SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court on Thursday dismissed a suit seeking a federal investigation into whether President Reagan and top aides violated U.S. neutrality laws by supporting covert military action by Nicaraguan rebels known as contras.
A post-Watergate law requiring the attorney general to conduct an investigation into the possible appointment of a special prosecutor, after receiving credible allegations of federal crimes by high officials, cannot be enforced in court by private citizens, said the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The suit was filed in 1983 by Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), acting as a private citizen, and by two members of the public, one of whom alleged she was raped in Nicaragua by U.S.-backed contras.
The ruling followed two 1984 decisions by the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals that also concluded that the 1978 law, called the Ethics in Government Act, could not be privately enforced.
"Congress undoubtedly intended to encourage public participation in the Ethics Act procedures to the extent of reporting any information indicating criminal activity to the attorney general," said Judge Betty Fletcher, writing for a three-member 9th Circuit panel.
"That participation, however, appears to be limited to the initial allegation stage. We are persuaded that Congress did not intend thereby to establish procedural rights in the public."
The suit asserted that Reagan and defense and intelligence officials violated the Neutrality Act by approving covert aid to the Nicaraguan rebels in 1981.
The 200-year-old Neutrality Act forbids military or paramilitary expeditions against a nation with which the United States is at peace. The Justice Department contends that the law does not cover presidentially approved actions.
The court's ruling Thursday did not reach the issue of whether Reagan had violated the Neutrality Act by sponsoring military action in Nicaragua that had not been authorized by Congress. (Both House and Senate have since approved aid to the contras.)
Besides Dellums, the plaintiffs were Myrna Cunningham, a U.S. citizen and physician living in Nicaragua who said she had been kidnaped and raped by contras, and Eleanor Ginsburg, who said her enjoyment of her home in Dade County, Fla., was disturbed by nearby paramilitary training.