To someone unfamiliar with the inner workings of the U.S. government, Shapiro's request could appear as a moral dilemma: the U.S. ambassador needed Washington's authorization to inform Hugo Chávez of a Venezuelan conspiracy to kill him, one that all his counterintelligence operatives had not detected, a scheme in which the United States had absolutely no involvement.
To the millions whose view of U.S. government decision-making is shaped by Hollywood movies, popular literature, or mainstream media reporting, the decision at hand would appear as fodder for a fiction thriller: This particular head of state after all, was a disgraced former Army officer and conspirator, responsible for more than 300 dead Venezuelans in a bloody 1992 attempt to overthrow and murder the freely elected President, Carlos Andres Perez.
In the movie version of our story, the U.S. officials would surely stand by and let Chávez be killed (in some fiction plots, they themselves might have carried out the murder!). They would assess arguments that did not equate: On one hand Chavez was establishing an undemocratic, anti-American government; the jails were filling with his political enemies while his corrupt cronies' coffers were filling with the republic's treasure; he was actively undermining U.S. global interests by allying Venezuela with fellow autocrats ruling Iran, Cuba, Russia, Belarus, and similar reprobate governments. On the other hand, some of Chávez's own countrymen were now planning to remove him from office by the very same illegal and lethal method that he had attempted in 1992. It was up to the United States, Chávez's perceived mortal enemy, to save him from physical elimination.
The real-life persons at either end of that secure line knew that Chávez was abusing, censoring, or dismantling the civil institutions that underpinned Venezuelan democracy, such as independent media, labor unions, religious organizations, the private sector; that his citizens were losing their lives in the process; and that if he succeeded, Venezuela's future would be dreadful. But what mattered to American officials were American policy, principles, and practice.
My reply to Shapiro, therefore, was an easy call: U.S. policy requires, if the United States is not at war with a country, that we notify its head of state if we learn of a plot against him. Chávez was in luck because both Shapiro and I served a government whose officials take law and policy seriously.
I authorized Shapiro to notify Chávez of the plot. We then reviewed the means by which he would convey the information: alerting the "comandante presidente," but simultaneously taking steps to ensure that our intelligence sources and innocent Venezuelans (and perhaps even some suspect ones) were spared the inevitable and savage retribution. Nothing in our policy, after all, requires us to act as a repressive apparatus for a police state.
Some time later, I don't recall if hours or days, I asked Shapiro: "Did you pass the message?" He said that he had.
"And what did he say?"
Shapiro replied: "Chávez was astounded that the United States would warn him of an assassination plot against him."