The Foreign Service Journal, April 2020

82 APRIL 2020 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Diplomats Aid in Solving the Crime Ghosts of Sheridan Circle: How a Washington Assassination Brought Pinochet’s Terror State to Justice Alan McPherson, University of North Carolina Press, 2019, $34.95/hardcover, $26.99/Kindle, 392 pages. Reviewed by Harry Kopp “Justice delayed,” say the lawyers, “is justice denied.” Theologians have a different view: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Georgetown Professor Charles King writes, “American history does not so much arc toward justice as oscillate in its general vicinity.” Justice, and the many obstacles to its attainment, is the unstated theme of Alan McPherson’s Ghosts of Sheridan Circle , a history of a great political crime and its aftermath. The crime, described in horrifying detail, is the 1976 assassi- nation in Washington, D.C., of Orlando Letelier, blown apart by a bomb planted in his car as he drove to work. An aide, Ronni Moffitt, also died in the attack. At the time, Letelier was an employee of the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing foreign-affairs think- tank with offices on Dupont Circle. He had been a supporter of Salvador Allende, the Marxist president of Chile elected in 1970 and ousted three years later in a military coup. Letelier had met Allende, then a senator, during his university days in the early 1950s: It was acolyte and guru at first sight. When Allende squeaked into the presidency (with 37 percent of the vote, in a three-way race), he made Letelier, already established in Wash- ington as an official at the Inter-Amer- ican Development Bank, ambassador to the United States. Letelier was well suited to the job. As Allende’s grip on power weakened, however, he called Letelier home to serve in the Cabinet. At the time of the coup, Letelier was Chile’s minister of defense, a post he had held for less than three weeks. He was arrested at the ministry by his nominal subordinate, General Augusto Pino- chet, who led the coup and would rule Chile for the next 17 years. Pinochet had Letelier imprisoned, then exiled, then stripped of his citizenship and killed. Proof of the general’s role in the murder took a quarter-century to establish. The U.S. government harbored deep hostility toward Salvador Allende and relished his overthrow. Letelier was Allende’s most prominent supporter, and had his killing occurred in Santiago, or Caracas, or even Amsterdam—all cities Letelier knew well—U.S. authorities would have paid little notice. But his assassination in Washington, D.C., was a federal crime, an affront to U.S. sovereignty that set the gears of American justice into motion. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Dis- trict of Columbia took up the case, with help from the embassy in Santiago. The White House offered no encouragement but did not interfere. The assassins were a group assembled by Chile’s National Intelligence Direc- torate (known by its Spanish acronym, DINA) that included Chilean army offi- cers, U.S.-resident members of the anti- Castro Cuban National Movement and Michael Townley, an American citizen resident in Chile, who built the bomb. In classic fashion, luck and a tip led investigators to Townley, who took a plea bargain with witness protection and flipped on his co-conspirators. Townley’s testimony was the break the FBI needed. The government of Chile threw up legal obstacles and diplomatic resistance to block inves- tigators at every turn, but Letelier’s widow, Isabel, was a constant, emotion- ally powerful force that kept the case alive in both countries. Important as she was, however, the major share of the credit for the even- tual indictments, arrests and convictions must go to nonpolitical, midlevel American government employees—the prosecutors, special agents and diplo- mats who persevered, did their jobs, solved the crime and held the perpetra- tors to account. To tell this story, Alan McPherson, director of the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy at Temple Univer- sity, has tempered the dry precision of academic history with stylistic elements borrowed from the true-crime genre: nonfiction storytelling that generates horror, sympathy and suspense. He offers psychological portraits of many of the key figures in the story, based on American and Chilean docu- ments on the record or brought into the public domain through the Freedom of Information Act, including FBI tran- scripts, court proceedings, oral histories and his own interviews. BOOKS