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CIA Impact Enormous : The Contras: How U.S. Got Entangled

March 04, 1985|DOYLE McMANUS and ROBERT C. TOTH | Times Staff Writers

Miskito Indian resistance groups also fought for control of their homeland along the Caribbean coast, and former Sandinista hero Pastora was organizing his own guerrilla force in southern Nicaragua. But the contras, divided and ill-organized, did not seriously threaten the Managua regime. One skeptical Administration official dismissed them as "insects buzzing around the Sandinistas' ankles."

Hard-Liners Back Contras

Yet hard-liners in the Administration wanted to see the Sandinistas overthrown and insisted that, with enough U.S. support, the contras could do the job. State Department officials said that objective was unattainable, arguing instead for using the contras to wring concessions from the Sandinistas.

Casey, reportedly skeptical at first, came in time to agree with the hard-liners, officials say. So while the Administration officially disclaimed any such intention--"We are not doing anything to overthrow the government of Nicaragua," Reagan would say--most of the men actually running the war agreed that the goal was to topple the regime. By 1983, "Casey made no bones about it," as one senior State Department official remembers it.

But even the so-called soft-liners agreed that the CIA should build the contras into a credible threat--so Maroni's mission either way was the same.

People, Objectives Differ

"Different people had different objectives, but none of this was Dewey's problem," another official said. "He wasn't hired to make that kind of distinction. He just carried it out."

Almost immediately after Reagan signed a directive committing the United States to the guerrilla war on Nov. 23, 1981, the CIA station in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa grew to about 25 officers under a new station chief who rented a handsome suburban home near the airport for his staff, mostly military supply experts and accountants. Maroni and CIA Director Casey made frequent visits to the area.

The new station's first tasks were to arm the contras' growing ranks, to make certain the subsistence budget of $1 per day for each recruit was not skimmed by their officers and, in the words of a former FDN leader, to "get our officers out of Tegucigalpa, where they wanted to stay, and into the countryside where they could fight."

Remarkably Successful

By those lights, Maroni's effort was remarkably successful. When Bermudez's FDN carried off its first major operation inside Nicaragua, blowing up two bridges in the north of the country in March, 1982, "there was great enthusiasm in the CIA and in the Administration," an intelligence source recalled. "We were finally bringing pressure to bear on the Sandinistas."

Maroni's political mission was another story. The CIA recognized from the outset that Bermudez, as a former officer in the hated National Guard, would have trouble winning followers in a country that had only recently cast off Somoza's rule. And officials were worried about reports that contra units routinely killed civilians and stole livestock.

So, early in 1982, Maroni met secretly with Pastora, a disillusioned one-time Sandinista combat commander who was organizing his own guerrilla force in Costa Rica. Maroni and other U.S. officials were captivated by Pastora's charisma; they reported to Washington that the socialist-leaning revolutionary, not the rightist Bermudez, was the real political threat to Sandinista rule.

Pastora Denied CIA Tie

Pastora would long deny that he took any help from the CIA. But in fact, the ex-Sandinista accepted U.S. money from the start--on condition that he have absolute "deniability" because his credentials as a nationalist would be weakened if his CIA ties were revealed. As a result, CIA guns and money were delivered to Pastora through an elaborate network of Latin American intermediaries--the funds sometimes in plain brown envelopes.

Pastora now admits that he met with Casey and Maroni, but he says that money was never explicitly discussed. "Officially, the United States never committed itself to me," he said, "but I can't say that the United States never came through for me."

When he met with Casey, Pastora complained, the CIA chief dozed off during his passionate spiel.

As early as July, 1982, Maroni was pressing Pastora to ally with the FDN, but the prickly ex-Sandinista refused--and charged publicly that the CIA was trying to force him to join up with "Somocists" and "criminal mummies." It was only the first spat in a relationship that was destined to be stormy; later, the CIA would cut off Pastora's funding because he was "unmanageable"--a charge the guerrilla leader cheerfully admits. Eventually, the U.S. effort would be concentrated almost entirely on the FDN in the north.

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