release a single document on its own involvement in promoting political violence to overthrow the government of Salvador Allende, and support the advent of the Pinochet-led military regime.  The Agency argued that it was not obligated to search its operational files--which include the cables, memos and reports generated by the CIA station in Santiago--and that documents on covert intervention in Chile were “non-responsive” to the President’s directive.

    Last fall, the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project led a campaign of public pressure to ensure that the Administration’s release of documents would include the historical record of the U.S. role in the Chilean tragedy.  The CIA was forced to reconsider its refusal to include files on its operations against the Allende government and in support of Pinochet’s regime.  The Agency sent “written assurances” to the National Security Council that these files would be searched and documents from them declassified in time for the final declassification now scheduled for September 14, 2000.

Public Promises on Declassification

    That commitment was passed onto the American public by high U.S. officials, including the President of the United States.  “I believe you are entitled to know what happened back then and how it happened,” Mr. Clinton told reporters who asked him about CIA resistance to the declassification on Chile.  In a November 30, 1999 letter to National Security Archive Executive Director Thomas Blanton, Clinton’s National Security Advisor Samuel Berger wrote that I have received assurances that . . . the CIA’s search and review of documents in the final phase will include relevant operational records, such as documents related to covert action, documents associated with the Church Committee hearings in 1975, and operational files . . .

    To his credit, CIA director George Tenet did order analysts to search operational archives dating all the way back to 1962, when the major U.S. covert operations began in Chile. Hundreds of documents, covering the long history of covert actions in Chile designed to stop socialist candidate Salvador Allende from becoming president, CIA Seal, Orginial Headquarters Building Lobby (CIA Photo)destabilize his government once he was elected, and help General Pinochet consolidate power after the bloody military coup on September 11, 1973, were found.  These documents were carefully redacted--references to assets, sources, and sensitive methods of operations deleted with a black magic marker--by a team of CIA officials mandated to balance the need to protect U.S. national security with the directive of the White House and the public’s right to access this history.

    As the CIA prepared to transfer this collection to the State Department for final copying and distribution in September, however, the covert division of the Agency--the Directorate of Operations--protested to CIA director George Tenet that releasing even the heavily censored documents would endanger CIA operations abroad.  Since the collection reflects a broad picture of how the CIA secretly intervened and influenced the internal affairs of Chile over a protracted period of time, it could shed light on similar current and future covert action in other nations around the world.

    Mr. Tenet agreed; during the week of August 7, he decided that, with the exception of 300 documents on the most widely-known aspect of CIA operations in the fall of 1970, all documents on U.S. covert action in Chile from 1962 through 1975--including the first two years of support for Pinochet’s military regime--would be withheld from release.

The Tenet Letter

    In a letter to members of Congress, Mr. Tenet wrote that he made this decision because “in their aggregate, these materials present a pattern of activity that had the effect of revealing intelligence methods that have been employed worldwide.”  Mr. Tenet claimed that the the CIA was “in no way trying to withhold information embarrassing to the United States Government,” nor was it an effort to “shield from release human rights or other information sought by the NSC directive.”  The letter also outlines the subject matter of 800 other documents that the CIA does plan to release on September 14th.

A Critique

    The justification used to withhold the documents is without merit.  The aggregate “pattern of activity” that CIA officials fear will be revealed by releasing the documents has, in fact, already been officially published--twenty-five years ago in the two reports of the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, chaired by Senator Frank Church.

    The first report,  “Alleged Assassination Plots Against Foreign Leaders,” contains a comprehensive account of CIA efforts to foment a military coup to prevent the inauguration of Salvador Allende in the fall of 1970.  The CIA coup plotting, ordered by President Richard Nixon and overseen by his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, centered on orchestrating the kidnapping of Chile’s Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Rene Schneider.  Schneider was murdered during the kidnapping attempt.  The report quotes and references dozens of still secret CIA records; it remains to be seen how many of those the Agency will actually declassify in September.

    The second report, “Covert Action in Chile: 1963-1973,” is based on the very documents that the CIA now seeks to withhold.  The report contains maximum detail on almost all of the techniques--bribery, infiltration, black propaganda, kidnapping, secret payments, recruited assets in the media, the private sector and the military--that the CIA used in Chile from the early 1960s to mid 1970s, and uses elsewhere in the world.  Examples include:

  • Exact dollar CIA expenditures on “black” propaganda, bribery, and payoffs to influence and alter virtually every Chilean Congressional and Presidential election between 1963 and 1973.

  • Concrete details of covert financing totalling $l.6 million (in 1970 dollars) to Chile’s leading anti-Allende newspaper, El Mercurio, and CIA internal assessments that these payments “played a significant role in setting the stage for the military coup of September 11, 1973.”

  • Efforts to foster coup plotters within the Chilean military through “deception operations,” fabricated information on Cuban influence in Chile, and penetration of Chilean armed forces.

  • Contingency preparations for a coup, including arrest lists, maps of key political, media, and economic installations, and financing for a right-wing economics institute that could provide a blueprint for the new regime’s policies.

  • Propaganda operations after the coup to “present the Junta in the most positive light.”

  • And liaison relations with the Chilean secret police and security forces in the military regime, despite their acts of violent repression.
  •     Since the “pattern of activity” of CIA operations in Chile is already known in such detail, it is hard to imagine that the declassification of these documents would have any more impact on curtailing U.S. covert actions abroad than did the publication of the Church Committee itself.

        Moreover, the withheld documentation certainly contains information relevant to human rights considerations.  Particularly the post-coup records from 1973-1975, which the CIA is refusing to release--including documents on the CIA’s “liaison relations” with the repressive secret police force known as DINA--are immediately and fundamentally relevant to the White House directive to declassify documents on human rights issues.


        This collection of documents is, in essence, the ‘Pentagon Papers’ of a major covert war.  While the CIA records are unlikely to expose previously unknown activities, they will shed considerable empirical light on the extent of U.S. involvement in Chile’s internal affairs, and covert efforts to undermine a democracy and bolster a dictatorship.

        The release of these documents will serve both national and international interests. For Chileans, these documents are a roadmap to a secret history of their nation.  For U.S. citizens, these records are critical to the understanding of the past and a discussion in the present of U.S. policy toward onerous regimes such as that of General Pinochet’s.  They are fundamental to the ongoing public debate, at home and abroad, over the propriety and scope of CIA covert operations in the 21st Century.  And their inclusion in the Clinton Administration’s Chile Declassification Project is critical to the credibility and integrity of the U.S. government’s commitment on promoting human rights, accountability and democracy.

        For that reason, in a July 31 letter to national security advisor Samuel Berger, the Archivist of the United States, John Carlin, stated that the CIA’s “last minute reversal will fundamentally undermine the overall integrity of the project and will result in a significantly incomplete public record of these important events,” and also urged the White House “to make every possible effort to convince the CIA to follow through on the commitments it made with respect to ensuring a broad scale declassification.”

        And in an August 3 letter directly to CIA director George Tenet, a prominent member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, wrote: “It is time to allow the United States as a country, and the CIA as an institution, to put this past behind us--through the simple act of being forthcoming and opening your files for historical consideration.”  She concluded: “The opportunity to do that is now.”

    Document 1 Letter from Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet to Rep. George Miller, August 11, 2000.
    Document 2 Letter from Thomas S. Blanton, Executive Director, The National Security Archive, to Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, August 4, 2000.
    Document 3 Letter from Thomas S. Blanton, Executive Director, The National Security Archive, to Samuel R. Berger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, August 3, 2000.
    Document 4 Letter from Rep. Nancy Pelosi to Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, August 3, 2000.
    Document 5 Letter from Archivist of the United States John W. Carlin to Samuel R. Berger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, July 31, 2000.
    Document 6 Letter from Samuel R. Berger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, to Thomas S. Blanton, Executive Director, The National Security Archive, November 30, 1999.
    Document 7 "Covert Action in Chile: 1963-1973," Staff Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, December 18, 1975. [Excerpt]
    Document 8 "Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders," An Interim Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, November 20, 1975. [Excerpt]
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