IN-DEPTH

The assassination of Richard Welch

Killing of CIA station chief marked the first appearance of the November 17 ‘revolutionary’ organization and a new chapter for political terrorism in Greece

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Terrorist organizations and acts appeared later in Greece than in other European countries. This delay is attributed to the seven-year dictatorship that had plunged the country into a quagmire of complete social control through the suspension of social and political rights and the erosion of institutions, as well as the fact that Greece was under foreign domination while internationally isolated because of the junta.

The dictatorship had fallen in the summer of 1974, after the dramatic events of the coup against President Makarios and the subsequent Turkish invasion of Cyprus, while in Greece the trial of its leaders began a year later. The country was coming out of the seven-year dictatorship with painful memories and consequences.

Among them were those of persecution, torture, exile and wrongful sentencing for thousands of people, as well as the subsequent development backlash, the state of being an economic backwater etc. The political opinions and behavior of the broad majority of Greeks were carefully recorded and the security authorities kept a personal file on each Greek citizen. They were constantly brought in for interrogation on “personal” matters, while censorship and fear prevailed in every aspect of expression and communication.

There are many detailed articles and books about this period, but we must point out that we were in the middle of a bipolar world with great tensions between the two superpowers. While abolishing every notion of legal order, the colonels’ dictatorship imposed on Greece was supported by the American services which during that period had overthrown many democratically elected governments around the world and imposed dictatorships on the pretext of preventing some of these countries from flipping to the “Eastern Coalition” countries. It took many years (see US President Bill Clinton’s visit in Athens in 1996) for the US to formally “apologize” for past actions and interventions, the consequences of which are still being documented and still have a traumatic effect on the collective memory of the Greek people.

The terrorist organization November 17 made its first appearance in December 1975. That was when the CIA station chief in Greece was assassinated. Thus, the phenomenon of political terrorism, already present in other European countries, arrived in Greece. Initially, there was disbelief about the surfacing of N17. The acts were considered to be the work of foreign perpetrators, or a “settling of scores” between US secret services. Greek society was unprepared for such a development.

First suspicions were wrong

the-assassination-of-richard-welch0In December 1975, the death of a “non-random” American employee of the US Embassy in Athens triggered the subsequent development of Greek terrorism. More precisely, at 10.30 a.m. on December 23, 1975, CIA Station Chief Richard Welch, on his way home from a Christmas party at the US ambassador’s home, was shot three times by three hooded men in a stolen car. The perpetrators did not attempt to shoot Welch’s wife or his driver, who gave a deposition to the authorities regarding the incident. A proclamation was found at the scene, signed by N17. The authorities did not evaluate the proclamation as a matter of substance or interest. Although the assassination of the CIA station chief objectively created a sense of unpleasant surprise, it was not considered to be the work of a national “avengers” organization, much less a terrorist organization. The proclamation was initially treated by the authorities as a hoax, and the assassination as the result of internal conflicts inside the American services. On December 26, a second proclamation was sent to newspapers, which was not published in pursuance of a court order. After a few days, a third proclamation was delivered to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris by an unknown woman. Sartre handed it to the Libération newspaper. The newspaper’s editor in chief did not consider it authentic or substantive and did not publish it.

The first appearance of the revolutionary organization N17 did not have the same effect after its following actions over the next 27 years. After police officer Evangelos Mallios, convicted of torturing prisoners at the Athens General Directorate, was assassinated on December 15, 1976, Libération published the proclamation on December 26, which was later published by the Greek newspapers.

Sketchy investigations

N17 was now an unquestionable reality, but the question remained as to the essential existence of an organization of this nature in Greece. Speculation, rumors and scenarios preoccupied not only the media, but also the law enforcement authorities, which were still not convinced of the existence of a terrorist organization in the country. We mentioned earlier that each Greek citizen had a “personal file” and, for law enforcement, there were not enough indications of the creation of a terrorist organization with political or other targets, Greeks or foreigners. As for the perpetrators, the various scenarios, speculations, opinions etc suggested that they were foreigners or that it was a “settling of scores” between US secret services. Police investigations were incomplete, sketchy, fragmentary, disorganized and disoriented, to say the least.

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CIA Director William Colby (left) is greeted by Representatives Sam Steiger (R-Ariz, right) and Clarence Brown (R-Ohio) upon his arrival to testify before a House Government Operations Subcommittee on the agency’s operations in the 1960-75 period, in Washington, on June 25, 1975. [AP]

The American authorities blamed each other for publishing Welch’s name in their own magazine, CounterSpy, mentioning his whole career before his arrival in Athens. That was followed by an article in an English publication in Athens, with a complete list of all the names and statuses of all US Embassy staff. The article was published in the Athens News in November 1975. N17 found the target and prepared the attack within a month. After that, its presence and actions continued uninterrupted until 2002, while it is worth noting that it always took responsibility for its actions in multipage proclamations.

On the other hand, the Greek law enforcement authorities were obviously aware that similar violent political organizations had existed and been operating in European countries since the late 1960s. Nevertheless, they did not consider the possibility of similar organizations operating in Greece without them having suspected their existence and presence, as they considered that they were in complete control of the field.

A society unprepared for terrorism

When the proclamation was published in the Greek media and citizens became aware of Welch’s assassination, apart from questions about the sophistication and origin of the perpetrators and the surprise of the target choices, there was no record of any social dissatisfaction that could be behind such actions. Note that it was an era characterized by a highly politicized youth but also a broader politicized social body that was unprepared for terrorist acts of this type. Surprise and questions about the name of the organization emerged.

In this context, the prevailing perception was that the organization “borrowed” its name from the date of the culmination of the Athens Polytechnic University events. For some political circles, it was viewed as the exploitation of the uprising, while for others it was a form of political justification and a pole of reference.

In fact, several years after the emergence and ongoing action of the organization, there had still been no serious attempt to systematically record citizens’ views on how they perceived such actions. During the 27 years of its armed presence, they committed about 103 robberies, along with bombings and assassination attempts that resulted in 23 murders.

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Police and journalists gather around the the blood-stained car of British diplomat Brigadier Stephen Saunders, who was gunned down by November 17 in northern Athens on June 8, 2000. [AP]

The “first generation” of the organization’s terrorists were replaced by the “second,” who, after the 2002 arrests, proved to have neither the ideological background nor the knowledge, nor the political conception and composition of the first generation.

The arrests revealed people with unsound ideology and problematic social behavior, while specific evidence allowed for the reflection on whether they were professionals paid to carry out murders of select high-interest targets.

Of the first generation, only Alexandros Giotopoulos was arrested, while the rest were never identified and therefore not arrested by law enforcement authorities. Ultimately, the original generation, their thoughts, beliefs and views on the possibilities of political violence, remain unknown. It remains the genuine will of Greek society, but mainly of the state, to deal effectively with the chronic phenomenon of political violence-terrorism in Greece.

The arrests of the “second generation” members, a group of diverse perpetrators, obviously did not preoccupy the authorities so much as to consider it appropriate to conduct further investigations. Both the “political” and “operational” questions of so many years of armed action, as well as those regarding the huge sums of money from the plethora of robberies, remain unanswered.

The case of the assassination of Richard Welch was not part of the November 17 trial. The 20-year statute of limitation for the offenses had passed; no one was punished.


Mary Bossi is a professor of international security at Piraeus University.