Mitrione joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1959. The following year he was assigned to the State Department's International Cooperation Administration. He was then sent to South America to teach "advanced counterinsurgency techniques." His speciality was in teaching the police how to torture political prisoners without killing them.
According to A.J. Langguth of the New York Times, Mitrione was working for the CIA via the International Development's Office of Public Safety (OPS). We know he was in several foreign countries but between 1960 and 1967 he spent a lot of time in Brazil and was involved in trying to undermine the left-wing president João Goulart, who had taken power after President Juscelino Kubitschek resigned from office in 1961.
João Goulart was a wealthy landowner who was opposed to communism. However, he was in favour of the redistribution of wealth in Brazil. As minister of labour he had increased the minimum wage by 100%. Colonel Vernon Walters, the US military attaché in Brazil, described Goulart as “basically a good man with a guilty conscience for being rich.”
The CIA began to make plans for overthrowing Goulart. A psychological warfare program approved by Henry Kissinger, at the request of telecom giant ITT during his chair of the 40 Committee, sent U.S. PSYOPS disinformation teams to spread fabricated rumors concerning Goulart. John McCloy was asked to set up a channel of communication between the CIA and Jack W. Burford, one of the senior executives of the Hanna Mining Company. In February, 1964, McCloy went to Brazil to hold secret negotiations with Goulart. However, Goulart rejected the deal offered by Hanna Mining.
The following month Lyndon B. Johnson gave the go-ahead for the overthrow of João Goulart (Operation Brother Sam). Colonel Vernon Walters arranged for General Castello Branco to lead the coup. A US naval-carrier task force was ordered to station itself off the Brazilian coast. As it happens, the Brazilian generals did not need the help of the task force. Goulart’s forces were unwilling to defend the democratically elected government and he was forced to go into exile. This action ended democracy in Brazil for more than twenty years. According to David Kaiser (American Tragedy) this event marks the change in the foreign policy developed by John F. Kennedy. Once again, Johnson showed that his policy was to support non-democratic but anti-communist, military dictatorships, and that he had fully abandoned Kennedy’s neutralization policy.
Mitrione remained in Brazil to help the new government deal with the supporters of João Goulart. According to Franco Solinas, Mitrione was also in the Dominican Republic after the 1965 US intervention.
In 1967 Mitrione returned to the United States to share his experiences and expertise on "counterguerilla warfare" at the Agency for International Development (AID), in Washington. In 1969, Mitrione moved to Uruguay, again under the AID, to oversee the Office of Public Safety. At this time the Uruguayan government was led by the very unpopular Colorado Party. Richard Nixon and the CIA feared a possible victory during the elections of the Frente Amplio, a left-wing coalition, on the model of the victory of the Unidad Popular government in Chile, led by Salvador Allende.
The OPS had been helping the local police since 1965, providing them with weapons and training. It is claimed that torture had already been practiced since the 1960s, but Dan Mitrione was reportedly the man who made it routine. He is quoted as having said: "The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect." It has been alleged that he used homeless people for training purposes, who were allegedly executed once they had served their purpose.
On July 31, 1970, the Tupamaros kidnapped Daniel Mitrione and an Agency for International Development associate, Claude L. Fly. Although they released Fry they proceeded to interrogate Mitrione about his past and the intervention of the U.S. government in Latin American affairs. They also demanded the release of 150 political prisoners. The Uruguayan government, with U.S. backing, refused, and Mitrione was later found dead in a car. He had been shot twice in the head but there was no evidence that he had been tortured.
The Secretary of State William P. Rogers and President Nixon's son-in-law David Eisenhower attended Mitrione's funeral. The Uruguayan ambassador, Hector Luisi, promised that the people responsible for Mitrione's death would "reap the wrath of civilized people everywhere".
A few days after the funeral, a senior Uruguayan police officer, Alejandro Otero, told the Jornal do Brasil that Mitrione had been employed to teach the police to use "violent techniques of torture and repression". The US government issued a statement calling this charge "absolutely false" and insisted he was a genuine member of the Agency for International Development.
In 1978 Manuel Hevia Cosculluela, a CIA agent who had worked with Mitrione in Montevideo, published a book about his experiences (Eight Years with the CIA). According to Cosculluela, Mitrione had tortured four beggars to death with electric shocks at a 1970 seminar to demonstrate his techniques for Uruguayan police trainees. Cosculluela reported that Mitrione worked under William Cantrell, a CIA agent. Mitrione told Cosculluela: "Before all else, you must be efficient. You must cause only the damage that is strictly necessary, not a bit more. We must control our tempers in any case. You have to act with the efficiency and cleanness of a surgeon and with the perfection of an artist. This is a war to the death. Those people are my enemy. This is a hard job, and someone has to do it. It's necessary. Since it's my turn, I'm going to do it to perfection.If I were a boxer, I would try to be the world champion. But I'm not. But though I'm not, in this profession, my profession, I'm the best."
James Abourezk, who represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate, discovered that the Office of Public Safety had been training Latin America police to torture left-wing activists for many years. Abourezk made this information public and in 1974, Congress banned the provision by the U.S. of training or assistance to foreign police and the OPS was closed down.
In the summer of 1970 Mitrione and an AID associate named Claude L. Fly were abducted by Uruguayan Tupamaros guerrillas. Press reports identified Mitrione as a "U.S. police advisor" to the military junta ruling Uruguay; his assignment was said to be the "special training" of militia personnel in "counterrevolutionary" tactics. The Tupamaros were more pejorative in their version of Mitrione's expertise: in a note pinned to his body after they shot and killed him, they accused him of being a "CIA killer" and "teacher of horrible tortures" whose atrocities against the revolutionaries could not remain unpublished. Fly was released unharmed. The affair was made into a 1972 motion picture, State of Siege, featuring Yves Montand as Mitrione.
Although the Phoenix program was the largest and bloodiest CIA interrogation effort, it was the OPS police training in Latin America that prompted a Senate attempt to end torture training altogether. Ironically, it was the murder of an American police adviser in Uruguay that exposed Public Safety's involvement in torture and precipitated the program's abolition.
The story broke in August 1970 when the New York Times reported that an American police adviser, Dan A. Mitilitrione, had been kidnapped by Tuparnaro guerrillas in Montevideo . The first dispatches described him as an ordinary family man from Indiana who was heading the Public Safety program in Uruguay to encourage "responsible and humane police administration." In an inadvertent hint of Mitrione's actual mission, the account added that he "unquestionably knew more about the Tuparnaro operations than any other United States official." Ten days later, in its story of his point-blank execution, the New York Times noted that he "was considered to have contributed materially to the Government's anti-guerrilla campaign." Nonetheless, an accompanying editorial expressed the paper's "shock and horror": "Only diseased minds could see in the gunning down of this father of' nine from Indiana the weakening of the capitalist system or the advancement of social revolution in the Americas."
When I ended this book with brief accounts of what had happened to many of its people in the years after Dan Mitrione's death, one man about whom I expected no further information was the double agent called Manuel the Cuban. I knew only that he had soundly deceived his CIA contacts and that he had returned to Cuba. I had neither his last name nor any way of tracing him, and Cuba was not an easy country to enter. Manuel seemed fated to remain a tantalizing minor figure in Uruguay's sad story.
Then, in August 1978, I was in London when a reporter called from the Washington Post. At a press conference in Havana, he said, a Cuban named Manuel Hevia Cosculluela was making serious charges against the U.S. police program, in which he claimed to have served in Uruguay. I told my caller that the description fit the double agent I had mentioned in my book and that, if it was the same man, his credentials were impressive, although I could not answer for his likely political bias. The call raised my hopes that one day I would meet Manuel Hevia and hear his story for myself.
Early in 1979, I was invited to tour Cuba with a group of broadcasters and journalists, many of them affiliated with San Francisco State College. We arrived in Havana at dinner time on April 6, and the next morning, a Saturday, I set off to find Hevia.
At the fifth office I visited, the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, a pleasant-faced official dug through a pile of papers and produced the paperbound book Manuel had written, Pasaporte 11333: Eight Years with the CIA. In exchange, I handed the official, Joaquin Santana, a copy of Hidden Terrors turned to the page about Manuel the Cuban.
"This is a big surprise to me," Santana said. "I was the editor for Manuel's book, and I wrote the introduction to it."
It turned out that Hevia, now employed by the Ministry of Transportation, was traveling outside Cuba and would not be back before I returned to the United States. Santana spoke with me at length on two occasions, however, and he introduced me to one of Manuel's good friends. From those conversations, but primarily from Manuel's book, comes this footnote:
As a youth, Manuel had studied at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, and had graduated from law school in Havana. When the CIA made overtures to him in the early 1960s, he informed officials in Cuban intelligence, who advised him to accept the CIA assignment.
Much of his story concerns the tension of a double agent's life: clandestine meetings, eluding pursuit, bluffing one's way past the CIA's lie detector. Manuel's chief CIA contact, William Cantrell, was an orderly, pipe-smoking man devoted to his family. Cantrell was posing as an adviser in the U. S. AID program to train Uruguayan police.
By the late 1960s, the Tupamaro rebels were alarming both Washington and the government in Montevideo; and as Cantrell prepared to return to the United States, he spoke to Manuel about his successors. One was named Richard Martinez; the other was not a CIA man himself but was a trusted supporter of "our program." That was Dan Mitrione. Cantrell had heard very encouraging reports about Mitrione's efficiency in Brazil.
In a meeting with Manuel, Mitrione explained that the rules were changing and that the U.S. advisers would not be spending much time at the Montevideo police headquarters. Instead, Mitrione had secured a house in the city's Malvm section with a cellar and a door to the inside from the garage.
Mitrione personally oversaw the soundproofing of the cellar. He put a record of Hawaiian music on a phonograph at full volume and went upstairs to be sure it could not be heard in the living quarters. He also insisted that his team fire a pistol downstairs while he listened above for any trace of sound. "Good, very good,"' Manuel quotes Mitrione as saying. "'This time I could hear absolutely nothing. Now you stay here while I go down."' That testing went on over and over again.
The first course to be held in the cellar drew largely from graduates of the International Police Academy in Washington. The early sessions dealt in insinuation: descriptions of the human anatomy and the central nervous system. "Very soon," Manuel wrote later, "things turned bad. As subjects for the first testing, they took beggars, known in Uruguay as bichicones, from the outskirts of Montevideo, along with a woman from the border with Brazil. There was no interrogation, only a demonstration of the different voltages on the different parts of the human body, together with the uses of a drug to induce vomiting - I don't know why or for what - and another chemical substance. "The four of them died."
Reading Manuel's book, I particularly regretted at this point not being able to question him. Was Mitrione present while the instruction was being given? Did he witness the deaths? The wording is vague. In Brazil, so far as the victims knew, no U.S. adviser attended the torture class. They were too prudent to compromise themselves so directly.
In Uruguay, I had heard many accusations about Mitrione's role in the torture and I had sifted through them trying to be accurate and fair to his memory. Some Tupamaros acknowledged to me that their colleagues had reason to paint Mitrione in the darkest colors in order to justify killing him. And I held to a view Manuel Hevia later put forward at his press conference in Havana: that Mitrione was not unique, not a monster; that it was too comfortable to suggest that every nation and every occupation had its brutes.
Handling the material for this book had left me cautious, aware that after all the evidence had been weighed, some conclusions would have to remain tentative. Yet at every point that Hevia and I treated the same incident, our information gathered independently dovetailed into one expanded narrative. His final pages with their unguarded monologue from Mitrione ring true to me.
And since I am persuaded of the accuracy of that proud boasting, I think now that in looking within Mitrione for traits we all share, I underestimated the effect of his ten years at a repellent trade. Certainly I didn't anticipate his awful candor and cruelty as he unburdened himself to Manuel, one professional, one realist, to another.
It was the winter of 1970, six or seven months before Mitrione was kidnapped. Arriving in Montevideo later than he had expected, Manuel called Mitrione at home instead of at the U.S. embassy. "Mitrione asked me to come to see him, and we sat together in a small room in his house. I don't know why he invited me. We had a few drinks and talked about our philosophy of life."
Mitrione considered interrogation an art, he told Manuel. First, there is a time of softening up the prisoner. The object is to humiliate him, to make him understand that he is completely helpless and to isolate him from the reality outside this cell. No questions, just blows and insults. Then blows in total silence.
After all that, the interrogation begins. Now the only pain should come from the instrument you've chosen to use. Mitrione said, "The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount to achieve the effect."
During the session, you must avoid letting a person lose all hope of life. If you push too far, they become resigned to die. "Always leave them some hope, a distant light."
Manuel quotes Mitrione as continuing: "When you get what you want, and I always get it, it might be good to keep the session going a little longer with more hitting and humiliation. Not to get information now but as a political instrument, to scare him away from any further rebel activity."
The talk grew more confidential. "After that, he told me, 'When you receive a subject, the first thing to do is to determine his physical state, his degree of resistance, through a medical examination.
"'A premature death,' he emphasized, 'means a failure by the technician.'
"'Another important thing to know is exactly how far you can go, given the political situation and the personality of the prisoner.' Dan was really excited. He needed the kind of audience he had found in me. He continued, 'It is very important to know beforehand whether we have the luxury of letting the subject die.' It was the only time in all those months that his plastic eyes sparkled.
Finally he concluded: "Before all else, you must be efficient. You must cause only the damage that is strictly necessary, not a bit more. We must control our tempers in any case. You have to act with the efficiency and cleanness of a surgeon and with the perfection of an artist. This is a war to the death. Those people are my enemy. This is a hard job, and someone has to do it. It's necessary. Since it's my turn, I'm going to do it to perfection.If I were a boxer, I would try to be the world champion. But I'm not. But though I'm not, in this profession, my profession, I'm the best."'