Casey and Maroni visited the contras in Honduras again that summer, FDN and U.S. officials say--Casey to assure them that the Administration would stay with them, Maroni to deliver a less cheerful message.
"Maroni told us Pastora's guerrilla tactics were a good approach, and he criticized our conventional tactics," Chamorro recalled in an account confirmed by others. "He said we should go more to guerrilla war. He praised Pastora as one who knew how to fight. We resented that, because it seemed the CIA was supporting (Pastora's) liberal socialists while we, the conservatives, were carrying the brunt of the fighting."
CIA Contract Employees
To go with the new emphasis on guerrilla warfare, Maroni brought in a CIA contract employee to write a manual of "psychological operations" for the FDN's officers. He also told the contras that they should avoid destroying economic targets, under the theory that such actions would only alienate the Nicaraguan peasantry, Chamorro said.
But later in 1983, contra leaders and U.S. officials say, the Administration decided on a fateful new escalation of the guerrilla war: sabotage raids on such targets as oil supplies and port facilities, to hamper the Nicaraguan military effort. Some of the attacks would be carried out by the FDN, but most would be launched by the CIA itself, with both U.S. personnel and Latin American agents.
"There were questions about the competence of the contras . . . whether they could conduct effective (sabotage) operations," an intelligence source recalled. "So the CIA went out to contract employees."
One U.S. official said the tactic was borrowed directly from the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. "We had seen how effectively sabotage could divert an army's energy into static defense," he said.
At the end of August, 1983, the FDN launched another offensive in the north. This time, the Sandinistas found themselves fighting on several fronts at once, with attacks suddenly coming from the air and sea as well as on land.
From the south, Pastora launched a pair of Cessna light airplanes to bomb Managua airport--an attack some U.S. officials said they never approved. (Pastora lost half of his two-plane "air force" when one of the Cessnas crashed into the airport control tower; after that, he complained, the CIA cut off his aircraft supplies.)
The next day, an airplane bombed the Nicaraguan port of Corinto. Credit for that raid was claimed by the FDN, but it was actually carried out by the CIA, according to congressional sources and contras. Speedboat-borne commandos landed at night to blow up bridges, sabotage oil pipelines and destroy a Sandinista arms depot--all under the direct control of the CIA, rebel leaders and U.S. officials have since said.
Contras in the Dark
"There were some operations that we didn't even know about until afterwards," said Chamorro. "Calero didn't have any part in it at all. Bermudez went once to blow up a bridge, but he wasn't taking an active part; he was just a guest in a boat. He told me the man doing the job was an Ecuadorean who almost drowned and never found the target. The sun was coming up, the frogman wasn't back yet and everyone in the boat was very nervous. The man finally showed up at the last minute and they grabbed him and ran north. Bermudez was very critical; he said, 'Why don't the North Americans just give us the money and let us do it?' "
Bermudez tersely confirmed the account. "That was at Paso Caballo," he said. "It didn't succeed."
Despite such criticism, many of the other sabotage operations were remarkably successful. On Oct. 14, 1983, a team of CIA-sponsored commandos went ashore at Corinto and set Nicaragua's largest oil-storage facility afire; the resulting blaze burned for several days and forced the Sandinistas to evacuate 25,000 people from their homes.
The ground offensive was more successful than earlier campaigns. But it slowed to a halt, U.S. officials say, when the contra columns outran their own supply lines and had to fall back. Some contras--and a few American officials--indulged in the wishful hope that the next offensive could even touch off an insurrection inside Nicaragua. The planners in the CIA and State Department thought the idea was unrealistic but did not want to dim the contras' enthusiasm.
'Managua by Christmas'
"You wouldn't want to base a policy on (the prospect of an insurrection), but you might want to take a run at it," said one. In the contras' camps along the border, an old slogan was revived: "Managua by Christmas!"
The contra leaders were also discussing a more attainable goal: seizing a piece of territory in Jinotega Province, proclaiming it "Free Nicaragua" and appealing to the United States for diplomatic recognition and overt military aid.