In the wake of Augusto Pinochet’s death, U.S. media are debating how the dictator should be remembered. The National Security Archive’s Peter Kornbluh discusses an especially sinister chapter in Pinochet's dealings with his own country's media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The death this week of Chile's former dictator has rekindled many a bad memory of the Augusto Pinochet regime, most disturbingly, the disappearance of more than 3,000 people, most on the political left, at the hands of Pinochet's secret police in the early 1970s.
Not only were the Chilean media largely silent about widespread arrests, torture and murder, several large news organizations were accomplices in a cover-up, behavior that was foreshadowed even before Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected socialist government of the late Salvador Allende.
The collusion of Pinochet's forces with the Chilean media oligarch and the CEA has been documented by author Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archives Chile Documentation Project. Revisiting those dark days, Kornbluh told us that the U.S. government was so eager to dislodge the leftists that they conspired with the owner of Chile's largest newspaper, El Mercurio.
PETER KORNBLUH: Well, the El Mercurio empire was owned by the richest man in Chile, Agustin Edwards. He had very good friends at the highest levels of the U.S. government. His media empire received more than two million dollars, some of it approved specifically by the president of the United States, Richard Nixon.
And I'm not saying this as my own analytical opinion. The CIA documents that we have obtained the declassification of, they say that propaganda operation, passing these millions of dollars into the Agustin Edwards media empire, quote, "set the stage," unquote, for the coup of September 11th, 1973.
BOB GARFIELD: The disappearances began between 1973 and 1975. At one point, 119 Chileans were murdered by the regime and were reputed to have been found in Argentina. Tell me about this. It's what they called Operation Colombo.
PETER KORNBLUH: The regime had already disappeared hundreds of Chilean leftists. And now they faced this issue: how to make the disappeared reappear. And that was the crux of Operation Colombo.
And essentially, it involved planting bodies on the streets of Buenos Aires, bodies that could not be identified - the hands were burned off, some of them were headless, or their faces were burned – with IDs on them identifying them as several of the Chilean disappeared.
BOB GARFIELD: And the idea was to suggest that they had been killed not by Pinochet's secret police but by their own fellow travelers. And they planted stories in the Argentine media, but they went to great lengths to do that.
PETER KORNBLUH: Worse than planting stories in the Argentine media, they simply created their own magazine. They called it Lea, which in English means "read." It was a magazine that was only published once. It ended up on the newsstands of all the kiosks in Buenos Aires three days after several of these bodies were found.
And it basically was an article that said that Chilean leftists had come to Argentina, they were fighting among themselves and killing themselves, and it gave a list of 60 Chileans, all of whom were disappeared in Chile, but now, according to this article, had been killed in fighting among each other in Argentina.
One week later, another propaganda piece appeared in a newsletter in Brazil, and it said the same thing, that they'd been fighting among themselves, simply killed one another.
BOB GARFIELD: It's phenomenal. And these stories were deemed sufficient enough evidence for the Chilean media to cite them as evidence that the leftists indeed were behind these murders.
There's one extraordinary headline in a Chilean paper. Tell me about it.
PETER KORNBLUH: In La Segunda, which was one of Chile's most leading newspapers, owned by Agustin Edwards, printed a headline that said, "Miristas exterminated like rats." Miristas is the name of the leftist group that Pinochet claimed all of these individuals belonged to.
Well, you have to understand that it wasn't just the disappeared in the press. A DINA agent, a secret police agent of Chile, carried these stories to the press. And then El Mercurio, the leading newspaper in Chile, printed a whole editorial basically that could have been written by the Chilean secret police itself, and this is what it said, quote:
"The politicians and foreign newsmen who ask themselves so many times about the fate of these leftists and blame the Chilean government for the disappearances of many of them, now have the explanation that they refuse to accept. Victims of their own methods, exterminated by their own comrades – every one of them demonstrates with tragic eloquence that violent people end up falling victims to the blind and implacable terror that they provoke."
So it was a whole manipulation of the truth of what had happened, but many Chileans, particularly upper-class Chileans, read this and said, ah-hah, we knew all along that, you know, the left kills each other. Pinochet is clean. He would never do such a thing.
BOB GARFIELD: So, in effect, they bought the story. What about the rest of the international community? Was it as easily gulled as the Chilean elites?
PETER KORNBLUH: No. And, you know, and this is a story where credit is due. The U.S. press really played an extraordinary role in very quickly unraveling this extraordinary effort to cover up the disappearances of hundreds of Chileans by the Pinochet regime. They very, very quickly were able to say, this is a bizarre set of lies.
And it's very interesting, when you read the declassified cable traffic from the embassy, to see the role that these accounts in the U.S. press played in forcing the embassy to actually admit, itself, that the Chilean military had killed these people.
BOB GARFIELD: And tell me about today in Chile. In 2006, are oligarchs like Agustin Edwards still the arbiters of what the public will see, hear and read?
PETER KORNBLUH: Agustin Edwards still owns El Mercurio. El Mercurio is not the leading newspaper any more. La Tercera is the leading newspaper in Chile now, and it's owned by another wealthy family and also has a whole network of newspapers and radio stations, etcetera.
One of the things that has significantly changed in Chile, of course, is that the government is headed by a socialist. And the government does take out advertising in a number of newspapers, and that funding, through government advertising, does help those newspapers be able to print information that is not just controlled by the wealthy Chilean newspaper owners.
But by and large, you know, people get their information from television, and so there's still a small but significant segment of the Chilean community who believes that Pinochet's a victim of left-wing propaganda, that he never really committed any human rights atrocities - even to this day, as we have seen recently with Pinochet's funeral.
You know, and some of them simply have this "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" view of the Pinochet regime that was fanned by the Chilean media at the height of the dictatorship.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter, thank you very much for joining us.
PETER KORNBLUH: It's a pleasure to be on the show.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Kornbluh is director of the National Security Archives Chile Documentation Project and author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability