WASHINGTON — When President Reagan's foreign policy advisers urged him to order the CIA to mine Nicaragua's harbors late in 1983, their reasoning was simple: No civilian cargo vessel would dare run such a gantlet, and the cutoff of imported weapons, fuel and other supplies would deal a grievous blow to the Sandinista government.
"We never dreamed that merchant captains would keep sailing in," one of the operation's planners confessed later. "The whole thing was a fiasco."
The mining ploy was intended as a critical boost to the CIA-backed rebels who were launching a major offensive--an offensive some hoped would spark a full-scale uprising against the leftist Sandinistas. Instead, when the mines blew up, so did the Reagan Administration's whole strategy--with consequences that still hobble U.S. policy in Central America.
The "firecracker" mines sowed by CIA-hired commandos working from speedboats were too small to do serious damage to ships, but the outrage they sparked forced Congress to confront squarely the mounting American role in the conflict.
In a few weeks of fury in mid-1984, Congress cut off funding for the anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras , and the Reagan Administration's war against the leftists--intended as a discreetly "covert" operation--stood with all its flaws exposed.
'Whole Thing Backwards'
"We discovered that we had done the whole thing backwards," said a senior U.S. official who helped run the contra program. "We decided to take the action before we had achieved a national consensus on Nicaragua. We should have achieved a consensus first."
Indeed, by the time the furor over the harbor mining broke, the Administration did not even have a consensus of support on the key congressional watchdog committees because the CIA officer who ran the covert war, although remarkably successful in building up guerrilla forces, botched the job of winning over the House and Senate intelligence panels.
Erosion of Confidence
More than two years of uneasy dealings with the fast-talking CIA officer, who was code-named Maroni, had eroded many intelligence committee members' confidence in the agency; the disclosure about the CIA's direct role in mining Nicaraguan harbors was the last straw.
The consequences of congressional ire snowballed quickly. By the beginning of this year, Reagan's policy on Nicaragua was dead in the water. The contras were militarily stalemated and politically divided; the CIA was under public fire for mismanaging the program, and Honduras, the key U.S. ally in the conflict, was increasingly nervous about the relationship.
Now, Reagan has launched a new campaign to turn Congress around, complete with fiery rhetoric portraying the Sandinistas as "cruel totalitarians" and a warning that a loss on the issue would cripple his Central America policies. If the President loses this fight, Secretary of State George P. Shultz said last month, "all U.S. diplomatic efforts (in Central America) will be undermined, . . . (and) we may find later, when we can no longer avoid acting, that the stakes will be higher and the costs greater."
But some White House and State Department aides say privately that they see little chance of success.
None of these disasters was foreseen.
When the mining of Nicaragua's harbors was planned in the waning months of 1983, there was no significant opposition in the higher councils of the Administration, officials say. In the Defense Department, Deputy Assistant Secretary Nestor D. Sanchez--once a skeptic about the covert war--supported the mining because of the damage it was expected to do to Nicaragua's military buildup. In the State Department, Assistant Secretary Langhorne A. Motley supported it because of the increased leverage it would give him in negotiations with the Sandinistas.
The policy-makers considered mining the harbors to be only a small jump beyond the CIA sabotage raids that had already been carried out, with little public notice, against ports, bridges, arms dumps and oil facilities.
"And you should have seen some of the things we didn't try," one quipped.
It was a U.S.-run operation from start to finish. The mines themselves were slipped into three Nicaraguan harbors--Corinto, Puerto Sandino and El Bluff--by South American commandos. The commandos, who were brought in aboard a CIA-run "mother ship," slipped into the ports in agency-supplied speedboats, and U.S.-piloted attack helicopters supplied air cover.
'People Kept Sailing In'
The mines were laid in January and February of 1984. Several Nicaraguan fishing boats, a Dutch dredger, even a Soviet oil tanker ran into them, but the Sandinistas quickly discovered how small they were and cleared them. The most serious loss: seven fishing boats.