How Obama follows in the footsteps of Pinochet

Remi Brulin writes: 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. [Continue reading…]

In March, Democracy Now interviewed John Dinges, author of “The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents,” who talked about the Operation Condor trial currently underway in Argentina.

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