I would be remiss in letting September pass without noting the car-bomb assassination of Orlando Letelier along Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., 47 years ago this month.
The September 21, 1976 murder of Letelier, a prominent Chilean dissident in exile, carried out by agents of Chile’s savage military dictatorship, proved the maxim that “there are friendly states but no friendly intelligence services,” as Yuri Kobaladze, spokesman for Russia’s post-communist foreign intelligence service, the SVR, once put it. The Chilean regime, having taken power three years earlier in a military coup encouraged by the Nixon administration, was still on friendly terms with The White House when a hired assassin affixed a bomb under Letelier’s car and his helpers set it off. Letelier’s innocent American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, riding in the passenger seat, died in the shocking bombing as well.
Only three months earlier, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had visited Santiago and privately told Chile’s dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet—responsible at that point for jailing, torturing and “disappearing” thousands of his fellow citizens: “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.” The assassination of Letelier, who had served successively as minister of foreign affairs, interior and defense in the socialist Allende government overthrown by the generals, was just one murderous mission in a global crusade to wipe out Chilean dissidents abroad, as documented by investigative reporter and author John Dinges in his authoritative The Condor Years and (with Saul Landau) Assassination on Embassy Row.
I was prompted to revisit—and again grieve—the murder of Letelier, a gracious and generous man whom I got to know in the months before his death, by the diplomatic imbroglio that has broken out between India and Canada over the murder in June of a Sikh dissident in exile, Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday that he had “credible allegations potentially linking” India to the murder in British Columbia of Nijjar, a prominent advocate for the creation of a Sikh state known as Khalistan.
If the Letelier case is any guide, it will be several months before the Canadian security services produce court-worthy evidence against the perpetrators, and even less a chance that the suspected authors of the alleged assassination in the extreme Hindu government of Narenda Modi, are indicted, much less extradited, to face justice. But for the moment, Modi seems to have joined a malodorous club.
“If confirmed, India would join Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries credibly accused of plotting lethal attacks overseas against perceived adversaries, including their own citizens, in recent years, according to Western security officials and experts,” The Washington Post’s deeply experienced national security correspondent Greg Miller wrote on Saturday. Following Nijjar’s murder last summer, the FBI warned Sikh activists in the U.S. that their lives, too, could be in danger, according to The Intercept.