With the broad blessing of a CIA bent on thwarting Soviet expansion, South American military juntas together formed a special unit charged with going to France and elsewhere abroad to exterminate leftist opposition leaders.
While the cooperation of military dictatorships was widely known, details about this special unit, called Teseo, were not, until the release Friday of the final 7,500 declassified U.S. documents shared with Argentina and the world.
President Donald Trump had promised his Argentine counterpart, Mauricio Macri, that the third and final tranche of U.S. documents would be shared, ending a process that began under President Barack Obama to make publicly available documents about a dark period in U.S. history. In all, roughly 47,000 U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence cables pertaining to Argentina’s military junta were declassified.
“The release of records constitutes the largest declassification of the United States Government records directly to a foreign government in history,” said a letter from President Trump to Macri accompanying the release. “My hope is that access to these records provides the people of Argentina information to help in the healing process.”
Details about the Teseo assassination unit were in a CIA document dated May 1976, part of a batch of documents delivered Friday that had to do with Operation Condor. That was a clandestine effort pushed hardest by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet that grew to involve military rulers in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia.
“At a meeting of Operation Condor from 31 May to 2 June 1976 in Santiago, Uruguay agreed to operate covertly in Paris with the Argentines and the Chileans against the JCR [Revolutionary Coordinating Junta] and other terrorists,” the secret CIA memo said, stressing the document was “not to be reproduced.”
The memo went on to say that the CIA received worrisome information that participating countries sent would-be assassins to Argentina for two months of training in September 1976, but it was unclear if the team was actually sent to France to conduct assassinations.
The goal of Operation Condor was to quell the spread of expansionist Cuban and Russian communism. The end result was a reign of terror where tens of thousands of South American leftists, real or perceived, were killed by regimes from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. In Argentina the period came to be known as the Dirty War. U.S. intelligence initially supported Condor efforts but later came to view it as problematic because of widespread rights abuses.
The document about Teseo, Spanish for the mythical Greek king Theseus, underscores how U.S. intelligence agencies that initially supported military regimes in Latin America became worried, especially after the election of President Jimmy Carter and prominent lawmakers like Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, who sought to make human rights a cornerstone of American foreign policy.
Hearings led by Church also revealed that the FBI had spied on civil rights leader Martin Luther King and other prominent cultural figures. Laws were subsequently passed to prohibit the U.S. involvement in foreign assassinations and random spying on American citizens.
“These documents fill in the major historical holes on the history of Operation Condor and what the CIA knew about it,” said Peter Kornbluh, an author and director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba and Chile documentation projects. “It allows us to understand the failing of the U.S. intelligence community to detect and deter the international terror plot to assassinate Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt in Washington, D.C.”
Letelier was a prominent opponent of Chilean strongman Pinochet, and was killed in a car bombing on Sept. 21, 1976, on Washington’s Embassy Row, along with his U.S. aide, Moffitt.
One of the documents made public Friday confirmed that the FBI was concerned that the Letelier killing might have actually been part of the Teseo effort to kill opponents abroad wherever they might be. That document was obtained by journalists two decades ago and featured in the book “Assassination on Embassy Row,” but its official release lifted some redactions.
A striking element of Friday’s release is that for the first time, people in Operation Condor countries will see the names of their officers involved in the counter-leftist operations. A brief search of some names in the documents found that many have no Internet footprint.
“These documents name names, and that’s what’s so amazingly important about them,” said Kornbluh, whose office has highlighted many of the documents containing new information on its website.