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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Op-Ed

Release Secret Documents Now

December 15, 2006 ·

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's death robbed his victims and their families of the chance to obtain full justice. But they can still pursue the full truth. And the U.S. government can help.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's death robbed his victims and their families of the chance to obtain full justice. But they can still pursue the full truth. And the U.S. government can help.

In 1999, the Clinton administration took a major step in the right direction by declassifying more than 16,000 secret government documents related to Chile. At the time, Pinochet was under British custody, pending a Spanish extradition request. Although the Brits eventually released him on medical grounds, their arrest of the ironclad dictator had cracked his armor, and human-rights activists pushed harder than ever to end his impunity.

Letelier, Moffitt killed

The U.S. declassification helped by revealing useful evidence for some of the hundreds of legal cases filed in Chile against Pinochet and other members of the military regime. But a key group of documents was kept secret. These were the files related to the 1976 assassination in Washington, D.C., of my colleagues Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt.

Orlando, an ambassador and cabinet member under President Salvador Allende, was held as a political prisoner after the 1973 coup. After his release, we at the Institute for Policy Studies offered him a job in Washington, where he led a global-economy project and became one of Pinochet's most prominent critics. Ronni was a 25-year-old American woman who worked closely with me on fundraising. She also ran a Music Carryout that made musical instruments available to the poor. On the morning of Sept. 21, 1976, Orlando and Ronni were driving together to our office when Pinochet's agents detonated the car bomb that killed them.

Why did Clinton's Justice Department, more than 20 years later, refuse to release files related to this case? Its official explanation was that there was an ongoing investigation. I was highly skeptical. Two generals were already in prison in Chile for their roles in the crime. Lower-level assassins had faced U.S. prosecution in the 1970s and '80s. So the target of a new phase of investigation undoubtedly would be the big fish himself.

Bush officials did nothing

Was Justice really prepared to go after a man who had been a valued U.S. ally? In June 1976, just months before the assassination, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited the Chilean dictator and, according to a transcript, told him ''We are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.'' Further digging into the Letelier-Moffitt case could dredge up even more embarrassing details of U.S. relations with a regime responsible for the murder of more than 3,000 people and the torture or disappearance of tens of thousands.

And yet Clinton officials did take action, sending a team to Chile in early 2000 to take testimony from 42 people subpoenaed on their behalf by the Chilean Supreme Court. The Washington Post reported that, "Federal investigators have uncovered evidence that some of them believe is sufficient to indict General Augusto Pinochet for conspiracy to commit murder in the 1976 car bombing."

What happened thereafter is unclear. Clinton administration sources say they moved ahead with the case but left it up to their successors to decide whether or not to indict Pinochet. There is no evidence that Bush officials did anything to pursue the case, despite their stated commitment to combating international terrorism.

Facing a Catch-22

For years, Orlando's and Ronni's families and other human-rights advocates faced a Catch-22. The still-secret documents could help answer important remaining questions about Pinochet's crimes, as well as the U.S. role in supporting the dictatorship. And yet, if they successfully demanded the release of the documents, it would officially terminate the case.

Now that the prime suspect no longer exists, neither does this dilemma. The Bush administration should take immediate action to make these documents public. After dropping the ball on indicting Pinochet, this is the very least it can do to bring some closure for the victims and to help us all avoid repeating this dark history.