Newly declassified documents released by the Obama administration confirm the long-held suspicion that in 1976 the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was responsible for killing two people on American soil. Other evidence had long pointed to Pinochet’s culpability, but these new documents leave the question of guilt beyond doubt. On September 21, 1976, a car bomb went off in Washington, D.C., killing Orlando Letelier (an exiled Chilean diplomat and critic of the Pinochet dictatorship) and his assistant Ronni Moffitt, whose husband, Michael, was badly wounded in the attack.
Pinochet directly ordered the attack and was so eager to make sure that his guilt never be known that he even contemplated killing his own spy chief, Manuel Contreras, in order to cover up the crime. Pinochet wasn't alone in wanting the truth of the Letelier assassination to be hidden. The American conservative magazine National Review played a major role over many years to whitewash and obscure Pinochet’s guilt. They did this during a period when they were actively in cooperation with Pinochet’s regime.
As John Judis notes in his invaluable biography of William F. Buckley, National Review’s ties to the Pinochet’s political fortunes even preceded the 1973 coup that brought the dictator to power. In the early 1970s, National Review editor William F. Buckley hired Nena Ossa to report from Chile. Ossa was politically close to the right-wing movement that overthrew a democratic government in 1973. After Pinochet seized power, Ossa was rewarded for her loyalty by being made head of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Chile. Even after her ties to the Pinochet regime were made public, she continued to cover Chile for National Review.
In 1975 Buckley and his friend Marvin Liebman set up the American-Chilean Council (ACC) to promote Pinochet’s interests in the United States. Short of funds, the organization took money from the Chilean government, funneled by Ossa, although Liebman didn’t list himself as director with the Justice Department. ACC funding went to pay for National Review writers like William Rusher, Robert Moss, John Chamberlain, and Jeffrey Hart to take luxurious junkets to Chile, which often resulted in articles defending Pinochet.
In a letter to Liebman in July 1975, Ossa praised Robert Moss for writing a National Review article that fulfilled the political agenda of the Pinochet regime. “Fortunately he seems to be enough to the Right to understand that he cannot possibly write all he sees and hears,” Ossa enthused. “His fight against Marxism is much more important than being a journalist.” Ossa wanted propaganda, not journalism. National Review was happy to fulfill that mandate.
The same lack of journalistic ethics displayed by Moss were evident in National Review’s reports on the terrorist attacks in Washington, which were all carefully crafted propaganda designed to protect Pinochet. As Judis noted in his biography, “In March 1977, National Review editor Kevin Lynch, who had also worked for the ACC, suggested that Letelier had been a Cuban agent and that the Chilean government had nothing to do with his killing. In July, the National Review speculated on whether Letelier had been ‘an agent of the USSR.’"
The defenses of Pinochet continued even as the evidence of the dictator's guilt mounted. In March 1978, after a trip to Chile financed by the ACC, National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart wrote, “At the time that Letelier was blown up by a bomb in Washington, he had become entangled in international terrorism and was receiving funds through Havana.” Buckley frequently wrote about the case as well, arguing that “there are highly reasonable, indeed compelling, grounds for doubting that Pinochet had anything to do with the assassination.”
In 1978, facing an investigation by the Justice Department into whether the ACC had misrepresented itself by pretending to be an independent group when it had been financed by the government of Chile, the lobby group shut down. National Review continued to print pro-Pinochet propaganda, even after Chile transitioned to democracy.
Both Chile and the United States have been struggling with a reckoning with the Pinochet years. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has acknowledged that the United States is "not proud" of its role in bringing Pinochet to power. National Review needs to do its own soul searching about its complicity in covering up Pinochet's crimes.