WASHINGTON — Last week the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua put on trial Eugene Hasenfus, the American pilot shot down when delivering mili tary supplies to the contras. Hasenfus' timing was terrible and his testimony was troubling, for together they raised the possibility that senior members of the Reagan White House have systematically been involved in illegal activities.
At the time of the crash, the President had still not signed legislation making it legal for the U.S. government to provide military assistance to the Nicaraguan rebels, yet Hasenfus contended he was a participant in an operation supported by the Central Intelligence Agency. Soon it surfaced that he reported to a Cuban-American, Max Gomez, who has met two or three times with Vice President George Bush and with his staff.
For those with a long memory, Hasenfus' plight recalls that of Francis Gary Powers in May, 1960, when the Soviets shot down Powers' U-2 reconnaisance plane. The Eisenhower Administration lied about Powers and Nikita S. Khrushchev broke up the Paris summit. Powers, like Hasenfus, was pawn in a larger geopolitical game.
It may be that, strictly speaking, the Administration has not violated the letter of the law--although only a congressional investigation can determine this--and Hasenfus was misled by officials who falsely said he was working for the CIA. But if the Administration is not in strict violation of the letter of the law, it is in gross violation of its spirit. Given the Administration's policy, it would be almost impossible for a low-level employee like Hasenfus not to believe that he was working for the CIA and enjoying the protection of the U.S. government.
For several years now the Administration has engaged in an extremely dangerous game in Nicaragua. Its goal has been to overthrow the Sandinista regime, yet it has told the American people otherwise. To carry out this policy, it has been involved in highly questionable activities--direct contacts with contra leaders, arbitration of disputes among those leaders, encouragement of private gun-running and support for strategies of attacks on civilians within Nicaragua--that would evoke revulsion within the United States were they more widely known.
Most alarming, to protect the policy the Administration has revived some of the worst practices of the Nixon Administration. The Nixon Administration created the "plumbers unit" to bypass relevant agencies--the FBI, for example--and the Reagan Administration has used members of the National Security Council staff to continue U.S. funding of contra military activities , when Congress has explicitly banned such support. As a result some in Washington are now beginning to ask whether a new Watergate-type scandal may be brewing.
Administrations always get in trouble when they forget standards they promised to respect and end up doing something they shouldn't. The Reagan Administration's policy toward Nicaragua breaks a period of respect for the law and democratic standards that distinguished the Ford and Carter administrations. The new policy threatens to return the executive branch to an earlier darker period that lowered U.S. prestige worldwide.
Thus the Eisenhower Administration lied about the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union; the Kennedy Administration tried to assassinate Fidel Castro and in the process nearly destroyed the CIA as an effective agency; the Johnson Administration so repeatedly misled the country about U.S. policy in Vietnam that it ultimately lost the confidence of the people as well as America's first major war.
The Nixon Administration, through such actions as the illegal bombing of Cambodia, broke the law abroad and then broke it at home--authorizing illegal wiretaps, breaking and entering and the systematic obstruction of justice. Several high officials went to jail; and the nation lost its first President through resignation under threat of impeachment.
Because of its obsession with Nicaragua, the Reagan Administration may now be joining the list of Administrations that get in trouble by forgetting that the U.S. system rests on two foundation stones--legality and accountability.
In effect, the Reagan Administration has declared war against Nicaragua without informing the U.S. public or obtaining the necessary authorization from Congress. Its determination to wage that war explains such otherwise inexplicable actions as the illegal mining of Nicaragua's territorial waters, the brochures encouraging the assassination of Nicaraguan officials and now the possible violation of an explicit congressional prohibition against U.S. military aid to the contras.