WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Ambassador Lewis Tambs testified today that White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North sent him to his diplomatic post in Costa Rica in mid-1985 with orders to "open up the southern front" for contra guerrilla forces in neighboring Nicaragua.
Tambs said he did not question the legality of his instructions, which came from a small, inter-agency group that included North, then a member of the National Security Council staff, the head of the CIA's Central American task force and Elliott Abrams, who was awaiting Senate confirmation as assistant secretary of state.
He told the joint House-Senate hearings on the Iran-contra scandal there was a saying in the U.S. Foreign Service that "when you take the king's shilling, you do the king's bidding." But Tambs said he took pains to avoid official contacts with contra leaders because of a congressional ban on U.S. military aid to the resistance fighters.
Aided Private Americans
Instead "I aided the private, patriotic Americans" who were supporting the contra cause, said Tambs, who retired last January after two years as U.S. envoy to Costa Rica.
Then, referring to the southern front of contra rebels in Nicaragua, he added: "Neither I nor any officer from that mission was involved in actually opening it up." But he said that, on instructions from Washington, the CIA station chief in Costa Rica did contact the contra military leaders directly.
The investigating committees scheduled a closed-door session today or Friday to take testimony from Joe Fernandez, the former CIA Costa Rica station chief who used the alias Tomas Castillo. Fernandez left the agency after being disciplined for helping the contra support effort during the congressional ban.
Helped Airstrip Construction
Tambs acknowledged negotiating with Costa Rican officials for construction of the Santa Elena airstrip in the northern part of the country for use by North's private airlift supporting the Nicaraguan rebels.
He told the committees that Abrams, CIA Director William J. Casey and National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter all discussed the airstrip with him subsequently.
Tambs testified after former CIA operative Felix Rodriguez told the committees he was concerned that former Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord might try to steal aircraft used in dropping supplies to the Nicaraguan rebels for fear of being shut out when the CIA resumed aid to the contras.
In his second day before the joint panels, Rodriguez suggested that Secord--recruited by North to run the airlift--wanted to seize the assets of the contra rebel supply operation in the summer of 1986.
CIA Role Anticipated
It was anticipated at the time that the CIA would resume managing the operation later that year, because Congress had voted to lift its restrictions on U.S. government help for the rebels.
Rodriguez was asked about his earlier testimony that he put contra guards on the airlift planes to make sure they were not stolen.
"Who were you concerned about, trying to steal those aircraft?" asked Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.).
"I was concerned that they would receive orders from the owner, which was Gen. Secord, and take the airplanes somewhere else," Rodriguez replied.
Secord had testified previously that he wanted to donate the assets of the resupply effort to the CIA when the congressional ban was lifted. Nevertheless, Secord's staff drew up an option paper which discussed selling the assets to the CIA.