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Some Familiar Echoes in Financing of Angola Rebels

July 26, 1987|Steven Mufson | Steven Mufson, who reported on South Africa for Business Week, was recently expelled from that country

WASHINGTON — One of the most mysterious details about Lt. Col. Oliver L. North is that our newest hero boasted he had fought in two of our nation's wars: Vietnam and Angola.

That's right. Angola.

Angola was one of those wars Congress never declared. Most Americans probably don't know the location of the West African nation, the size of New York, California and Texas combined. But various evidence suggests that the Reagan Administration pursued the same strategy to help Angolan anti-government rebels as it did to help the Nicaraguan contras.

By failing to question witnesses about Angola, the congressional committee investigating the Iran- contra affair enabled North to turn the hearings into a test of the virtues of aiding the contras.

The question remains whether there was a pattern of behavior by the Reagan Administration designed to circumvent the will of Congress and the reluctance of the American people to enter into another remote jungle quagmire. Details emerging about Angola suggest that sneaking aid to the contras wasn't an aberration or a lapse in judgment; it was part of a plan to use the Administration's influence to sustain anti-communist guerrillas when Congress tried to prohibit official government aid.

The background in Angola is similar to Nicaragua. For nearly a decade, aid to Angolan rebels was prohibited by a congressional measure called the Clark amendment, similar to the Boland amendment that blocked aid to the contras . Despite White House lobbying, Congress balked at repealing the Clark amendment, passed in 1976 to put an early end to an extensive Central Intelligence Agency program helping two of the three warring factions in Angola. The Cuban and Soviet-backed faction prevailed and is the official government today. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, CIA operatives were eager for another chance. "The CIA felt burned by Congress in 1976," said a State Department source, and it was eager to try again.

The strategy works like this: Confidant that its lobbying would eventually bring repeal of the Clark amendment, the Administration appears to have used a three-pronged approach to continue helping the rebels. One, tap a network of wealthy individual Americans for contributions. Two, urge backing for the rebels from friendly foreign governments eager to curry favor and obtain U.S. arms. Three, set up or employ a self-financing service company that would generate funds for the rebels.

Part of this strategy may have been perfectly legal, such as soliciting private money from individual Americans. But its aim was the opposite of the aim of Congress.

Act I of the strategy--patronage by rich Americans--began in December, 1981, with the arrival of Jonas Savimbi, head of a rebel group called the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The Administration's first attempt at repealing the Clark amendment had failed, so after lobbying congressmen and newspapers, Savimbi visited California to rub elbows at a country club with the Eagles, a group of Republicans who have donated $10,000 or more to the party.

Angolan rebels made another pitch for private contributions at the World Anti-Communist League meeting in Dallas in 1984, together with the contras. One Angolan rebel fund-raiser said he met with North several times in 1984, and was encouraged to pursue private money.

Act II of the strategy--help from friendly governments--also started in 1981. Savimbi told me during his December, 1981, visit that his biggest aid donors were Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Savimbi cited Morocco as a key training base.

Morocco at that time was receiving between $50 million and $100 million in U.S. military aid, one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid in Africa. With its own war simmering in the western Sahara, it is difficult to see why economically ailing Morocco would independently give aid to Angolan rebels.

Saudi Arabia's interest in Angolan rebels also was more than philanthropic. On July 1, an Arab-American businessman, Sam Bamieh, testified at the House subcommittee on African affairs that in the course of his business dealings with the Saudi government, King Fahd told him that Saudi aid to anti-communist movements was "part of an understanding" with the United States in return for greater Saudi operational control over AWACS, early warning planes supplied by the United States. (The U.S. end of the AWACS deal was negotiated by Gen. Richard V. Secord, then deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Near East and South Asia and later the man who worked with North to transfer profits from the Iran arms sales to the contras. )

In his testimony, Bamieh also asserted that in October, 1983, Ali Ben Mussallam, a former Saudi intelligence officer then serving as King Fahd's emissary in North Africa, said that the Saudis gave Morocco $50 million to help train UNITA troops.

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