Pinochet Noir

So this is what it's come to: a president carries on a clandestine affair with an intern, and it's headline news every day for a year. But a secretary of state whispers sweet nothings to a violent dictator, and the mainstream media is bored to death.

Okay, so the story took place long ago and far away, on June 8, 1976, in Santiago, Chile. But it has its celebrities: Henry Kissinger, who was then U.S. secretary of state, and Chilean general Augusto Pinochet, whose government had a reputation for torturing and murdering its political opponents. And there's proof: Their tête-à-tête took place in front of witnesses, one of whom recorded it in a State Department memorandum.

Kissinger can only be described as sucking up to Pinochet. He dismissed U.S. complaints about Chilean torture and murder as "domestic problems" and promised to downplay the complaints in a speech scheduled for later that day (which he did). "In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here . . . . We wish your government well," he told Pinochet. Then he laid it on thick. "My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government which was going Communist."

A different account appears in Years of Renewal, the third volume of Kissinger's memoirs, just published by Simon & Schuster. In it, Kissinger describes the tone of the meeting as far chillier than it is depicted in the memo— and he fails to footnote the memo. One possible explanation for the sanitizing is that if Kissinger had denounced Pinochet's violent tendencies in June 1976, he might have prevented the assassination of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier by Pinochet's secret police, which took place a few months later in Washington, D.C. Then again, he may still be protecting Pinochet. He admits in the book that he intentionally omitted any discussion of the current attempt to prosecute Pinochet for war crimes, but doesn't say why.

The sleazy flavor of their 1976 rendezvous might never have emerged, if not for Lucy Komisar, a New York­based journalist who discovered the memo as part of her research for a book about U.S. foreign policy. Aware that the Santiago meeting had taken place, she filed a specific request for the memo in 1995. It was finally released to her in October.

That same month, Pinochet was arrested in London. Komisar wrote an article analyzing the memo and sent it to numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, and The Nation. The response: a deafening silence. The New Republic held the story three weeks before passing. The New Yorker sent a note saying, "As we have only recently published a piece on Pinochet, it is too soon to return to the subject."

Komisar was disturbed by the lack of interest. "It raises questions about the news judgments of a lot of editors," she says. "They fill their pages with Monica and O.J. and Diana, but when it comes to something important about a person who is still playing a real, if unofficial, role in the world today— I find it astonishing that they don't want to deal with it."

Komisar eventually gave up on U.S. media and sent queries to the London Observer and El País, the main daily paper in Spain. The reaction was swift. "I spoke to the Observer on Thursday and to El País on Friday," she says, "and both ran stories that Sunday [February 28]." Then she sent the story to the Pacific News Service, which broke the news in the U.S. on March 1.

That was the moment Peter Kornbluh was waiting for. Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, writes about Chile for The Nation. In January, he obtained a copy of the memo in the course of his own research, but out of respect for Komisar chose not to write about it until she published her story in the U.S. After Kornbluh got a copy of the Kissinger book, he fired off a quick piece, comparing the official account of the Pinochet rendezvous with the sanitized account Kissinger offers in his book.

In his Nation piece of March 29, now out, Kornbluh writes that Kissinger's account of the rendezvous was less than candid. In a new and unpublished piece, Komisar accuses Kissinger of presenting a "selective and distorted" version of the meeting; for example, she says, Kissinger describes Pinochet as exhibiting "no special warmth," while the memo describes the general as "grateful" to his U.S. visitors.

So now the story has made its way up the food chain to The Nation. But that's still a far cry from the mainstream. As Kornbluh points out, just because editors might not have wanted to buy Komisar's account, they don't have an excuse for ignoring the story. "Any news editor worth his salt should have read that piece in the London Observer and tried to get the document and done a story on it," he says.

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