WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Lewis A. Tambs on Thursday accused high-ranking Administration officials of sacrificing their subordinates' careers to save their own, and disputed Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams' claims of ignorance about Tambs' assignment to assist Nicaragua's contras .
"The field officers who went forward are not being backed up by the superiors who gave them orders," Tambs complained in testimony before the House and Senate committees investigating the Iran-contra affair.
"What I find to be disconcerting, to put it mildly, is to see officers who were carrying out what they believed to be orders from their legitimate superiors now, in effect, seeing their careers sacrificed."
Resigned in December
Tambs, who resigned in December, said White House aide Oliver L. North had ordered him to "open up a southern front" for the Nicaraguan rebels in 1985, when the strictest of a series of bans on official U.S. aid to the insurgents was in effect.
He said Abrams was aware of his orders to smooth the way for construction of a secret Costa Rican airstrip for the rebels' use. Abrams is scheduled to testify to the committees today after they hear in closed session from Joe Fernandez, the former CIA station chief in Costa Rica, who was known by the code name Tomas Castillo.
It was Fernandez to whom Tambs referred when he made the comment about officials whose careers had been sacrificed to protect their superiors. Although the CIA official has been suspended with pay as the agency investigates his contacts with contra military commanders, Tambs said, Fernandez had "received instructions from Washington to do so."
Tambs said he believed his own orders came from a special White House panel known as the Restricted Interagency Group dealing with Central America. The three-member group was composed of Abrams, North and Alan D. Fiers, chief of the CIA's Central American task force.
Tambs persuaded the Costa Rican government to allow construction of an airstrip at Santa Elena in the northern part of the country and let it be used by planes dropping supplies to contra forces across the border in southern Nicaragua.
The supply network began using the crude runway in late 1985 but was able to use it for only a few months. It was closed down shortly after Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez was inaugurated in May, 1986, because Arias feared it would compromise his country's official stance of neutrality.
'Abreast of Developments'
Abrams "was abreast of all the developments when I saw him on various occasions," Tambs said. "And I assumed consequently that he and the other members of the RIG were directing them." He added that he still believes those orders were coming from the Restricted Interagency Group, which Abrams chaired.
Tambs said he was "somewhat surprised" when Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) told him that Abrams had earlier testified behind closed doors that he did not recall discussing the airstrip with Tambs during a September, 1985, gathering of State Department officials in Panama. Tambs said he clearly remembered such a conversation.
The discussion, he said, "was basically one of those hallway affairs. . . . But it was obvious to me, at least as I understood it, that he knew as much about it as I did."
Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) suggested that Tambs' surprise is likely to grow stronger as the hearings progress.
"When the depositions of certain people you've referred to become public as to what they specifically said was their knowledge and what they did and who they told, I think that you will probably burn up," Rudman told him.
An Abrams aide who asked not to be identified said the assistant secretary cannot recall the hallway conversation with Tambs, but he acknowledged that this may have been when he became aware of the airstrip.
"In that case," the aide added, "Tambs brought it up."
Had Not Read Law
The former ambassador was questioned repeatedly about whether he was concerned that his actions may have violated the congressional ban on support for the contras. He conceded that he had not read the complicated and ambiguous law.
"I'm not a lawyer," he said. "I probably wouldn't have understood it anyway. . . . I have trouble reading a contract for a refrigerator."
At another point, Tambs told the panel that he assumed the instructions he received were within the law and did not question them. "They have a saying in the Foreign Service that when you take the king's shilling, you do the king's bidding," he said.
Other evidence brought before the congressional committees Thursday indicated that Donald P. Gregg, a top aide to Vice President George Bush, wrote a handwritten note last August mentioning that "a swap of weapons for $ was arranged to get aid for contras." But there was no indication that the note referred to the diversion to the Nicaraguan rebels of profits from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran.
Rodriguez Ends Testimony