Remi Brulin on State Secrecy and Targeted Assassinations, from Operation Condor to the Obama Administration

The problem with drones has never been with the technology itself. Certainly, drones have brought the vision of an Orwellian dystopia to the forefront of our minds. And yes, the administration has often tried to justify its use of drone strikes with the explanation that they are “surgical” and “precise” weapons of war. But the true threat to the people of this world lies not with the proliferation of drone warfare, but with the associated policies of states who choose to use them for their own purposes. The prevarication, the secrecy, the outright lies, and the arbitrary killing of individuals with no legal process undermine the very notions of accountability and democratic governance.

In a guest piece for today, Remi Brulin takes a cold hard look at one of the most egregious examples of this secrecy and state-sponsored terrorism in which the US is culpable, Operation Condor – an internationally-coordinated program between several Latin American regimes to actively suppress and “disappear” political opponents under the guise of fighting “terrorism” – while highlighting the secrecy still surrounding the United State’s exact role in this “international terrorist network” and the dangerous historical precedent thus being set. Brulin is currently a Visiting Scholar at NYU, and has taught classes on the American discourse on terrorism and the media at the Media, Culture and Communication Dept and at the Journalism Institute there. His phenomenal research on terrorism is alluded to in his piece; his dissertation can be found here, and an interview with Glenn Greenwald can be found here. Brulin has also written an article about  “terrorism experts” and El-Salvador for Foreign Policy which can be found here. Brulin’s article comes at an auspicious time, considering the recent passing of Margaret Thatcher (who was a close ally and supporter of General Augusto Pinochet, one of the despots responsible for Operation Condor) and the establishment of Wikileaks’s Public Library of US Diplomacy [PLUS D]. ramesses

The Past as Prologue: Secrecy and Impunity in the Other “War on Terrorism”

 by Remi Brulin

Imagine a world where the security forces of several non-democratic states “coordinate intelligence activities closely,” “operate 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.” Such a dystopian reality appears to be precisely what Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth had in mind when writing, in his December 7, 2010 letter to President Obama, that current US policies of “targeted killings” 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.”

Such a nightmarish vision is much more, however, than a description of what could be. The first sentence above is a description of what was, taken verbatim from an August 3, 1976 secret memorandum by Assistant Secretary for Latin America Harry Shlaudeman to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and describing the system of international cooperation between Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay known as Operation Condor. Between 1976 and 1980 these regimes would, thanks to an elaborate and modern intelligence network, closely collaborate 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. Entitled “The “Third World War” and South America,” this memorandum makes for fascinating reading as it highlights how, over 35 years ago, close allies of the United States had already developed both a set of specific practices implemented in secret and aimed at fighting “the terrorists,” and a full discourse emphasizing at every turn the fact that they were “at war” against “terrorism.” Only a few weeks later, Orlando Letelier would become the most prominent victim to date of Operation Condor, a Chilean citizen assassinated by the Chilean intelligence services in the streets of Washington D.C.

A few week ago, Argentina opened a major trial into Operation Condor. In contrast, no US official has ever been held accountable for their potential role in this program, a form of impunity bolstered by the continued refusal of the US government to declassify hundreds of documents that would shed light onto the exact nature and extent of its knowledge and involvement at the time. The Shlaudeman memorandum testifies to the dangers of a policy shrouded in secrecy and a complete lack of accountability. It also underlies the importance of current calls on the government to provide much greater transparency regarding “war on terrorism” policies such as “targeted killings” or the resort to extraordinary renditions and torture, policies which, at least to some degree, bear resemblance to some of Operation Condor’s practices.

At the most basic level, this memorandum reminds us that long before America’s current “war on terrorism,” other States did develop a similar discourse. That various regimes have, historically, used the concept of “terrorism” to delegitimize their enemies (and the cause they claim to fight for) and thus justify the use of often profoundly immoral methods against them (think France in Algeria in the 1950s, or South Africa in its fight against Mandela’s African National Congress from the 1960s onward) is neither a new nor a very original notion. The Latin American case is especially relevant to current discussions however, for at least a couple reasons. First,  because the United States government was intimately involved in some of the worst practices of these regimes, although the extent and exact nature of this involvement remains, to this day and especially as it pertains to Operation Condor, mostly unknown and classified. Second, because, as I document in my PhD dissertation, it is precisely in the Latin American context that the Reagan administration put the “fight against terrorism” at the heart of the American foreign policy discourse for the very first time. Not only that but, as I discussed in some detail in this interview with Glenn Greenwald, in doing so the US government essentially adopted the discourse used and developed by these authoritarian regimes during the previous decade.

Already in 1976 senior US officials were aware of the problematic nature of a discourse where “subversion” and “terrorism” were often used as synonyms, and were extremely broadly defined. As Shlaudeman explained:

The problem begins with the definition of “subversion” – never the most precise of terms. One reporter writes that “subversion 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 Assistant Secretary of State was also rather doubtful of the seriousness of the threat faced by these regimes, noting that “the terrorists have had substantial accomplishments over the years” so that “the threat is not imaginary,” but adding that “it may be exaggerated” since after all, “broadly speaking, both terrorists and the peaceful left have failed.” Shlaudeman’s account also shows clear awareness, on the part of US officials, of the extreme nature of the methods used by these regimes. Indeed, he explained that “the terrorists […] have provoked repressive reactions, including torture and quasi-governmental death squads” and that these governments resorted to “bloody counter terrorism.” In the rest of the memorandum, however, such forms of violence are dealt with mostly through euphemisms, like in the following remark 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 neighboring countries.” As this account shows and many other declassified documents confirm, despite doubts about the threat and knowledge of the extreme tactics used to counter it, US officials did clearly think of Operation Condor as a program aimed at “fighting terrorism,” and consistently described it as such. For example, in what was until the mid-1990s the only known cable referencing Condor, the FBI explained in late September, 1976 that:

“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.” […] A third and most secret phase of “Operation Condor” involves the formation of special teams from member countries who are to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions up to assassination against terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations from “Operation Condor” member countries.

Significantly, Shlaudeman was also very aware of the great benefits that claiming to be fighting a “Third World War” afforded the Condor states since “It justifies harsh and sweeping “wartime” measures [and] emphasizes the international and institutional aspect, thereby justifying the exercise of power beyond national borders.” He then noted that much of the region’s militaries’ power was directly derived from such a claim, and warned of the long term danger this could pose:

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 stabilizes, we can hope to convince them that they have already won. The warriors will not like this.

A few weeks later, on September 21, the profound immorality and illegality of the Condor methods would be exposed for the whole world to see as Orlando Letelier was killed, alongside his colleague Ronni Moffitt, in the explosion of his booby-trapped car on Washington D.C.’s Embassy Row. As John Dinges noted, 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, for months he had been lobbying Congress to stop US aid to Chile.

Immediately, politicians like Senator Kennedy and other commentators condemned this assassination as an act of “political terrorism.” Following the confession of Michael Townley, the United States indicted three high-level members of the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the Chilean intelligence services, including its former director (and Pinochet’s right-hand) Manuel Contreras, and requested their extradition. DINA had been set-up a few years before with help from the CIA, and there is some indication that Townley, who was a DINA agent, may also have worked for the CIA. In September 2000, a congressional report revealed that Contreras himself had been a CIA asset in 1975 and maintained contacts with the agency for years thereafter. Further investigation revealed that the bomb was built and placed under the car by Cuban-Americans from the Cuban Nationalist Movement. In 1979, the Chilean Supreme Court rejected the US’s call for extradition, leading the State Department to denounce the fact that “the three terrorists have been released from custody and are now free” and to repeat that Chile “has a duty to insure that this brutal act of terrorism does not go unpunished.”

For his part, Chilean Ambassador Manuel Trucco had immediately condemned the Letelier assassination 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.” In this, the Letelier assassination fit the pattern of all other Condor operations, and indeed of all these regimes’ purely domestic modes of repression: implemented covertly, so as to give these regimes “plausible deniability,” it also enabled 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 denied, 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.

If responsibility for the Letelier assassination was never claimed by Chile or any other Condor state, that these regimes considered such methods necessary and justified was exactly what their political discourse had always implied. After all, these leaders had insisted for years that they were “at war” with “subversives” and “terrorists,” while publicly stating their goals in ways that clearly suggested that they considered the use of any necessary methods as fully legitimate and justified. As Argentine General Luciano Menendez had infamously announced: “We are going to have to kill 50,000 people: 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers, and we will make 5,000 mistakes.” As demonstrated by several declassified documents, such policies were accepted and often enabled by the US government at the time.

On January 24, 2013, Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights program, called on the Obama Administration to collaborate with the newly-announced United Nations investigation into targeted killings, and expressed fears that such a program was “setting a dangerous precedent” for countries which have “less traditional respect for human rights and international law.” As the August 3, 1976 memorandum clearly shows, however, countries with very little respect for the rule of law and claiming to be fighting “terrorism” have already defended their practices by pointing to such precedents. Indeed, as Shlaudeman wrote, the Condor countries referred to Israeli practices to justify theirs: “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.” A few years later, it would be Israel’s turn to use a similar argument: in response to Reagan’s criticism of the bombing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization headquarters in Beirut, which caused over 200 civilian casualties, on December 20, 1981 Prime Minister Begin summoned US Ambassador Samuel Lewis and stated:

You don’t have the right, from a moral perspective, to preach to us regarding civilian loss of life. We have read the history of World War II, and we know what happened to civilians when you took action against the enemy. We have also read the history of the Vietnam War, and your concept of “body counts.” We always make efforts to prevent casualties among civilians, but sometimes this is unavoidable.

At heart, these arguments are based not on claims regarding the legality or morality of such methods, but rather on a cold, realist assessment of the impunity that has accompanied them, historically, when used by powerful enough states. In Latin America, various Truth Commissions and high profile trials such as the one that just started in Argentina, 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, developments to a great extent made possible by declassification projects undertaken under Presidents Clinton (Chile) and Bush (Argentina.) Partly as a result of such transparency, as New York University’s Greg Grandin recently noted Latin American countries are, in a rather astonishing historical reversal, fully absent from the list of 54 States that became involved in the CIA’s post-9/11 torture and extraordinary renditions programs

US officials themselves, however, have never been held accountable for their role in this other “war on terrorism.” Former Secretary of State Kissinger, for example, has been called to testify several times by Latin American judges, demands that have always been rejected by the United States. Operation Condor thus stands as a perfect example both of the level of secrecy that continues (due to repeated refusals to declassify relevant official documents) to surround the nature and extent of American involvement in what can only be described as a giant “international terrorist network,” and of the existence of serious hints at actual complicity at the highest level of the US government. In ways eerily reminiscent of Latin America’s terrifying history of secretive “death squads,” recent reporting is hinting at the possibility of current cooperation between the US military (or the CIA) and various Afghan armed groups involved in killings and disappearances, while an investigation by The Guardian documents what appear to have been very clear links between US policies in El Salvador in the 1980s (also described, at the time, as part of the “fight against terrorism”) and its “counterinsurgency” strategy in Iraq.

Secrecy is fundamentally inimical to democratic rule, as it erodes trust while distorting and polluting public discourse. As Georgetown Law School Professor David Cole recently wrote, transparency about current US “targeted killings” policies that essentially allow the government “to kill its citizens in secret while refusing to acknowledge, even after the fact, that it has done so” is of the utmost importance. Indeed, he further noted, secrecy was exactly why Argentina’s policy of “disappearances” was so “deeply corrosive of democratic politics.”  Similarly John Dinges, probably the foremost American expert on Operation Condor, argues that the current Argentina trial should be seen as an opportunity for the United States to learn the right lessons from history and from that other “war on terrorism.” As he reminds us after noting the troubling similarities between the Letelier assassination and the logic that appears to underlie certain uses of drones by 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.”

President Obama’s suggestion, 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 official crimes, was profoundly counterproductive. 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 make sure that the past represented by Condor was not simply a prologue of things to come.

UPDATE: Brulin tweeted about the whitewashing of Thatcher’s association with Pinochet in the NYT Obituary from today


2 thoughts on “Remi Brulin on State Secrecy and Targeted Assassinations, from Operation Condor to the Obama Administration

  1. Pingback: How Obama follows in the footsteps of Pinochet — War in Context

  2. Pingback: History repeats itself with 'war on terror' – Global Public Square - Blogs

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