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Contras : Lost in a Jungle of Mismanagement

March 15, 1987|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc is the author of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait" (Morrow)

WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration created the Nicaraguan contras and now appears to have fatally injured them. Through its obsessive need to control, manipulate and direct all their leaders and all their activities, this cherished force may disappear.

Ironically, while the Administration had risked possibly illegal steps to keep the guerrillas armed during a recent congressional ban on direct military aid, continued political interference by the White House, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency--to keep the rebels obediently in line--undermined the whole effort.

Now the contras ' political leadership is on the verge of collapse with the sudden resignation of Arturo Cruz, a liberal-minded member of the rebel directorate, as Congress prepared, begrudgingly, for the next installment of contra funding. Cruz resigned in protest against the U.S. interference and his own inability to introduce contra reforms.

This month, contra political chiefs were testifying before federal investigators concerning secret operations undertaken on their behalf by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and his associates. Their testimony, including submission of bank records, is likely to throw additional light on the Iran- contra scandal and could lead to criminal prosecutions against current and former Administration officials.

The contra leaders' willingness to testify comes from bitterness--what they claim has been cavalier treatment by high-ranking gringos. Many of them feel used by the United States for its own ends. The extent of disarray among the top contras comes clear from a month-long series of interviews with American officials, past and present, rebel leaders and other Nicaraguans in Washington, Miami and New York. A new picture emerges:

The two-year congressional ban on direct U.S. military assistance to the contras --between October, 1984, and October, 1986--was the best thing that ever happened to the guerrillas that President Reagan described as "freedom fighters." During that period, the contras received more funds and materials, mostly through White House-controlled secret "private" channels, than in the previous three years when the CIA--covertly but legally--financed the movement. The contra army grew to nearly 15,000 men astride the border between Nicaragua and their Honduras sanctuary.

The value of aid received during the ban was approximately $100 million in arms, ammunition, support services and cash. At least $55 million came from private networks run by North and some funds are virtually certain to have come from illegal U.S. arms sales to Iran. Between late 1981, when Reagan authorized aid to the contras , and the congressional cut-off in 1984, the CIA had provided slightly more than $80 million, barely enough to keep the guerrillas going.

The Tower Commission did not account for all the money from the Iran arms sales or determine the exact sources of private funding. While much of the contra financing is believed to have come from foreign governments, some may have come, according to Nicaraguan informants, from political action committees in the United States. That would be illegal. The Tower commission alluded to this possibility, saying that information concerning North's contacts with political-action committees "will be available to congressional committees." Federal investigators are also looking into the possibility that funds raised for the contras may have been used in 1986 U.S. congressional elections against those opposing the guerrillas' cause, and will explore charges that the contras earned money from narcotics dealing.

The State Department, according to investigators, has played a much more active role than heretofore understood in championing the contras ' cause during the ban on arms aid. Such activities would fall into a legal gray area; they may include use of the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland for European fund-raising in behalf of the contras , assistance to North in offshore banking arrangements and the expenditure of State Department funds to finance the lobbying of Congress by the contras .

But even as the Administration was trying to turn the contras into a viable force that could pose a serious military threat to the Sandinistas, the Administration was, on all levels, determined to control that force--its leadership and its conduct of the guerrilla war. Contra political and military chiefs alike were told that, in effect, they must take orders from Americans, whether CIA handlers or diplomats or officials in Washington.

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