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'Cowboy' in Control : Contras and CIA: A Plan Gone Awry

March 03, 1985|ROBERT C. TOTH and DOYLE McMANUS | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — His code name was "Maroni," and he seemed an implausible figure for the fateful role he played. "Too fast and loose for an operations man," says a congressman who knew him then, "a guy for colorful stories and flashy clothes--polyester plaids and mustard colors and loud jackets that made you wonder what race track he'd just come from."

"A cowboy, dumb and dangerous," complains a veteran intelligence officer, using CIA slang for an officer considered too quick on the trigger, faster to act than to think. "A flamboyant guy . . . a salesman, not the ideal man for congressional hearings," even one of his admirers acknowledges.

Yet Dewey "Maroni," a longtime CIA officer whose full name remains protected under federal law, was an operations man, a congressional hearings man and a great deal more: He was the executive officer chosen by the Reagan Administration four years ago to take charge of Nicaragua's ragtag bands of anti-Sandinista guerrillas and weld them into a secret instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

And today, as President Reagan presses Congress to renew support for the anti-Sandinista rebels and steps up the pressure on Nicaragua's leftist regime, the story of how Reagan and a handful of senior officials came to set Maroni in motion--and the events that followed--dramatize the contradictory, divisive and at times deceptive way U.S. policy in Central America has evolved.

In meetings in Miami, in "safe houses" in Honduras and in jungle camps just north of the Nicaraguan border, Maroni and his agents lectured the anti-Sandinista insurgents, known as contras, on the principles of guerrilla war and prodded them to show a more attractive political face to Congress and the American public. Eventually he turned them into a 16,000-man fighting force that would send tremors through the Sandinista regime--all at the bargain-basement price of a dollar a day per man plus guns.

'An Impossible Mission'

Indeed, some Reagan Administration officials still marvel at how much he accomplished. "Dewey was given an impossible mission: a checkbook without much in it and the job of making a real insurgency out of a mixed bag of good and bad apples," a State Department official said. "In those terms, it is a success story--a working insurgency with 16,000 men."

Maroni carried out his orders so well, however, and officials in Washington managed U.S. policy so haphazardly, that the action in Central America soon moved ahead of policy guidelines set in the White House. Indeed, action on the ground came to drive the policy, instead of the other way around. Regardless of whether Maroni is considered a hero or a goat, the program, when publicly revealed, would ultimately embarrass the Reagan Administration before the world and sow bitter division at home.

The operation, initially authorized by the President as a low-budget effort to pressure the Sandinistas and forestall a "second Cuba," gradually slipped away from U.S. control. Administration officials for a long time disagreed among themselves on whether the U.S. goal was only to stop the flow of arms from Nicaragua to rebels in El Salvador or to overthrow the Sandinistas in Managua.

In the vacuum that resulted, squabbling but determined guerrilla leaders in Nicaragua's distant jungles pushed ahead with their own agendas while hasty tactical decisions by U.S. officials from Reagan to Maroni, as well as by the contras, turned out to have unforeseen and destructive consequences.

Moreover, the Administration's lack of candor about its goals revived old suspicions and spawned a new wave of mistrust of the CIA among its congressional watchdogs. While the Administration insisted in Washington that its goal was only interdiction of arms shipments to El Salvador from Nicaragua, American officials were telling contra leaders that the true goal of U.S. policy was toppling the Sandinistas. And, as Congress became aroused over what many members saw as executive branch duplicity, lawmakers moved increasingly to hobble Administration policy-making in foreign affairs.

Nor has the process ended. The policy launched by a handful of Administration officials, then implemented and later reshaped by Dewey Maroni, continues to exert its powerful allure. The Administration is bent on winning new funding for its now-far-from-secret covert aid program, and the contras, now too large a force to be easily sacrificed by Washington, have chalked up just enough successes to whet the Administration's appetite for total victory.

As Reagan, who four years ago insisted that his only goal was halting the arms flow to Salvadoran insurgents, put it in a Feb. 21 press conference, U.S. policy today is aimed at making the Sandinistas "say 'Uncle.' "

Maroni, who had carried the nickname "Dewey" since school days, had an unlikely background for a "cowboy." His education was Ivy League, his accent New England. To some of the contras, he looked like Walter F. Mondale.

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