An Assassin's Final Kill
By Fred Burton
Editor's Note: The following piece is part of an occasional series in which Fred Burton, our vice president of intelligence, reflects on his storied experience as a counterterrorism agent for the U.S. State Department.
Bethesda, Maryland, hardly looks like a scene for murder. Long before I became a counterterrorism agent with the Diplomatic Security Service, I was an officer with the Montgomery Country Police Department, and I spent countless nights driving through the sleepy neighborhoods of Montgomery County.
But Bethesda has seen its share of violence, home as it is to so many diplomats and officials looking for a tranquil spot within commuting distance of Washington, D.C. Take for instance the 1973 assassination of Colonel Joseph Alon, an Israeli military attache. Then there were the chilling Bradford Bishop murders in 1976, when agents from the State Department helped search the globe for a Yale-educated State Department Foreign Service officer who had bludgeoned his family to death with a hammer. (Bishop is now on the FBI Top Ten Fugitive list.) One case in particular that had an extraordinary impact on the intelligence community as a whole, and the diplomatic service in particular, was the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier.
A Professional Hit
Letelier was a Chilean politician fleeing the brutal new regime that had come into power in 1973, in a U.S.-backed coup to overthrow Chile's socialist government. He soon found himself living and working in the United States. On September 10, 1976, Letelier delivered a blistering rebuke of Chile's brutal new regime in a speech at Madison Square Garden. Eleven days later, at 9:35 in the morning, Letelier was rounding Sheridan Circle on Embassy Row in Washington DC when an improvised explosive device detonated under his powder blue, Chevrolet Chevelle. Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, a 25-year-old woman who was campaigning for democracy in Chile, both died of their injuries. Moffitt's husband, Michael Moffitt, was also in the car, but survived the blast.
The man behind the attack was a paid assassin named Michael Townley. A U.S. citizen, Townley worked as an operative for the Chilean secret police, and there were abundant rumors that he also had connections with the CIA. On the night of September 21, 1976, he crept into Letelier's driveway under the cover of darkness and attached a radio-controlled bomb to the underside of the car. Designed to concentrate the force of its blast upward, the bomb would blow a two-foot hole in the driver's seat.
Putting Security First
It often takes tragedy to teach a hard lesson, and the Letelier case is a perfect example. In the 1970's, protection protocol for foreign diplomats, dignitaries and high-profile political figures was poor. Most current and former diplomats were listed in the local telephone directory and could easily be found. The State Department Office of Security, the forerunner to the DSS, shared responsibility for protecting visiting officials with the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division and local police departments, but there was little smooth coordination between the various agencies or between the federal government and police.
What made the attack on Letelier particularly jarring for U.S. security professionals was where it had occurred — Embassy Row, the diplomatic heart of the capitol and where agents spent a huge portion of their time ferrying foreign officials back and forth down Massachusetts Avenue.
Protection agencies such as the U.S. Secret Service and Diplomatic Security Service would later study the hit on Letelier in an effort to improve security protocol. Today agents urge officials to park their vehicles in protected garages and inspect their cars before they start them, and the State Department provides much more robust protection for resident foreign officials in the United States. U.S. Secret Service officers and K9 units patrol diplomatic residences and embassies, while the FBI works more closely with local police departments to ensure diplomats are protected even when they are at home. Diplomatic residences are placed on enhanced 9-1-1 programs, which alert everyone from the FBI to the State Department if the residents dial the police. The FBI, Joint Terrorism Task Forces and protective intelligence divisions of the Diplomatic Security Service thoroughly investigate suspicious events, making it far more difficult to pull off the kind of assassination Townley orchestrated in 1976.
Townley is implicated in at least three other assassinations before Letelier's, and he may have done far more during his time with the Chilean secret police. But after the United States put him on trial for Letelier's murder, Townley's career came to an end. He managed to strike a plea bargain that allowed him, after 62 months in prison, to enter the U.S. Marshals Service Witness protection program — which continues to hide him to this day.
Now the former assassin is back in the news for his involvement in another murder altogether: the 1976 kidnapping, torture and murder of Spanish diplomat Carmelo Soria in Chile, an outspoken opponent of the same military dictatorship Letelier had fled. In August, the Chilean Supreme Court called for a trial of fifteen former members of the dictatorship-era secret police.
There's only one problem: Townley is nowhere to be found. The U.S. Marshalls are unlikely to surrender him to the Chileans and risk discrediting their entire program, so Chile's calls to put him on trial will go unanswered. And though Letelier's assassination was far from Townley's first killing, it is likely the only one for which he will ever be brought to justice.