By the National Security Archive
October 22, 2020
Washington D.C. – On October 23, 1970, one day after armed thugs intercepted and mortally wounded the Chilean army commander-in-chief, General Rene Schneider, as he drove to work in Santiago, CIA Director Richard Helms convened his top aides to review the covert coup operations that had led to the attack. “[I]t was agreed that … a maximum effort has been achieved,” and that “the station has done excellent job of guiding Chileans to point today where a military solution is at least an option for them,” stated a Secret cable of commendation transmitted that day to the CIA station in Chile. “COS [Chief of Station] … and Station [deleted] are commended for accomplishing this under extremely difficult and delicate circumstances.”
At the State Department, officials had no idea that the CIA and the highest levels of the Nixon White House had backed the attack on Schneider—with pressure, weapons, and money—as a pretext for a military coup that would overturn the democratic election of Salvador Allende. They drafted a condolence letter for President Nixon to send. In a memo to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who was secretly supervising the CIA’s coup operations, the State Department recommended that Nixon convey the following message to the President of Chile: “Dear Mr. President: The shocking attempt on the life of General Schneider is a stain on the pages of contemporary history. I would like you to know of my sorrow that this repugnant event has occurred in your country….”
Marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-supported attack on General Schneider, the National Security Archive today is posting a collection of previously declassified records to commemorate this “repugnant event.” The Archive has also posted a CBS ‘60 Minutes’ segment, “Schneider vs. Kissinger,” that drew on these documents to report on a “wrongful death” lawsuit filed in September 2001 by the Schneider family against Kissinger for his role in the assassination. The ‘60 Minutes’ broadcast aired on September 9, 2001 and has not been publicly available since then. In preparation for the 50th anniversary, CBS News graciously posted the broadcast as a “60 Minutes Rewind” yesterday
In Chile, the assassination of General Schneider remains the historical equivalent of the assassination of John F. Kennedy: a cruel and shocking political crime that shook the nation. In the United States, the murder of Schneider has become one of the most renowned case studies of CIA efforts to “neutralize” a foreign leader who stood in the way of U.S. objectives.
The CIA’s murderous covert operations to, as CIA officials suggested, “effect the removal of Schneider,” were first revealed in a 1975 Senate report on Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders. At the time, investigators for the special Senate committee led by Idaho Senator Frank Church were able to review the Top Secret CIA operational cables and memoranda relating to “Operation FUBELT”—the code name for CIA efforts, ordered by Nixon and supervised by Kissinger, to instigate a military coup that would begin with the kidnapping of Schneider. When the Church Committee published its dramatic report, however, almost none of the classified records were made public.
It took 25 more years before President Bill Clinton ordered the release of the CIA records on Operation FUBELT, as part of a massive declassification on Chile in the aftermath of General Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in London for human rights crimes. A close reading of the documentation exposes the false narrative that Kissinger, Richard Helms, and other high ranking officials presented to the Church Committee in their testimonies about their knowledge of, and responsibilities for, an act of political terrorism that led to the shooting of Schneider on October 22, 1970, and his death three days later.
General Schneider was targeted for his defense of Chile’s constitutional transfer of power. On May 8, 1970, he gave what the Defense Intelligence Agency described as an “outspoken” interview to Chile’s leading newspaper, El Mercurio, affirming that the Chilean armed forces would not interfere in the September 1970 election—a position that became known as “the Schneider Doctrine.”
As the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army and the highest-ranking military officer in Chile, Schneider’s policy of non-intervention created a major obstacle for CIA efforts to implement President Nixon’s orders to foment a coup that would prevent the recently elected Socialist, Salvador Allende, from being inaugurated. A “key to a coup,” as Chilean newspaper mogul, Agustin Edwards, told CIA Director Helms on September 15, 1970, in Washington, D.C. “would involve neutralizing Schneider” so other Army officers could take action. “General Schneider would have to be neutralized, by displacement if necessary,” U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry pointed out in a September 21, 1970, cable. “Anything we or the Station can do to effect the removal of Schneider?,” the CIA directors of Operation FUBELT queried their agents in Santiago on October 13.
Kidnapping Schneider was the answer. By mid-October, the Defense attaché, Col. Paul Wimert, and CIA operatives known as “false flaggers”—agents flown in from abroad using false identities who were referred to as “sponsors” in the cable traffic—had held multiple meetings with Chilean military officers to discuss this operation. A coup plot beginning with the kidnapping of Schneider would accomplish multiple goals: remove the most powerful opponent of a military golpe; replace him with a military officer sympathetic to a coup; blame the kidnapping on Allende supporters; and create what the CIA referred to as “a coup climate” of upheaval to justify a military takeover.
Initially, the CIA focused on retired General Roberto Viaux as the officer most willing to move against Schneider. In secret meetings with the “false flaggers,” Viaux demanded an air-drop of armaments as well as insurance policies for his men. His CIA “sponsors” promised $250,000 to “keep Viaux movement financially lubricated,” while the CIA tried to coordinate his activities with other coup plotters. Active duty coup plotters were needed because Viaux commanded no troops; he was “a general without an army” who had the capacity to precipitate a coup—but not to successfully implement one.
On October 15, the CIA’s top official in charge of covert operations, Thomas Karamessines, met with Henry Kissinger and his military assistant, Alexander Haig, to update them on the status of coup plotting in Chile. They agreed that a failed coup would have “unfortunate repercussions, in Chile and internationally,” and “the Agency must get a message to Viaux warning him against any precipitate action” that would undermine chances for a successful coup later. According to the meeting minutes, Kissinger instructed the Agency to “continue keeping the pressure on every Allende weak spot in sight….”
The next day, CIA headquarters transmitted the conclusions of the Kissinger meeting “which are to be your operational guide,” to the Santiago station. “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup,” the cable stated, preferably before October 24, when the Chilean Congress was due to ratify Allende’s electoral victory. “We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource.” The cable instructed the station chief, Henry Hecksher, to get a message to Viaux to “discourage him from acting alone,” and “encourage him to join forces with other coup planners so that they may act in concert either before or after 24 October.”
That message was delivered, and Viaux did as directed. He met with a pro-coup brigadier general, Camilo Valenzuela, and they coordinated a plan to abduct Schneider on October 19th, as he left a military “stag party” as the trigger for a coup. According to the plan, Schneider would be secretly flown to Argentina; the military would announce that he had “disappeared,” blaming Allende supporters who would then be arrested; President Eduardo Frei would be forced into exile, Congress dissolved, and a new military junta installed in power.
The CIA was not only aware of this plan, they credited themselves for its development. “In recent weeks Station false flag officers have made a vigorous effort to contact, advise, and influence key members of the military in an attempt to rally support for a coup,” stated a Top Secret October 20, 1970, memo on the progress of “Track II,” as the coup plotting was designated. “Valenzuela’s announcement that the military is now prepared to move may be an indication of the effectiveness of this effort.”
Moreover, the Agency actively supported it. Using Col. Wimert as their primary interlocutor with Valenzuela and his top deputies, CIA operatives arranged to furnish them with untraceable grease guns, tear gas grenades, ammunition, and $50,000 in cash to finance the kidnapping operation. When the first attempt to kidnap Schneider on October 19 failed, as well as a second attempt the next day, the co-directors of the FUBELT task force, David Atlee Phillips and William Broe, instructed the station chief to “assure Valenzuela and others with whom he has been in contact that USG support for anti-Allende action continues.”
On the morning of October 22, 1970, Schneider’s chauffeured car was struck and stopped by a jeep as he drove to military headquarters. A hit team surrounded the car; as one member smashed the back window with sledgehammer, Schneider reached for his pistol and was shot at close range. He died of his wounds three days later.
Although CIA officials had discussed the potential for the abduction to turn violent, assassinating Schneider had not been part of the plan. Nevertheless, the CIA’s own post mortems on the operation showed no remorse. To the contrary, Agency officials firmly believed that the “die has been cast” for a coup to move forward. In his first report to Langley, the station chief, Henry Hecksher, cabled that “all we can say is that attempt against Schneider is affording armed forces one last opportunity to prevent Allende’s election….” At Langley headquarters, Richard Helms and his deputies congratulated the station on their “excellent job.” CIA analysts on the FUBELT task force predicted that the coup would now take place since the assassins would fear being prosecuted after Allende assumed office. The plotters would either “try and force Frei to resign or they can attempt to assassinate Allende,” a special report on the “Machine gun Assault on General Schneider” asserted. “Hence, they have no alternative but to move ahead,” another task force report suggested. “The state of emergency and the establishment of martial law have significantly improved the plotters position: a coup climate now prevails in Chile.”
The opposite was true. Repulsed by an act of political terrorism on the streets of Santiago, the Chilean public, the political elite and even General Carlos Prats who replaced Schneider as commander-in-chief, rallied to protect the constitutional processes which Schneider had defended. “The assassination of Army Commander in Chief Schneider has practically ended the possibility of any military action against Allende. It apparently has unified the armed forces behind acceptance and support of him as constitutional president in a way that few other developments could have done,” the CIA’s own analytical division, the Directorate of Intelligence, reported in the aftermath of Schneider’s death. On October 24, Allende was overwhelmingly ratified by the Chilean Congress. On November 3, he was inaugurated as the first freely elected Socialist leader in the world.
A Cover Up and the Pursuit of Justice
In the aftermath of the assassination the CIA went to great lengths to cover up all evidence of its involvement with General Valenzuela, and to pay off General Viaux and his accomplices to stay silent. Colonel Wimert retrieved the weapons that had been sent—they were disposed of in the ocean—and the $50,000 that had been passed to Valenzuela. Although CIA officials testified before the Church Committee that they had no further contact with Viaux and his team after October 18, 1970, in fact they had multiple contacts as his representatives sought, in the ensuing months, $250,000 dollars to support the families of the men involved in the plot. Eventually, the CIA paid out $35,000 in hush money to representatives of the assassination team, according to a later CIA report submitted to the House Intelligence Committee, “in an effort to keep previous contact secret, maintain the good will of the group and for humanitarian reasons.”
For his part, Henry Kissinger testified before the Church Committee that he had “turned off” coup plotting during the meeting with the CIA on October 15, 1970, and had never been informed that the plot involved kidnapping General Schneider. When the CIA records that appeared to contradict Kissinger’s dubious narrative were declassified during the Clinton administration, the National Security Archive’s Chile analyst, Peter Kornbluh, provided them to the Schneider family; they then used the declassified records as evidence in a “wrongful death” civil lawsuit against Kissinger. The suit was filed in District Court in Washington, D.C., on September 10, 2001. Eventually, the courts dismissed the case because Kissinger’s official acts as national security advisor to the president were protected from legal liability.
The Schneider case and the family’s lawsuit became the subject of a major ‘60 Minutes’ investigation that was broadcast on September 9, 2001. Produced by Michael Gavshon and Solly Granatstein and reported by the late Bob Simon, the program examined the declassified record that exposed the White House and CIA complicity in Schneider’s murder. In an interview with the General’s son, Rene Schneider, Simon asked “does it make any sense” to pursue Kissinger, more than three decades after his father had been killed. “The truth is that I always wanted to put this behind me,” Schneider replied. “But we have a duty to humanity to speak out about this. It would be irresponsible to remain silent.”
Founded in 1985 by journalists and scholars to check rising government secrecy, the National Security Archive combines a unique range of functions: investigative journalism center, research institute on international affairs, library and archive of declassified U.S. documents (“the world’s largest nongovernmental collection” according to the Los Angeles Times), leading non-profit user of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, public interest law firm defending and expanding public access to government information, global advocate of open government, and indexer and publisher of former secrets.