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Remember, Remember 17 November

The shock of terrorist attacks in Europe in the past decade, notably in Paris, London, and Madrid, sadly recall an even grimmer period during the 1970’s and 80’s when terrorism was a widespread and chronic threat throughout the continent, especially in Greece. One of the chief culprits was the Revolutionary Organization 17 November, also known as November 17th or 17N, which carried out numerous attacks over the better part of three decades in Greece. Borne out of the armed struggle against the Greek military junta that ruled the country from 1967-1974, the group carried out attacks against Greek targets as well as American and British diplomatic personnel.

Due to poor police work, popular support for the group among many Greeks, especially those on the far left, and a lack of political will to crack down, the group was able to carry out attacks for many years. Only in the early 2000’s, with the threat of a possible boycott of the 2004 Olympic Games over security issues did the Greek government finally end the group’s reign of terror.

Thomas Miller was a Political Officer from 1985-1987, Deputy Chief of Mission from 1994-1997, and Ambassador to Greece from 2001-2004. During these three postings in Greece he observed the popularity of 17N among Greeks and, during his time as Ambassador, experienced the final days of the group. Jack Kubisch served as Ambassador to Greece from 1974-1977, the early years of 17N, during which time they assassinated the CIA Station Chief, Richard Welch. E. Wayne Merry was the Deputy Political Counselor in Athens from 1987-1990, when he was forced to deal with a Greek government unwilling and unable to confront the threat of 17N.

Miller, and Merry were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning in April 2010 and February 2010 respectively. Kubisch was interviewed by Henry Mattox beginning in January 1989.

Read other Moments on embassy security and terrorism.


“They fired three slugs from a .45 into his chest and killed him. They got in the car and sped off.”

Jack Kubisch, U.S. Ambassador to Greece, 1974-1977

Q: Richard Welch was Station Chief and widely known locally as being CIA, even though he had been there only a short period of time. He was named as an agent in the English language Athens News. Six others in the embassy were named. What was your reaction at the time? 

KUBISCH: It was a very serious problem. I was dismayed to learn that he had been identified even before his arrival in Greece. He had been identified also in a circular, I believe, that had been sent around to Greece and elsewhere where they kept track of CIA officers operating abroad in various U.S. embassies….

He was not really troubled by this. But I should say that the head of the CIA station in Greece had traditionally lived in a certain U.S. Government-owned residence. We had in Greece some six or eight Government-owned residences, and the CIA Station Chief had lived in one.

Needless to say, the Greek intelligence services and many Greeks who wanted to find out, and foreign intelligence services were able to identify the CIA Station Chief in Greece. It’s not hard for them to identify him in almost any country of the world, I suppose.

The difference in Greece was that it was highly publicized. So when he came to Greece, assigned to the political section ostensibly, my Deputy Chief of Mission, Monty Stearns, and I had made arrangements for him to go into a different residence and to live in a different part of town, to try and help conceal who he was and to give him some cover. I must say, that neither Welch nor his wife seemed to be at all concerned about this, not at all.

After they looked at the house that we had selected for them before their arrival, and looked at other houses that were available, they finally decided to move into the same house that their predecessors had lived in, the CIA house. I reluctantly concurred in this and he moved in. As I recall, he was there for a few months in 1975….

I liked him very much. He cooperated with me in revamping the CIA station and its wide, deep and, in my view, unnecessary extent of operations in Greece. He cooperated with me in accomplishing this over a period of a few months before his death. I think that was one of the great pities. His death was a great personal, as well as a professional, tragedy for me, even to this day. I’ll never overcome it.

He was a true friend of Greece, a friend of U.S.-Greece cooperation, and he was cooperating with me in trying to bring about the kinds of CIA operations in Greece that were more appropriate to the modern era, the modern times.

But, to stay with this a moment longer, I invited him to my house, the Ambassador’s residence, for a Christmas party….We were having a reception with Greek music, Greek food and Greek dancing and probably had 100 to 200 people there. A number of Greek officials were present and a lot of embassy staff and the children from the embassy and the children of Greek officials whom we knew, including Ministers of the Government, as part of my program to try and establish more cordial and cooperative working relationships between Greek authorities and American officials there.

He and his wife left our residence that evening about 9:00 or 10:00, they got in a car, drove just a few blocks to the house he was living in. His wife told me later that evening that as they drove by their house the lights were out in the driveway and on the front porch. Had they been in Guatemala, she said, where they had once served, they would not have stopped. They would have stepped on the accelerator and kept going if the lights were out until they got to the local police precinct or back to the embassy.

But they just didn’t think in Athens that there was any real severe threat to them. They drove into their driveway and stopped. Across the street there was a small car with four people in it. Three of them got out. One came to each side of the Welch’s car, made Mrs. Welch and Dick Welch get out.

They asked him to put his hands up, in Greek. He spoke Greek. He apparently, as he was putting his hands up, asked them what they wanted. They fired three slugs from a .45 into his chest and killed him. They got in the car and sped off.

I think there have been several other assassinations in Greece that have been traced to that same weapon. It is a political statement, in part.

The November 17th group was a group that had been protesting the military regime between ’67 and ’74, and the military regime reacted very harshly on November 17th….So they established an organization to retaliate and they used this weapon. This was a political statement by them, murdering the Chief of the CIA and other key Greeks and others who, for one reason or another, had been involved in oppressing Greek people or cooperating with American officials.

“They killed a lot of people, one of them my closest friend”

MILLER: The [17N] killed a lot of people. I think the total number was 21 or 23, including five people at the American Embassy. One of them was my closest friend, Captain Bill Nordeen, June 28th, 1988…

We had been in a two-person Greek class together [at the Department’s Foreign Service Institute].…We got to be really, really close friends. I left in 1987. He had a three-year tour; he was the military attaché, a Navy captain. He was to leave in July of 1988, and three weeks before he left, on June 28th, he was going to work and his car was blown up by November 17th. He was killed instantly….

They also killed a bunch of other Americans before, all military, the other four. And, and then they killed a lot of influential or wealthy Greeks, a couple Brits, etc. They were kind of the left- wing terrorist group variant of Greece, just like Baader-Meinhof, Red Brigades, Acción Direct in the ‘80s. All of these groups finally got wrapped up, but November 17th never did until 2002.

By the time I went out there [as Ambassador] I was passionate on this subject because Bill had been such a close friend. And I remember when I gave my swearing-in speech I said I have a couple of really specific objectives, and one was November 17th, to make sure that they were broken up on my watch. I think a lot of us felt that 26 years is just too long for this to be—there had to be something else going on.

“Violence was viewed as a legitimate form of political speech”

MERRY: When I showed up at the airport at Athens [in 1987], my predecessor was there to greet me, and he had a half dozen Greek plainclothes cops as bodyguards. This was not a very agreeable introduction to Greece. It turned out this Greek bodyguard detail was going to become mine in a few days. The problem was that my predecessor had a fairly high profile.

Unfortunately, very tragically, the next year, November 17th murdered our defense attaché, a Navy captain, William Nordeen, of whom it was said in his office that you could set your watch by his morning schedule. The terrorists positioned a car bomb down the street where he lived and killed him as his vehicle was passing.

As you can well imagine, the murder of one of the senior figures of the embassy—he was the defense attaché, the head of the Defense Attaché’s office—had a fairly chilling effect, not only on the climate of the embassy, but on our security measures. At this point, the RSO [Regional Security Officer] wouldn’t let me walk to work anymore. To and from work I had an armored sedan with a driver, and there were uniformed Greek police posted outside my building with automatic weapons….

For whatever reason, the three years I was in Athens coincided with the peak years of activity of this terrorist group. Much later, one Greek tabloid newspaper said that proved I had been in charge of the terrorists. The problem, as I came to understand, lay as much, if not more, on the side of the Greek counterterrorism forces, the police.

I said then and later that Greece did not have the world’s worst terrorism problem or anything like it, but Greece did have the world’s worst counterterrorism problem. It became quite clear to me and to others that not only were the Greek police lacking in modern constabulary competence, but politically there was almost no motivation to stop the terrorists. In fact, they were tolerated by the PASOK government, which regarded them as fellow comrades from the struggle against the colonels’ regime who had simply not yet given up the armed struggle, but would in time.

I don’t know how many times senior Greek officials in the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Public Order, or Members of Parliament, told me that the solution to November 17th was just time. “Wait a while and they’ll get tired of this killing and bombing and give it up and they’ll stop.” But they didn’t give it up, and they didn’t stop. They kept doing it more and more and became better and better at it.

The Member of Parliament who was killed was the son-in-law of the head of the New Democracy Party and future Prime Minister, [Constantine] Mitsotakis, and the husband of the later mayor of Athens and Foreign Minister of Greece, [Dora] Bakoyannis. Many senior Greeks were also targeted; in fact, there were more Greeks under threat than foreigners.

But the Greek ruling classes were remarkably blasé about this. A member of a family that lost one of its sons to November 17th told me later, “I knew about this problem. I even knew other families who had been hit, but I never really felt any sense of particular interest in the problem until my own brother was killed.”

The semi-official tolerance was matched by a broad public tolerance of terrorist violence as an acceptable element of political life. Violence was viewed as a legitimate form of political speech. The killing was somebody else’s problem. There was an almost carnival atmosphere at the funeral of the Member of Parliament who was killed. You would think other Members of Parliament would be horrified and shocked and energized that a Member of Parliament had been gunned down in broad daylight in the center of Athens.

But no, this was not a big deal for them. The death of the man who had married the boss’s daughter in New Democracy was seen in political terms, not in public safety terms. The other MP’s assumed that somehow the problem was not theirs, so why worry?

The Greek police were not very competent. For example, on a number of cases, the officer in charge of the scene of a political assassination would give expended shell casings to his journalist friends as souvenirs. Basic ballistic evidence, shell casings on the scene after somebody had been shot, would be given away as souvenirs.

On the other hand, the real problem was political. I remember vividly taking some official visitors from Washington to meet with the Minister of Public Order.…On the way out, we used the Minister’s private elevator, which only held three people, so we went down in groups.

“Washington was shamefully hypocritical about November 17th

One of the senior uniformed police officers held me back so that he and I would be the last. As we were going down he hit the button to bring the elevator to a stop so we could talk but nobody could hear us. He proceeded to unload on me.

He said, “Look, we’re not Sherlock Holmes here, but we’re not idiots. We can catch these bastards. But we’re handcuffed.” And he put his hands in front of him as if his hands were in handcuffs. “The political leaders don’t want us to get these guys. The only way we’re ever going to get these bastards is if you Americans get our political orders changed. We’re not complete idiots here. We can do the job if we’re given an opportunity.”

A lot of these people thought of November 17th as fellow combatants who just hadn’t gotten over it. That comes to the second problem. For many people and senior political figures, there was concern that if the terrorists involved in November 17th were exposed, this would lead to embarrassment elsewhere, it would lead to questions about other people….

For most of the Greek political elite, the view was, OK, if they got an American now and then, a Turk now and then, one or two people from the opposite political persuasion from us, that’s an acceptable level of casualties.

My view is that Washington was shamefully hypocritical about November 17th. I believe this was true under U.S. administrations of both political parties. Every time somebody was killed —in all, four American embassy people were killed over a period of years. Every time it happened, there was a speech by the Secretary of State or whoever, that we will not rest until — Then everything went back to business as usual and no administration faced with November 17th ever made a serious political issue of it with the Greeks.

I drafted the embassy submission for the Annual Global Terrorism Report to Congress, and it was badly watered down in the Department. One year, when I complained that the candor of our submission had been lost, I was told by the desk that the judgment in Foggy Bottom was that if State publicly told the truth about Greek terrorism, the Congress would cut the Department’s budget in retaliation. That, I think, pretty much says it all for Washington’s attitude.

Except, it really is not all, as at the embassy we had reason to believe that some of our classified reporting on terrorism was being given to the Greeks in Washington. I won’t go into specifics on this, but I became quite confident some of my own reporting on terrorism was compromised by people in our government with Greek connections.

If you think I am being paranoid, I might mention that the Greek security services not only provided some protection for me, they also kept me under surveillance including tapping my home telephone. After East Berlin and Moscow, I was quite accustomed to a phone tap, but the Greeks were so incompetent that it interfered with the phone connection.

Often, after a phone call, the tap would keep going – I could actually hear the tape recorder in the background – and I could not get back a dial tone. I would have to go to the [CIA] Station the next morning to ask them to contact their Greek colleagues to give me back a phone connection. This was an annoyance, but you might wonder why the Greek authorities who were supposed to be fighting terrorists were in fact running surveillance on American diplomats, and poorly at that.

It wasn’t until, some years later [in 2000], after November 17th very unwisely murdered the British defense attaché [Brigadier General Stephen Saunders], that the British government — [Prime Minister] Tony Blair and [Foreign Minister] Jack Straw — did what no U.S. administration had ever been willing to do, which was really put pressure on Greece. They sent a team of people from Scotland Yard to Athens to stay there until the group had been busted….

I’ll tell you, if Washington had ever shown the political backbone on this issue that London did after its defense attaché was murdered, this group would have been put out of business years earlier. I think the lion’s share of the blame lies in Athens. But I think there’s plenty of blame and shame for Washington as well….

They were giving us all this crap, “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.” No, it wasn’t. November 17th had its origins among radical leftist Greeks in Paris during the period of the military dictatorship; that had been obvious from the very beginning. What was needed was some cooperation with the French authorities, which a later Greek Minister of Public Order actually did. He went to Paris, personally. He got permission from the French to look in their files on Greek Trotskyites who’d been in Paris during the years in question, and that’s how they did bust November 17th — that, and the cooperation from Scotland Yard on the forensics and ballistics.

All of this could have been done years earlier.…

The ultimate solution was the result of pressure from London and action by a new Public Order Minister who was serious, with the additional motive…of the upcoming 2004 Athens Olympic Games. The Greeks were then under intense pressure from the International Olympic Committee and from the American and British Olympic Committees, that they had to do something about their domestic terrorism problem or they might face a boycott….

In Greece, theories about November 17th were legion. Some people thought they were CIA. Some people thought they were KGB. Some people thought they were Turkish, that they were Arab, they were associated with Palestinians or associated with radical German groups. I think the evidence was fairly clear that November 17th—which was a highly ethnocentric as well as Trotskyite group in its politics—never had any contact with any foreign groups whatsoever.

That was one of the key ways they maintained their internal security. They didn’t need much money, and got it by robbing some banks. They were able to get all the weapons and explosives they needed by raiding Greek police stations and stealing them. One of the things that made November 17th kind of hard to penetrate, in a classic police sense, was that it was so ethnocentric that it had no contacts with foreign groups.

The Beginning of the End of 17N

MILLER:  I got a call [in 2002] that night saying a guy had exploded — had blown himself up.…The guy was pretty seriously injured. His face was pretty badly disfigured and his hands were damaged a lot. They brought him to a hospital. His name was Savas Xeros (pictured).…He’s got what we call a taftotita (ID card). He has identification with him, which was a big mistake. The suspicion was he was a terrorist who had kind of bumbled it. And he also has this big set of keys. But the police had no idea. They run the name and no check, nothing came up. So not a big deal….

The Minister of Public Order who I think was excellent, Michalis Chrysohoidis, and his top police were quite good. They didn’t know what they had here either. And they start questioning this guy. And he’s kind of delirious. Later he alleged that CIA were in the room and tortured him. There were never any Americans in the room. I can tell you that right now….

They gave this photo to a centrist newspaper that was pretty well read called To Vima. Now normally the police had always given the picture to the leftist newspapers who were kind of cheerleaders for the terrorists anyways. So people who read the leftist newspapers were pretty much supporting the terrorists, November 17th….

As the story goes, these two grandmas are having their morning coffee reading To Vima, the centrist newspaper. And one says to the other, “You know, that picture, that guy looks like the guy who’s down the hall kind of coming and going weird hours in the morning.”…

So the police take the keys, go to the apartment, try all the keys, one of them fits. And they open it up and voila, it’s the safe house. And in the safe house is all kinds of material, including weapons that had been used in some of the assassinations….

And so they go back to this guy. Now they realize that they got a big fish, that this is really something big. This is the first November 17th guy they’ve caught in 27 years. And he’s alive, this is like really big. So they go back to this guy and he’s kind of come out of his semi-coma. And they basically say, “Well, we got the whole thing. We got the whole story. We found the safe house, we know the whole story. You might as well talk and maybe this will help reduce your sentence.”

And so he opens up. He wasn’t too smart. And he immediately implicates two of his brothers who were co-conspirators in this. And these were foot soldiers. These were the 168 assassins. And then as time goes by they implicate — there’s a guy kind of in the middle who I would say would be the operational head, a guy named Dimitris Koufodinas. And one thing leads to another, but they still are having a hard time finding the head….

They finally know that the head of November 17th had really maintained a good deal of separation between him and the foot soldiers. And the only link was Koufodinas (Pictured here with Xeros). Koufodinas takes off. No one can find him. They know who he is, they know he’s in Greece. He becomes the most wanted man in Greece over the course of the summer of 2002. And there’s stories and there’s all kinds of articles about him. Where is Koufodinas?…

In early September this kind of smallish guy walks into police headquarters in Greece. And he had gotten in a cab. He tipped the cab driver 100 Euros. And the cabdriver was obviously a little bit surprised. And he said, “Why?” And the guy says, “Well, you know, where I’m going I’m not going to need this.”

He walks in to Police headquarters in Athens and he says to the policeman at the desk, he says, “I believe you’re looking for me. My name is Dimitris Koufodinas.” And that was it. So they arrest him. There’s a trial. It goes on forever. They bring back some of the family members. We hosted a bunch of the family members, sons, and daughters, and wives of people who had been killed and as some of them testify, a lot of the Greek family members testify as well.

After the trial the leadership are sentenced to multiple life terms, many, many life terms, and the rest of them got varying sentences. The key guys, Koufodinas, Giotopoulos, the Xeros brothers, and a few others, they all got multiple life terms….

And I’d say it’s largely a Greek success story. We and the British did give them some technical assistance, and that was helpful. I can’t get into details of that. But we gave them some assistance. But to say that this wouldn’t have happened without the Americans is I think too much; that’s not true. It was good police work. It was a lot of luck, a lot of coincidence and stuff like that. But luck is only useful if you have good police work to follow it.

How about the conspiracy?…I don’t know to this day if whether certain Greek Government officials might have known of the identity of maybe [the ringleader, pictured] Giotopoulos or others — I have no evidence, no evidence has ever come to my attention that Greek Government people were hiding these guys, were hiding the identities, or anything else. And in that respect some of my suspicions on the basis of what I know now were wrong.

I think there’s been a lot of sloppy police work in the past. There were times when they came very close to November 17th people. It was almost like a cops and robbers, Keystone Kops car chase in the early ‘90s when they tripped up on a van of November 17th people.…And they gave chase to them and the November 17th people started lobbing grenades out of the back of the van. And the police just gave up on the chase, they didn’t want to get blown up. So there were a lot of opportunities that were just missed in the past. But do I have any evidence knowing what I know now that Greek Government officials knew of the identities or were hiding these guys? No, I don’t have anything.

November 17th was pretty compartmentalized from what we saw, and that’s why they managed to stay, to operate all these years. They were compartmentalized from other groups, they were compartmentalized within November 17th themselves….

Now, there’s always been a question in my mind, could there have been other leaders who dropped out? And the answer in my mind is yes. Do I know who they are? No. Could they be living in Greece today? Sure. Is anyone talking? No.