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Central America: 1979-86

In July 1979, the Somoza family that had ruled Nicaragua for 35 years was thrown out of office by a political group commonly known as the Sandinistas. The new government pledged to hold free elections, end oppression, and introduce other trappings of democracy, but its actions - shutting down hostile newspapers, pressuring opposition parties, and expropriating private property - belied these promises.

While the Carter administration initially responded with emergency food aid and economic assistance, it also issued a covert action finding in the fall of 1979 to help moderate elements in Nicaragua resist attempts by Marxist groups to consolidate power in the country. The following year, as the Sandinistas appeared to be consolidating their own control, funding for the program was doubled.

Even though the oversight committees were briefed on the 1979 finding, their requests for subsequent briefings on the activities being taken pursuant to the finding were initially turned down because of what they were told was a "presidential embargo." This prompted a furious letter from HPSCI Chairman Boland to DCI Turner, saying the embargo raised "serious concerns for the entire oversight process." Turner, in turn, had the White House lift the embargo.

US concerns about what was happening in Nicaragua were also mirrored in the country itself where a new rebel movement - collectively known as the contras - was taking shape to oppose the Sandinista regime. Another troublesome situation was brewing in nearby El Salvador. In October 1979, a new government headed by Jose Napoleon Duarte was installed following a military coup. While the United States saw the need to encourage Duarte to promote and implement democratic reforms, it also became increasingly concerned that Cuba (and indirectly the Soviet Union) was supporting and training guerrilla elements to subvert his regime. In November 1979, President Carter issued a covert action finding authorizing training and other resources for moderate elements in El Salvador resisting these guerilla elements.

When Reagan took office in January 1981, the situation in both countrieshad grown more critical. Concerned with Nicaragua's internal repression, its ties to the Soviet bloc, and its support for the guerrilla elements in El Salvador, President Carter suspended US aid to Nicaragua a few weeks before leaving office. Reagan continued this policy, saying assistance would be resumed only when democratic government was established and Nicaragua had ceased its support of the Salvadoran rebels. Within two months of taking office, Reagan also signed a new covert action finding designed to assist the Duarte government in El Salvador with the detection and interdiction of arms and other material destined for the guerilla forces in the countryside.

In December 1981, yet another finding was issued, this one authorizing the provision of paramilitary training to Nicaraguan exile groups opposed to the Sandinista regime. Both intelligence committees were briefed on these findings. The issue that raised the greatest concern in the HPSCI was that these activities would inevitably lead to the insertion of US military force in the region. With regard to the assistance for the Nicaraguan exile groups (the contras), the HPSCI also expressed concern with their limited size, disparate objectives, and lack of aunified command structure. Assuring them he understood their concerns, Casey promised to provide a status report every two months.

In 1982, according to Agency records, Casey made what appears to have been his most convincing presentation to date to both committees that Cubaa nd Nicaragua were training, financing and arming the insurgents in El Salvador. Soon afterwards, in fact, the HPSCI issued a public report stating that the aid being provided the rebels in El Salvador constituted "a clear picture of active promotion for 'revolution without frontiers' throughout Central America."

Both committees continued to fret that they were not getting the full story of the Agency's activities in Central America. For example, in response topress reports in July 1982 that CIA had meddled in the Salvadoran elections, both committees asked the Agency to explain exactly what had been done. Prompted by press reports, Congress as a whole became increasingly wary about the direction events in Central America were going in the fall of 1982.

While the Reagan administration asserted it was not trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua but only to keep it from exporting revolution to El Salvador, the contras themselves seemed clearly bent on over-throwing the Sandinistas, not simply interdicting weapons and supplies for the El Salvadoran guerillas.

In December 1982, a member of the HASC, Thomas Harkin (D-IA),offered an amendment to the FY 1983 Defense Appropriation Bill prohibiting US support for the contras. This prompted HPSCI Chairman Boland to offer asubstitute amendment that prohibited support for the contras "for the purposeof overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras." Boland's substitute passed theHouse by a vote of 411 to 0 and was later adopted by the Senate conferees on the bill.

Because it allowed assistance to the contras to continue, Reagan signed the "Boland Amendment" into law. No sooner had the legislation been signed, however, than questions began arising whether the administration in general, and the CIA in particular, was complying with it. Two members of the SSCI, Vice Chairman Daniel Moynihan (D-NY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), made separate visits to Central America in early 1983 to review the Agency's operations. Both came back concerned that the Agency was not complying with the new law. In a letter toCasey, Moynihan said it was clear to him that the 3,000-4,000 contras that the Agency was supporting along the Nicaraguan border were intent on over-throwing the Sandinista regime. "We have labored six years to restore the intelligence community to a measure of good spirits and self-confidence," he wrote, "all of which is dissipating in another half-ass jungle war."

Notwithstanding the growing chorus of doubt both in Congress and in the press, the administration continued to assert that it was complying with the Boland Amendment: it was not trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. Addressing a joint session of Congress on 27 April 1983, Reagan said, "Our interest is to ensure that [the Nicaraguan government] does notinfect its neighbors through the export of subversion and violence. Our purpose . . . is to prevent the flow of arms to El Salvador, Hon-duras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica."

Both intelligence committees reacted to the speech, albeit in different ways. The HPSCI approved legislation cutting off covert assistance for "support ofmilitary and paramilitary activities in Nicaragua," but approved $80 million for Central American governments to interdict the flow of arms to rebel groups operating in their respective countries. Despite the administration's efforts, it passed the House on 28 July 1983 by a vote of 228 to 195. TheSSCI, with a Republican majority and more inclined to support the administration, wanted a clearer statement of the program's objectives before it would vote for more covert assistance - that is, it wanted a new finding.

Reagan issued a new finding on 19 September 1983, after he had discussed it with SSCI Chairman Goldwater and other key senators on the committee. Under the new finding, the administration agreed that Agency personnel would not be involved in paramilitary activities themselves; rather they would channel assistance to third-country nationals. The primary objective remained the interdiction of Nicaraguan and Cuban support for regional insurgencies, but the overthrow of the Sandinista regime was not mentioned and a new objective - bringing the Sandinistas into meaningful negotiations and treaties with neighboring countries - was added.

On the basis of this new finding andthe assurances Casey provided, the SSCI voted to continue the covert action program in Nicaragua. Later, in conference on the FY 1984 Intelligence Authorization Bill, the two committees reached a compromise: a cap of $24 million was placed on contra funding and the Agency was prohibited from using its Contingency Reserve Fund to make up any shortfall during the coming year. In other words, if the program required more money, the administration would have to return to Congress to obtain it.

In the early part of 1984, recognizing that its prospects for obtaining future funding from the Congress were uncertain, the administration directed the Agency to intensify its paramilitary operations against the Sandinista regime in order to bring the situation in Nicaragua to a head. New, more violent attacks were instigated, including the placing of mines in Nicaraguan harbors in an effort to limit or halt shipping into those ports. At the same time, because of these intensified efforts, it was clear the $24 million congressional cap would be reached in a matter of months.

On 6 April 1984, just as the Senate was taking up the administration's request to increase the funding for the Nicaraguan program, the Wall Street Journal published an article claiming the CIA was behind the mining of certain Nicaraguan harbors. SSCI Chairman Goldwater, who was caught by surprise by the allegation, fired off a blistering letter to Casey saying he was "pissed off" at Casey's failure to keep him informed. "This is no way to run a railroad," Goldwater concluded.

Four days after the article appeared, the Senate voted 84-12 to condemn the mining, and Goldwater took the floor to denounce the Agency for its failure to keep the committee "fully and currently informed" of its activities, as the law required. Casey initially took issue with Goldwater, pointing out not only thathe had mentioned the mining on two occasions during committee hearings but also that he had briefed a member of the committee separately. This did not, however, satisfy the committee, most of whose members saw the mining as a virtual act of war, and as such, something that required far greater highlighting or emphasis to the committee.

To make matters worse, Casey reportedly asked SSCI Vice Chairman Moynihan "what the problem was" with Goldwater: why he was making such a fuss? Moynihan reacted two days later on a Sunday morning talk show by dramatically resigning his committee post, claiming the Agency had undertaken a disinformation campaign to discredit Goldwater. This prompted Casey to offer a formal apology to the committee, conceding that, under the circumstances, notification had been inadequate. While Moynihan agreed to return to the committee, Goldwater's anger still simmered. In late May, he sent Casey a copy of the 1980 oversight legislation, underlining himself the obligation of intelligence agencies to keep the committees fully and currently informed. "I can't emphasize too strongly the necessity of your complying with this law," Goldwater wrote. "Incomplete briefings or even a hint of dishonest briefings can cause you a lot of trouble."

As a result of the harbor mining episode, Casey and the SSCI agreed to new oversight arrangements. The more immediate effect, however, was to diminish the likelihood that the administration would get additional funding for the contra program. Indeed, in August 1984, the House approved another amendment offered by HPSCI Chairman Boland (which became known as "Boland II") to an omnibus appropriation bill. It prohibited the use of funds by CIA, DoD, "or any other agency or entity engaged in intelligence activities . . . for the purpose or which would have the effect" of supporting the contras, directly or indirectly. The Senate agreed to the amendment and President Reagan signed it into law on 12 October 1984.

Three days later, the New York Times ran an article accusing CIA of producing an "assassination manual" for the contras. At issue were two manuals used by the contras: one providing instruction on various forms of sabotage; the other, calling for a popular uprising against the Sandinistas and the "neutralization" of certain Nicaraguan officials. Both intelligence committees demanded to know what CIA's role had been in the production of these manuals. The HPSCI went further and opened a formal investigation. Casey acknowledged Agency personnel had been involved in the production of the manuals, but disputed the allegation that they were intended to provoke violence or that the reference to "neutralization" should be read as "assassination."

In the end, the HPSCI concluded that there had been no intent by the Agency to violate the assassination prohibition in Executive Order 12333 but that its efforts to oversee the production of the manual were lax and insensitive to the issues involved. The manuals were "stupid," the committee wrote, "not evil."

With US funding for the contras having run out in May 1984-and offi-cially shut off by Boland II in October-the Reagan administration returned toCongress in April 1985 seeking to reestablish the program, including the provision of lethal assistance if the Sandinistas refused to participate in negotiating a peace settlement. While the SSCI was amenable, the HPSCI was not. The full House voted down the proposal on 23 April. After the vote, Reagan imposed new economic sanctions against Nicaragua and vowed that he would return to Congress "again and again" to obtain funding for the contras. In fact, within two months' time, attitudes in Congress began to shift.

Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega had traveled to Moscow and throughout Europe seeking military aid and had thereby stirred members' fears of a formidable communist presence in the Americas. On 12 June 1985, the House passed a bill providing $27 million in humanitarian aid for the contras. The Senate concurred, and the president signed the measure into law on 16 September. The new law prohibited CIA from playing any role in providing the humanitarian assistance being authorized - a new office in the State Department would handle the aid program - and barred all paramilitary assistance to the contras. It did, however, allow CIA to carry out a political action program in support of "democratic forces" in Nicaragua and to share intelligence on the Sandinistas with the contra leadership.

The FY 1986 Intelligence Authorization Bill, enacted a few weeks later, took a further step and authorized CIA to provide communications equipment to the contras. To ensure CIA was hewing to these new laws, both committees announced they would require biweekly updates on the Agency's contra operations. As the committees' oversight intensified (including staff visits by both committees to CIA installations in the affected countries), it became apparent to them that the contras were getting substantial military support from somewhere. As far as Congress was concerned, the US government had been barred from providing paramilitary assistance, yet the contras were showing themselves to be a viable fighting force. Both committees repeatedly asked in 1985 and 1986 whether the United States was behind the lethal assistance the contras were obviously getting. Administration officials continued to deny that it was.

The visits made by the oversight committees to Central America during this period do seem to have had the effect of increasing the sentiment on both committees in favor of support for the contras. It became increasingly clear to them, according to CIA records, that the Sandinistas were being heavily influenced by Cuba and the Soviet Union and intent on establishing a Marxist-Leninist government in the country. By early 1986, CIA counted 12 of the 15 members of the SSCI as favorable to establishing a CIA-run lethal assistanceprogram for the contras. Taking advantage of what it perceived to be the changing sentiment in Congress, in February 1986 the Reagan administration requested $100 million in "covert" aid for the contras, including $70 million in lethal aid. The war was not going well for the contras, and the administration argued that humanitarian aid was not enough. It was time for the United States to provide military support to stop the Sandinistas from consolidating their control over the country.

Rather than signing a new covert action finding and requesting the funding through the annual appropriation process, however, Reagan put it in the form of a direct and open request to the Congress for a $100 million "aid package." The House initially rejected the request, but after a Senate vote in favor of it on 27 March 1986, the House reversed itself and approved the $100 million "aid package" on 25 June 1986. Because of the time required to iron out differences with the Senate bill and pass the compromise bill back through both Houses, however, the "aid package" did not become law until 25 October.

In the meantime, even as the Agency was endeavoring to explain to the oversight committees how it planned to monitor and account for the funds it expected to receive, on 5 October 1986 the Sandinistas shot down a cargo aircraft in southern Nicaragua carrying ammunition to the contras. Three of its crew were killed, but one, Eugene Hasenfus, survived and was captured. Identification cards were found on all four, identifying them as employees ofSouthern Air Transport. Hasenfus himself was identified as a former CIA employee and told the Sandinistas he believed himself to be working for the Agency. While the Agency denied any involvement with Hasenfus or the contra supply flight, the incident prompted inquiries by the Congress as well as several federal agencies. Who were these people involved in supplying the contras? How were they being financed? What did the US government know about them? Had it been behind their activities? If so, this would clearly have violated the laws on the books.

In July 1995, San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Webb found the Big One--the blockbuster story every journalist secretly dreams about--without even looking for it. A simple phone call concerning an unexceptional pending drug trial turned into a massive conspiracy involving the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, L.A. and Bay Area crack cocaine dealers, and the Central Intelligence Agency. For several years during the 1980s, Webb discovered, Contra elements shuttled thousands of tons of cocaine into the United States, with the profits going toward the funding of Contra rebels attempting a counterrevolution in their Nicaraguan homeland. Even more chilling, Webb quickly realized, was that the massive drug-dealing operation had the implicit approval--and occasional outright support--of the CIA, the very organization entrusted to prevent illegal drugs from being brought into the United States. Within the pages of Dark Alliance, Webb produced a massive amount of evidence that suggests that such a scenario did take place, and more disturbing evidence that the powers that be that allowed such an alliance are still determined to ruthlessly guard their secrets.

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:08 ZULU