WASHINGTON — In July, 1985, as Lewis A. Tambs moved into his new job as U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, he told colleagues: "I really have only one mission: to open a southern front for the contras ," the rebels fighting Nicaragua's leftist government.
At the time, Congress had prohibited all U.S. material aid to the contras. But Tambs, a fiercely conservative San Diegan who worked at the National Security Council before becoming an ambassador, believed his job was to find a way to help the rebels despite the law.
Tambs' orders to help the contras came not only from then-White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, he later told the Tower Commission investigating the Iran-contra scandal. They came, he said, from Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and the CIA as well.
"Before I went, Ollie said, 'When you get down there, you should open the southern front,' " the commission's report quoted Tambs as saying. "In the subsequent meetings and conversations, that was confirmed by Abrams and (a CIA official). That was sort of our mission . . . . The idea was that we would encourage them to fight."
But in practical terms, according to the report and accounts from other officials, Abrams, North, Tambs and the CIA went well beyond mere encouragement.
Through the private network of bank accounts and companies that they dubbed Project Democracy, North and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord built a secret Costa Rican airstrip for the contras' use, with communications supplied by the CIA and diplomatic aid from the State Department.
The airfield, a 6,250-foot dirt strip with barracks and service buildings near Cape Santa Elena in northwestern Costa Rica, was intended to be a key part of the contras' military effort during 1986. But as North's network unravels, the project has instead helped implicate the CIA and the State Department as partial accomplices in his work.
The case of the airstrip, more than any other of Oliver North's Central American adventures, has brought the CIA and the State Department under as much scrutiny as the already tainted NSC staff.
The CIA's station chief in Costa Rica, a man who used the pseudonym Tomas Castillo, was forced to retire after his role in helping Secord's airdrop operations became known. Castillo reportedly told the Tower Commission that he had his superiors' approval for his actions, but those officials are not known to have been disciplined.
Habib Role Cited
At the State Department, not only Tambs, who resigned last December as ambassador, but also Abrams and even peace negotiator Philip C. Habib intervened with Costa Rica's government to try to protect the operation from being exposed. When Costa Rica's new president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, planned a press conference to denounce the airfield, Habib reportedly demanded: "Who are you trying to embarrass?"
State Department officials insist that they did not know who was funding or operating the contra airlift, or that North was directly involved in coordinating its operations.
"Everybody involved . . . knew that Ollie was somehow connected with this but did not know why," Abrams told the Tower panel. "I think most of us were careful not to ask lots of questions, other than once in a while to say, 'Is this all OK, is this stuff legal?'--once in a while."
And they maintain that the intervention by Abrams and Habib with the Costa Ricans to keep the operation from being exposed was not improper.
"The policy of the President was to support the contras," one senior official said. "It was an absolutely legitimate, essential function of the embassy in Costa Rica to provide diplomatic support for the contras and to try to persuade the government of Costa Rica to be more supportive of the contras."
Longtime U.S. Goal
Opening a southern front for the contras along Nicaragua's border with Costa Rica had long been a Reagan Administration goal. A second front would force the Sandinistas to disperse their armed forces and would take pressure off the main contra army, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), whose bases are across Nicaragua's northern border with Honduras.
But the task had always proved difficult. The contra bands based in Costa Rica are small and quarrelsome, and, unlike the FDN, have never developed a workable supply system.
North's answer was Project Democracy. The NSC memoranda discovered by the Tower Commission reveal that Secord's airlift operation was intended to help create a new, 2,500-man guerrilla force that would march into Nicaragua and link up with FDN units in the central mountains.
"The airfield at Santa Elena has been a vital element in supporting the resistance," North told then-National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter in a 1986 memo. "Built by a Project Democracy proprietary (company), the field was initially used for direct resupply efforts (July, 1985-February, 1986)." Since then, North wrote: "The field has served as the primary abort base for aircraft damaged by Sandinista anti-aircraft fire."