Last Thursday, following the death of Nixon-era secretary of state Henry Kissinger at the age of 100, I posted a long essay I’d written in 2001 for The Boston Phoenix about the late journalist Christopher Hitchens’ claims that Kissinger was a war criminal, stemming from his nefarious activities in Cambodia, Chile and elsewhere. As I noted, that idea wasn’t novel, but Hitchens did a superb job of pulling it all together. I also wrote in that 2001 piece:
In what is the [Hitchens] essay’s only completely new and perhaps most dubious charge, Hitchens writes that Kissinger was involved in the attempted assassination of a Greek journalist named Elias Demetracopoulos, a Washington-based foe of the military junta that ruled Greece in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The documentary evidence is intriguing (the Greek government had apparently prepared a statement saying Demetracopoulos had died in an Athens prison, should he have been so foolish as to have returned home), but on this count, at least, Kissinger seems to be in the clear — or, to use a phrase forever linked to his sleazy boss, to have “plausible deniability.”
Or not. As I also noted, in 2020 I interviewed James H. Barron about his Demetracopoulos biography, “The Greek Connection,” focusing on attempts by the Greek junta to tilt the 1968 election to Richard Nixon through a secret $549,000 payoff. (I know; it sounds like Dr. Evil threatening to destroy the world unless he was paid $1 million.) In fact, Barron speculated that the Watergate break-in may have been motivated by the Nixon gang’s fears that the Democrats had evidence of the payoff and were going to use it to attack Nixon during the 1972 presidential campaign. So, what role may Kissinger have played in all of this?
“Greece was one of the countries that Henry Kissinger treated as a minor piece on the global chessboard and supported the military dictatorship that had overthrown its democratic government in 1967 as part of America’s Cold War strategy,” Barron told me by email. “Elias Demetracopoulos was a fiercely independent journalist who escaped the junta to become the leading activist in Washington fighting to change U.S. policy, overthrow the dictatorship, and restore democracy in his homeland. During its years in power 1967-1974 the junta stripped him of his citizenship and organized various plots to kidnap and kill him.”
Barron gave me permission to reproduce this except from “The Greek Connection,” which describes events from 1975.
From “The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate,” by James H. Barron. Melville House, 2020. Copyright © by James H. Barron and used by permission.
After the dictatorship’s implosion, the Greek government had embarked on a “de-juntification” process, dismissing or replacing some military personnel and bureaucrats. There were promises that junta leaders would be put on trial for their crimes. Hearing that KYP chief Michail Roufogalis was to be deposed, Demetracopoulos hoped that secrets from the seven-year reign might come to light. Maybe he could find out the details behind his near miss of an escape, his blocked return to visit his dying father, and the intermittent warnings he had heard since 1967 that the colonels were out to “get” him and interrogate him. He did not yet know the full scope and intensity of their plots and the names of those involved.
But after the government announced it would limit its investigation and trials to those responsible for the most egregious tortures, Elias assumed that his concerns for justice were unlikely to be vindicated. After all, Greece had no laws providing a right of access to government records. Getting answers would take hard digging, and relevant files might have already been destroyed.
Beginning with confidential meetings in Athens with Greek intelligence contacts and conversations with the head of the Greek government press office, Panagiotis Lamprias, Elias received confirmation of a long-rumored scheme of junta strongman Papadopoulos and KYP chief Roufogalis to kidnap him. He shared this information with Christopher Hitchens, who did his own complementary research. According to the most complete published account of the coded cables, Athens was prepared to dispatch a special team to the United States to carry out the plot, which was planned in cooperation with the Greek military mission in D.C. Elias was especially outraged by the revelation he found included in a Greek cable marked “COSMIC Eyes Only,” the highest security classification: “We can rely on the cooperation of the various agencies of the US Government, but estimate the congressional reaction to be fierce.”
Elias fixated on ascertaining which of the “various agencies of the US government” could have been “relied on” to cooperate in his proposed abduction, torture, and murder. Who were the players, and what did they know and do?
He also wanted additional credible authentication of the kidnapping plot or plots. He called Jack Anderson [an independent investigative reporter], who assigned Les Whitten to research the story on both sides of the ocean. Working independently of Elias, Whitten discovered that Brigadier General Floros Astrinidis, head of the military mission in Washington, had been ordered by Papadopoulos in 1971 to look into ways of kidnapping Elias. Astrinidis, who successfully arranged the 1972 US arms deal, was well connected to many in the Nixon Administration.
According to Whitten, junta leaders — especially Papadopoulos, Roufogalis, Astrinidis, and their allies — deeply loathed Demetracopoulos and sensed that “President Nixon and his aides hated” him as well. At first, the conspirators thought they would not have to do anything: Nixon Administration officials indicated that they were building a case to deport Elias. But when John Mitchell made his threat public in February 1972 and then failed to act, the conspirators “took up the cudgel.”
For months, Papadopoulos and Roufogalis “burned up the back channel” cable traffic from Athens to the Greek military mission in D.C. with demands to carry out the plot. It is not clear to what extent Tom Pappas was used as a back channel, but, in his handwritten notes, Whitten wrote the name “Tom Pappas” in large capital letters next to a giant asterisk and, in an interview years later, asserted that Pappas was intimately involved. Americans, especially those in the CIA, were apparently aware of the Greek plans. CIA Station Chief Jim Potts met so often and openly with junta leaders that even Tasca was upset. Highly classified Greek cables indicated that American advice and help was sought, although it was not clear “who, if anyone, in the U.S. approved the kidnapping.” As laid out in the coded cables and in secret messages sent by diplomatic pouch, Athens “drew up at least three operations to get him back.”
The easiest of the contemplated schemes was to “snatch” the exile from the District of Columbia and take him by force in a car to New York and then put him on a (preferably empty) Olympic Airways jet that could be flown nonstop to Athens. The second plan involved transporting the abducted Elias on a Greek military plane, but that had to be abandoned because of the need for refueling stops. The third alternative was to “subdue Demetracopoulos in Washington” and somehow get him into a waiting Greek submarine. This plan, though initially deemed too logistically difficult for success, was revived later by others.
According to the secret messages, these scenarios all had a common objective and conclusion: “Once kidnapped, the exile, Elias Demetracopoulos, was to be interrogated about his American and Greek contacts and presumably tortured if he did not reveal them. This done, there would have been little other course but to kill him to conceal the kidnapping.”
In their April 26, 1975 column, headlined “The Plot to Snatch Demetracopoulos,” Anderson and Whitten described the three abduction schemes and highlighted the plotters’ confidence that they could “rely on the cooperation of the various agencies of the US government.” Whitten said he and Anderson held back some of his most explosive findings, including interviews attesting that Elias would ultimately be murdered. They also left out any reference to Tom Pappas’s involvement. According to Whitten, junta files disclosed that the kidnapping idea was initially “dropped” in 1972 because the risks were thought too great on account of Elias’s strong congressional network. Responding to “U.S. security officials,” who swore they knew absolutely nothing about the plots against Demetracopoulos, Whitten said later, “They were lying … They knew and did nothing to stop it.”
Earlier that year, President Ford, Henry Kissinger, and some congressional leaders had met in the White House to discuss their efforts to maneuver around the Turkish arms shutoff. Someone asked, “Can’t we get to the Greek-Americans?” Kissinger replied, “We tried. They are being used by Papandreou and his supporters — like Demetracopoulos.” [Andreas Papanderou was a leader of the anti-junta opposition and later became prime minister.] According to the once-confidential February 6, 1975, “Memorandum of Conversation,” Kissinger, after mentioning Elias’s name, made the following cryptic aside: “Bitsios asked. Couldn’t we get rid of him?” During the discussion, Kissinger never provided any context for this request from anti-Elias Greek foreign minister Dimitrios Bitsios’s request. He never clarified when it was asked nor indicated what he said in response. But those in the group all knew Elias, and no one at the meeting asked what “get rid of him” really meant. Coupling this remark with the 1970 NSC document that contains the skeletal index heading “Mr. Demetracopoulos death in Athens prison” — prepared while Kissinger was NSA director — it is reasonable to infer that Kissinger and others knew about at least some of the different Greek plots to “get” Elias, a legal permanent resident of the United States, and did nothing about it.
In response to doubters in the American and Greek communities who claimed that the kidnapping planning documents were forgeries, Constantine Panagiotakos, who served as ambassador in Washington during the junta’s last months, later wrote Elias a notarized letter in which he affirmed that, from the time he arrived, he had direct knowledge of a plan to kidnap him. He knew the junta’s henchman and would-be assassin was a “protégé” of Greek foreign minister Dimitrios Bitsios, a career diplomat whose hatred for Elias was so profound that he felt comfortable trying to enlist the support of Kissinger in the plot. In his memoirs, Ambassador Panagiotakos also implicated others:
On 29 May a document was transmitted to me from Angelos Vlachos, Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry, giving the views of the United States Ambassador Henry Tasca, which he agreed with, about the most efficient means of dealing with the conspiracies and the whole activity of Demetracopoulos. Tasca’s views are included in a memorandum of conversation with Foreign Minister Spyridon Tetenes of 27 May.
On June 12, 1974 the Foreign Ministry in Athens had asked Panagiotakos to “seek useful advice on the extermination of Elias Demetracopoulos from George Churchill, director of the Greek desk at the State Department, who was one of his most vitriolic enemies.”
Panagiotakos’s political counselor, Charalampos “Babis” Papadopoulos, number three at the Embassy, similarly swore in an affidavit that he attended a luncheon at the Jockey Club (downstairs from Elias’s apartment) between late May and early June 1974, at which assistant military attaché Lieutenant Colonel Sotiris Yiounis discussed kidnapping Demetracopoulos with the help of a submarine at harbor in Virginia. The political counselor affirmed that at least two other named officials at the embassy were aware of such plans. Papadopoulos said later that he “was assured that Henry Kissinger was fully aware of the proposed operation, and ‘most probably willing to act as its umbrella.’” This testimony gives added weight to Ted Kennedy’s earlier warning to Elias not to visit his dying father.