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CIA Gets Billing Again in Nicaragua, as Covert Action Becomes the Norm

October 05, 1986|James Bamford | James Bamford, author of "The Puzzle Palace," an examination of the National Security Agency, writes frequently about intelligence issues. and As seen in the Iranian hostage rescue mission and the Grenada invasion, this caldron of clandestine and special warfare units can prove disastrous

BOSTON — Its indigo-black titanium skin begins to glow crimson as the SR-71 "Blackbird" slips through the thin air quicker than a 30.06 bullet escaping its barrel. Twenty minutes after it takes off from Beal Air Force Base near Sacramento, a faint sonic boom can be heard in San Diego as the spy plane, out over the Pacific, speeds south and then east to a secret war in Central America.

That distant boom is a subtle reminder of America's long and opaque war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. In a few weeks it will be five years since President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 17, the secret declaration of covert war against the small Latin nation. Also in a few weeks, $100 million in U.S. aid will begin joining the more than $100 million already sent to the contra guerrillas. Perhaps even more important, the Central Intelligence Agency, benched by Congress for the past two years, will once again become a major player in the conflict.

Covert action and paramilitary operations, used occasionally by every President since Harry S. Truman, have become as institutionalized as formal state dinners under Reagan. Harbors are salted with deadly mines, assassination manuals are distributed and powerful surface-to-air missiles are supplied to rebels to shoot down Soviet aircraft. Reagan's raiders have waged battles in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Chad, Iran, Libya and Nicaragua thus far. Reports put the budget for these secret wars at over half a billion dollars a year. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has even speculated that the contras alone may receive as much as $500 million this year, with cash supplemented from the CIA director's secret contingency fund.

The CIA, however, is not the only employer of secret warriors. With such operations high in presidential prestige and low in bureaucratic restrictions, the Pentagon is also gearing up for more special warfare missions. This has led some, both in and out of government, to suggest that the burgeoning special operations capabilities of both the CIA and the Pentagon be combined into a new, separate agency dedicated solely to covert actions and paramilitary operations. However, this could cause more complications than it solves, because any bureaucracy tends to be self-perpetuating. Even Stansfield Turner, who, as CIA director, greatly enhanced the agency's technical side at the expense of its covert side, nonetheless came to the conclusion that covert operations should be handled by the CIA.

Soon after the Reagan Administration came to power and the military budget was given a hefty boost, a highly secret unit named Intelligence Support Activity (ISA) was formed. It was an outgrowth of the Foreign Operating Group, which had supplied undercover agents in Tehran before the ill-fated rescue mission.

Little is known of the ISA except that in the past it has provided the Pentagon with a virtually unknown and unaccountable covert-action capability. It has apparently been used for conducting unspecified operations in El Salvador, collecting intelligence in support of the contras and supplying military equipment to foreign armies. The ISA has also been reported to have distributed, in a country that has had no diplomatic ties with the United States, arms and bulletproof vests to persons for information on military deployments. Finally, the ISA apparently also played a role in Lt. Col. James G. (Bo) Grits' search for missing POWs in Southeast Asia and the rescue of kidnaped Maj. Gen. James L. Dozier.

In addition to the ISA, the Army has beefed up its Green Berets and reactivated its 1st Special Forces Group based at Ft. Lewis, Wash. Remembered for their role in the Vietnam War, the Army Special Forces have worked closely with the CIA on paramilitary operations since the 1950s. In 1965, a Green Beret unit was reportedly involved in a plan to assassinate the Dominican Republic's Col. Francisco Caamano Deno, a guerrilla leader seeking to overthrow his government--but the plan was canceled at the last minute. In 1980, a group dressed as businessmen entered Tehran to collect intelligence before the rescue mission.

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