24. “I Would Have Told Them to go to Hell”

Title Quote: David Phillips
Photo: Salvador Allende

The spate of books and articles written about Phillips in the eighties were just the tip of the iceberg. Veciana’s Bishop allegations as reported and nurtured by Fonzi led to a mountain of material accusing the CIA veteran of complicity in the JFK murder and other nefarious deeds. A search of the Mary Ferrell Foundation website in 2022 returned 992 hits in the "books" category and 43 results in "essays" related to Phillips. While there are multiple entries for some publications, the number is still indicative of the obsessive interest in conspiracy theories related to Phillips. In the years following Fonzi’s accusations, Phillips’ CIA career has been investigated extensively by theorists. One area of interest to these researchers is Phillips’ association with the CIA’s covert action plan to depose Marxist Chilean President Salvador Allende.

On September 4, 1970, Allende won a narrow victory over former President Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez and Christian Democratic candidate Radomiro Tomic Romero. On September 15th, US President Richard Nixon received a briefing from Pepsi-Cola CEO Don Kendall on the undesirability of an Allende administration, an assessment that the thirty-seventh president fully endorsed. Kendall in turn had obtained much of his information from Agustín Edwards, the publisher of Chile’s most respected newspaper and a distributor for Pepsi-Cola. Later that day, Nixon, who had already been working on contingency plans for Allende, ordered the formation of a special task force within the CIA to prevent him from assuming office. The program was to consist of two “tracks.” Track I, which was already underway, would focus on a political-constitutional solution to the problem, while Track II (codenamed FUBELT) would consist of a military component.1

The action taken by Nixon was far from the first US intervention in Chilean affairs. Allende had initially attracted the attention of Washington policymakers in 1958 when his socialist coalition narrowly lost the Presidential election to Alessandri. After JFK assumed office in 1961, US policy became that of hastening a “middle-class revolution” in the South American nation. To that end, Kennedy’s preferred political party was the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) headed by Eduardo Frei. Operations to secretly fund Frei in coordination with propaganda efforts against Allende resulted in Frei’s election in 1964 with 57 percent of the vote. To make sure that Frei would continue to enjoy the support of the electorate, Chile became the leading recipient of US aid in Latin America in the sixties.2

In March of 1970, the 40 Committee, which authorized US covert actions, decided not to fund any specific candidate in that year’s election. Instead, the committee recommended the continuation of a “spoiling campaign” to spread propaganda regarding the detrimental effects of an Allende presidency. Track I was instituted in August only after polls showed Allende’s popularity increasing. Track II, launched by Nixon after Allende’s victory, ultimately was a failure.3 Even so, General René Schneider Chereau, a constitutionalist who opposed any effort to supplant Allende, was killed after a botched kidnapping attempt. However, the truth about US involvement in Schneider’s death and the eventual fall of Allende is more nuanced than critics believe.

The CIA, aware of the potential for bloodshed if things did not go according to plan, had been working with two separate groups to kidnap Schneider and transport him out of the country in hopes of triggering a military coup. One group was led by retired General Roberto Viaux and a second group was headed by General Camilo Valenzuela, commander of the Santiago garrison. In late October, both groups working in concert attempted to abduct Schneider who drew his sidearm to defend himself.4 Schneider was mortally wounded and died on October 25th. The coup never materialized and Allende was confirmed by the Chilean congress and assumed the Presidency. The CIA had no specific knowledge regarding the identity of the assassins nor did the agency order Schneider’s killing. Similarly, the assassins did not use weapons that the agency provided.5

Chastened by the failure of Track II the US government took a “hands off” approach to the new Allende administration. The weight of the evidence indicates that there was no involvement by the US in plans for a coup against the president.6 Instead, several internal factors led to Allende’s eventual downfall. First, in October of 1972, Allende made the controversial decision to establish an emergency cabinet that consisted of armed forces officers whose politicization of the military had a negative impact on the Chilean political atmosphere. Subsequently, it became apparent that Cuban security agents were operating in the streets and that Allende was indirectly supporting an insurgency in Bolivia.

Additionally, street gangs composed of radicals on both the left and right were permitted to flourish. Finally, strikes and a fast-tracked program of land redistribution led to economic insecurity, food shortages and a decline in the quality of life. On August 6th of 1973, Allende resorted to the formation of a second emergency military cabinet. The handwriting was on the wall when his government was declared unconstitutional on the 22nd.7 On September 11, 1973, Allende died during a violent coup orchestrated by General Augusto Pinochet (among others) who eventually replaced him as president.8 Phillips summed up the matter in his Church Committee testimony by noting, “… when Allende died, it was because there was a coup against him by Chileans, and not because they were supported or abetted or encouraged or even winked at by the CIA.” Although Phillips’ statement that Chileans were directly responsible for the coup is correct, there is little doubt that the CIA, acting on Nixon’s orders, helped to bring about the overthrow through efforts to destabilize the Allende regime.

Theorists have worked hard to portray Phillips as the personification of what was wrong with the CIA during the post-war era and his involvement with the Chile project did not escape their attention. Jefferson Morley, one of Phillips’ harshest critics, flat-out accused him of murder writing, “Dave Phillips … orchestrated a political assassination in Chile for the White House ....”9 In Chapter 8 of his eBook, CIA & JFK: The Secret Assassination Files, Morley postulated a nefarious cause and effect by writing, “[Richard] Helms dispatched his top operative, David Phillips, to Chile, and Gen. Rene Schneider was murdered six weeks later.” Similarly, in their book Legacy of Secrecy, Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann asserted that, “David Atlee Phillips had become Chief of the Western Hemisphere … when General Augusto Pinochet led a US-backed coup against Allende. Though the CIA says Allende committed suicide on September 11, 1973, Allende’s family and supporters say he was murdered ....”10

Phillips, who worked exclusively out of Washington during the dates in question, was indeed a key player in the events that unfolded in Chile between 1970 and 1973. However, he and his CIA associates were merely acting on orders to implement Nixon’s dubious Chile policy. It began for Phillips in September of 1970 when he received a cable that ordered him to return to CIA headquarters in Washington. Phillips, who was then stationed in Rio de Janeiro, was to tell station and embassy employees that he was going to DC to serve on a routine promotion panel. But Phillips knew from experience that he was being summoned for a special assignment.11

When he arrived at headquarters, Phillips was informed by William Broe, who was Chief of the Western Hemisphere, that he was to head a task force whose mission was to prevent Allende from assuming office.12 These orders had come from President Nixon himself and were so tightly held that even the Secretary of State and the US Ambassador to Chile would be in the dark. Phillips was shocked. “I couldn’t believe it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Why me?” he asked his friend James Flannery who told him that they needed the “best men” for the job.13

During his 1975 testimony before the Church Committee, Phillips was grilled extensively about the ethics of trying to prevent a democratically elected individual from assuming office. “My personal position,” Phillips told the committee, “would have been, confronted by the established fact that the first Marxist had been freely elected, that we had better regroup and figure out new ways to handle such problems.” Phillips then told investigators that he had always strongly objected to the operation since he believed the chances of success on a scale of one to twenty, “never even got to two.” Phillips described the pressure that was being exerted on the task force which he believed was coming directly from the White House, “through National Security Council Chief Kissinger.”14 Phillips insisted that assassination was never an option during the Chile mission and if he had been ordered to participate in such a scheme, “I would have told them to go to hell.”15

Phillips told the committee that Track II was one of the “times during 25 years that I seriously considered if I shouldn’t just step out the door.” The first such instance was Phillips’ own manipulation of a horoscope in a local newspaper to facilitate the CIA recruitment of a Chilean asset many years before. Phillips made peace with that decision when he saw the value of the intelligence the asset produced. The other time Phillips strongly objected to government tactics was when LBJ sent 20,000 troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965.16 In the end, Phillips decided not to resign after these internal conflicts since he believed that “two times [actually three] out of a career of 25 years put in balance with all the rest” seemed to be a “reasonable ratio.”

Church Committee Chief Counsel F.A.O. Schwartz Jr. vigorously pursued the difference between being opposed to assassination as Phillips maintained he was and facilitating a coup. “A planned assassination against any human being would be completely unacceptable to me,” Phillips explained.17 Conversely, Phillips said that if CIA employees resigned “every time they were given a dirty trick to do” that the agency would soon consist of only “bums” who would be willing to do “almost anything.” Finally, Phillips argued that “I do believe that my recommendations [against severe action] were rather vital” and placed the situation in “… some perspective. And I like to think that it is one of those things that you can do better within the system than out.”

A footnote to David Phillips and Chile concerns an imaginary operation known as Plan Centaur or Operation Centaur. Centaur is most often associated with a hoax that Phillips described in his book:18

On a weekend in late July an unnerving cable arrived from Mexico City. A source had reported that a man presented himself to the Chilean embassy--walked in--in Mexico City. He told a Chilean envoy that he had just defected from the CIA because the Agency had been persecuting his family. As bona fides, he offered Allende's ambassador "Plan Centaur," which he described as the CIA's program to overthrow the Chilean government. He had a number of documents and micro film in code which, he said, only he could decipher. He offered these secrets in return for safe haven in Santiago.

I went into the office on Sunday morning to read the cable. I was not concerned about the validity of Plan Centaur because I knew it did not exist; I was worried that a disaffected staff officer from my Division was using his general knowledge of our operations to enhance a fabrication. The unidentified walk-in, according to the Mexico City information, was an American black, about thirty-five and slim, who claimed to be an expert in codes and ciphers.

Phillips checked the list of individuals in his Western Hemisphere Division who could potentially be involved and it came back negative. Still, Phillips had an “uneasy feeling” that he had not heard the last of Plan Centaur. The Mexico City “walk-in” was identified as Richard Alexander Zanders, a petty criminal with a record going back to 1963 who had no access to confidential information. As Phillips had predicted, a controversy arose after the Chile coup when the former Chilean ambassador to Mexico, Hugo Vigorena, told Allende’s widow about Zanders' allegations and she believed the story which subsequently hit the news services.19

Immediately upon his retirement, Phillips wrote to Mrs. Allende. “You have been led to believe,” Phillips said, “that evidence exists which makes the CIA accountable for the circumstances which brought your husband to his untimely end … the claim I assure you is untrue and the evidence tainted.” Phillips went on to explain that Vigorena had previously been the victim of another hoax involving “Plan Delta” which was ostensibly a CIA plot to contaminate the water in Chile’s irrigation ditches.20

Further proof of the invalidity of Centaur is provided by the fact that it is not mentioned by conscientious CIA critics such as Peter Kornbluh in his fine book The Pinochet File. Centaur has appeared over the years in conspiracy-oriented literature without supporting evidence. One such case that is indicative of the veracity of the evidence regarding Centaur comes from the discredited Death in Washington by Freed and Landis. The authors admittedly used Centaur as “a literary device to comprise a series of CIA plans to unseat the Allende Popular Unity government.”21


Notes

1. Kornbluh, The Pinochet File, 1-7; Track I already underway: Gustafson, Hostile Intent, 106. Kornbluh argues that the origins of Track I dated back to June of 1970 when Ambassador Korry suggested bribing members of the Chilean congress to vote against the ratification of Allende through a secret slush fund (Kornbluh, The Pinochet File, 12). Gustafson ties the inception of Track I to an August 11 cable written by Korry. This cable described a “Rube Goldberg” type scheme based on a technicality in the Chilean constitution. Under this plan, the runner-up Alessandri would be ratified by congress and then refuse to assume office. New elections would then be called between Frei and Allende with Frei presumably prevailing (Gustafson, Hostile Intent, 106).
2. Kornbluh, The Pinochet File, 3-5.
3. Gustafson, Hostile Intent, 99, 106.
4. Kornbluh, The Pinochet File, 33-34; Phillips told the Church Committee, “It is my belief that the intent [of the plotters] was to abduct him” and there was “no question” in his mind about that fact (Church Committee Testimony of David Atlee Phillips, July 31, 1975, 160-161. RIF 157-10002-10165).
5. Gustafson, Hostile Intent, Chapter 4.
6. Gustafson, Hostile Intent, 140-142. The agency, out of an abundance of caution, limited its efforts to the support of opposition groups (Gustafson, Hostile Intent, 204). As Phillips put it, “… the CIA station … was made to understand … there was going to be a coup and to keep their skirts clean” (Church Committee Testimony of David Atlee Phillips, July 31, 1975, 162. RIF 157-10002-10165).
7. Gustafson, Hostile Intent, 204-207.
8. Gustafson, Hostile Intent, 203.
9. Morley, Our Man in Mexico, 285.
10. Waldron and Hartmann, Legacy of Secrecy, 748.
11. Phillips, The Night Watch, 219.
12. Church Committee Testimony of David Atlee Phillips, July 31, 1975, 11. RIF 157-10002-10165. In his autobiography, Phillips stated that it was his friend James Flannery, then Deputy Chief of the Western Hemisphere, who briefed him on the project. One explanation for the discrepancy is that Phillips used the literary device of conversations with “Abe,” a pseudonym for Flannery, to drive the story.
13. Phillips, The Night Watch, 220.
14. Church Committee Testimony of David Atlee Phillips, July 31, 1975, 16-19. RIF 157-10002-10165. Regarding the chances of success for Track II, Phillips told author Francis Nevins, “It was obvious to me and some of my colleagues who knew Chile and Chileans that it was a loser from the beginning, that it wasn’t going to work”( Nevins, Cornucopia of Crime 254-255).
15. Church Committee Testimony of David Atlee Phillips, July 31, 1975, 13. RIF 157-10002-10165. Similarly, Phillips told author Francis Nevins, “… I like to think that if someone had ever come to me and said: ‘We’re going to ask you to go assassinate someone,' I would have said 'thanks a lot, but no thanks.' I can’t say for sure though, because it never happened. No one ever asked me” (Nevins, Cornucopia of Crime).
16. Phillips, The Night Watch, 222.
17. Phillips told author Francis Nevins that assassination was a “useless and impractical tactic without even approaching it from a moral standpoint” (Nevins, Cornucopia of Crime, 253).
18. Phillips, The Night Watch, 240.
19. Reuter. “’Petty Criminal’ Said to Reveal Alleged Plot.” The Vancouver Sun, September 22, 1973, 3.
20. UPI. “Don’t Blame the CIA, Allende’s Widow Told.” The Miami Herald, May 22, 1975, 19. Phillips believed that the Cuban DGI was responsible for Mrs. Allende becoming aware of the Zanders allegations (Phillips, The Night Watch, 250).
21. Freed with Landis, Death in Washington, 224.

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