The family of Chilean military Commander Rene Schneider, who was killed thirty-one years ago during a botched kidnapping by rightwing coup plotters supported by the US, filed a lawsuit yesterday in a US federal court. The lawsuit accuses former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former CIA Chief Richard Helms, among others, of involvement in covert operations that led to Schneider’s assassination. [includes rush transcript]
The suit became possible because of documents declassified in the last few years which show that the United States and Henry Kissinger were more deeply involved than was previously thought in a 1970 plot to prevent Salvador Allende from becoming Chile’s president.
The CIA plotting did not prevent Salvador Allende, who had won a September 1970 presidential election, from taking office. But right wing officers did kill Chilean General Rene Schneider, who opposed a military takeover. The US finally succeeded in ousting Allende three years later, leading to a military takeover by Augusto Pinochet.
- Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at National Security Archive and author of forthcoming book The Pinochet Files.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
The family of Chilean military Commander Rene Schneider, who was killed 31 years ago during a botched kidnapping by rightwing coup plotters supported by the CIA, filed a lawsuit yesterday in US federal court. The suit accuses former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former CIA Chief Richard Helms, among others, of involvement in covert operations that led to Schneider’s assassination.
The suit became possible because of documents declassified in the last few years which show that the United States and Henry Kissinger were more deeply involved than was previously thought in a 1970 plot to prevent the democratically elected President Salvador Allende from taking office.
The CIA plotting did not prevent Allende, who had won a September ’70 presidential election, from taking office. But rightwing officers did kill Chilean General Rene Schneider, who opposed a military takeover. The US finally succeeded in ousting Allende three years later, leading to a military takeover by Augusto Pinochet.
We’re joined on the phone right now by Peter Kornbluh, who’s a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and author of the forthcoming book, The Pinochet Files. Welcome to Democracy Now!
It’s a pleasure to be back, Amy.
Good to have you. Can you talk about the significance of this case brought by military commander Rene Schneider’s family?
Yeah. In some ways, it was inevitable, after the arrest three years ago in London of General Augusto Pinochet, that the momentum of kind of the globalization of justice would come back to the United States, particularly in the case of events in Chile. And those events, horrible as they were, started really with the October 22nd shooting of the head of the Chilean armed forces, General Rene Schneider. He was the equivalent to the chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff here in the United States of America.
Richard Nixon had ordered the CIA to foment a coup to block Allende from actually being inaugurated in the fall of 1970. Henry Kissinger was overseeing the implementation of those orders. And Schneider stood in the way.
And this case really is the most concrete documented case of US involvement in the assassination of a foreign leader abroad. And the paperwork on this case goes right up to the office of Henry Kissinger.
Now, Kissinger has always denied that the US had anything to do with the killing of General Schneider. What do the documents say?
Well, Kissinger seized on a little twist in this plot, which is that he had told the CIA on October 15th, seven days before the shooting, that it should not work with a particular coup plotter named Roberto Viaux, because he would launch a coup without the capability of following it through, and that would ruin the chances for the other coup plotters that the CIA was working with inside the military to have a successful coup. So the CIA went to Viaux on Kissinger’s orders and said, well, we think you should suspend your activities for now and work more closely with other Chilean plotters. And, in fact, that’s exactly what Viaux did. There wasn’t two separate groups of coup plotters, one that the CIA wasn’t working with after October 15th and one that they were. They were all working together.
Kissinger, I believe, and according to the declassified documents, misrepresented what he told the agency to do. He claimed in his testimony to a Senate committee in 1975 and to the American public in his memoirs that he had cut off all coup plotting, when in fact all he had done is said this one particular individual we can’t trust to complete this mission.
And the documents certainly reinforce the fact that he did not cut off all coup plotting and that his office and his deputy, who was then Alexander Haig, was briefed by the CIA after October 15th on the progression of coup plotting and that even on the day of the shooting, October 22nd, we’ve learned from declassified documents the CIA went up to Haig’s office — of course, this is the way they communicated with Kissinger, by talking to his deputy — and at 4:00 in the afternoon, after the shooting, briefed Haig on what had transpired. So I think it’s clear that Kissinger’s office did know what was happening, and that’s important to this case.
Kissinger recently agreed, after years of delays, to release to the public several thousand pages of his telephone transcripts from this period. Have you seen them? And what do they say?
Well, that’s not quite what he agreed to. He agreed to transfer transcripts of telephone conversations that he had during his tenure as Secretary of State, which didn’t begin until 1973. He did not agree to transfer the records that he has in his personal possession during his tenure as National Security Adviser to Richard Nixon between 1968 and — 1969 and 1973. And those are the documents which would further reveal his knowledge and involvement in this particular criminal act.
How does he justify releasing one set but not the other?
Well, he never — he didn’t voluntarily agree to transfer it — return those papers. He was under the threat of a lawsuit from my organization, actually, the National Security Archive, against the State Department and the National Archives for failing to secure those papers. And so, those two agencies went to Kissinger and said, “You know, we are being threatened with a lawsuit, and the lawsuit has merit. We are going to have to come after these papers from you unless you return them.” And he at that point — this was just a few weeks ago — did agree to return the State Department papers. The State Department was willing to pursue him for the papers that he took while he was Secretary of State, but so far George Bush’s National Security Council has been reluctant to take the same position that they should pursue the papers from the National Security era of Henry Kissinger’s role in government.
What is the precedent for suing an individual? Here, you have Rene Schneider’s son, who is suing individuals — Richard Helms, former CIA chief, Henry Kissinger. Can they protect themselves by saying they were working for the US government?
Well, they certainly can. And very few former US officials have ever been successfully sued for what could be considered crimes committed under the guise of national security. Some years ago, the family of Charles Horman, the journalist who was killed in Chile following Pinochet’s coup by the Chilean military, did file a suit, a wrongful death suit against Kissinger and the former ambassador to Chile and others, alleging that through neglect and complicity they were involved in the coup and allowed Charles Horman to be killed. That suit was dismissed for lack of concrete evidence. But that was an American family suing in American courts. And this is a Chilean family kind of pursuing the precedent set by the Pinochet case, that there should be a broader level of jurisdiction and that crimes committed by officials, in this case a very specific crime, should be able to be tried in other courts. And the case will have to be read and followed legally and stand on its own merits. But certainly they — this case was allowed by kind of a change in international dynamics following the arrest of Augusto Pinochet in London.
We’re talking to Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive and author of the forthcoming book, The Pinochet Files. Can you talk about what you’re coming out with in your book?
Well, among the things that are in the book is a very detailed account with all of the CIA and US government documents of the shooting of General Schneider and the cover-up that ensued thereafter. And one of the key elements that’s in the book that your listeners should know is that for more than twenty-five years the CIA and perhaps Kissinger, as well, deceived the American public into thinking that they had washed their hands of the group that actually shot Schneider before the shooting took place. But one of the things that emerged through the declassification of these documents over the last couple of years was that after the shooting took place and after Schneider had been killed, the CIA passed $35,000 to elements of the hit team that killed him in order to buy their silence about previous contacts with US government personnel, with CIA covert agents. And this was essentially hush money. It was clear obstruction of justice to cover up a very specific crime, which everybody who was cognizant of the US role in it understood to be a very, very, very bad situation for the United States.
For all the scandal that has surrounded the whole broader issue of US involvement in an assassination of foreign leaders, for all the focus that’s been put on the attempted assassination by the CIA of Fidel Castro, for example, the most concrete case of US involvement in a political assassination is this case of General Rene Schneider. And that is in the book, as well as an account of Operation Condor, the Chilean Pinochet-led multinational murder operations against political dissidents and opponents of regimes in the Southern Cone; the documents that show how the United States supported General Pinochet after he took power and the degree of their clear, detailed knowledge of his repression and support for him nevertheless; the case of Charles Horman; a number of other cases, as well. So those are all in the book.
The — 60 Minutes on Sunday did a whole piece on Rene Schneider, said they had a new document indicating the level of involvement of Henry Kissinger, but there was also documents that they didn’t talk about, not only the payment after the killing of Schneider, but wasn’t there a level of gloating?
Well, yes. And in the 60 Minutes piece, they briefly referred to and used a new document, which is CIA at the highest level after a discussion with Richard Helms, sending a cable to its station in Santiago on — after the shooting took place, basically commending the station on a job well done. Instead of shock and horror that what was supposed to be a kidnapping turned into a murder, you get a cable based on a conversation with the Director of Central Intelligence, who is one of the defendants in this case, saying, “You did a great job. You did what we had set out to do. You did it under very difficult circumstances. Now keep us posted about how this leads to the coup that we’ve all been working towards.” And that, I believe, reflects the attitude in the US government at the time in response to this shooting, and that is a pivotal document that will no doubt be a factor in this case if it is able to go forward.
Well, Peter Kornbluh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, author of the forthcoming book, The Pinochet Files.