WASHINGTON — The State Department ran an illegal, covert domestic propaganda campaign in 1985 that secretly produced articles for the opinion pages of leading newspapers criticizing Nicaragua's leftist government, according to a congressional report released Sunday.
Consultants paid by the State Department wrote articles for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post and then attempted to have them published without disclosing that they had been produced by the government, the General Accounting Office reported.
"(The State Department) engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the Administration's Latin American policies," the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, concluded.
The GAO also discovered several significant documents on the issue that the Reagan Administration failed to turn over to the congressional committees investigating the Iran- contra scandal--raising questions about whether other evidence may have been withheld.
"It makes me wonder what else is still being hidden from Congress and the American people," said Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The Iran-contra committees, which held hearings during the summer and are now preparing a report, relied on the White House to produce all Administration documents relevant to their inquiry. They did not subpoena documents from the Administration.
In one of the new documents found by the GAO, a memorandum entitled "White Propaganda Operation," State Department aide Johnathan S. Miller wrote that his office had succeeded in secretly placing an article in the Wall Street Journal, influencing a report on the NBC Nightly News and preparing columns intended for the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The Wall Street Journal article was written by John F. Guilmartin Jr., a Rice University professor who was also a paid State Department consultant at the time, Miller said. Guilmartin "collaborated with our staff in the writing of this piece," Miller wrote. "Officially, this office had no role in its preparation."
The article, an analysis of Nicaragua's buildup of Soviet-supplied arms, appeared in the newspaper with no indication that Guilmartin was under contract to the State Department when he wrote it.
Miller, who resigned from a White House job last May after it was disclosed that he had helped pass money to Nicaraguan rebels, said Sunday that he saw nothing seriously wrong with the arrangement.
"In retrospect, on the Guilmartin piece, we should have said the guy was a consultant to the State Department," he said. "But there was nothing improper about what we were doing."
Tim Ferguson, editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal, confirmed that Guilmartin did not tell the newspaper that he was working for the State Department when he submitted his article.
"I would have wished that he had told us, because we probably would have wanted it noted," Ferguson said. "At the same time, I'm confident that he originated the article on his own . . . although it did overlap with the work he was doing for the State Department. We don't have any doubt as to the validity of the arguments in the piece."
Miller's memorandum said his office also had ordered a paid consultant to write articles for publication under the names of three Nicaraguan rebel leaders in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Both newspapers subsequently published articles under the contras' bylines, but Miller said he could not recall whether those columns were a result of his efforts.
A congressional investigator said that some of the columns were written by Frank Gomez, a State Department consultant whose public relations firm, International Business Communications Inc., also handled millions of dollars in secret funds for fired White House aide Oliver L. North.
'Perfectly Good Op-Ed Piece'
The Post's deputy editorial page editor, Steven Rosenfeld, said he arranged the publication of an article by contra leader Adolfo Calero four weeks after Miller's memo.
"It was arranged in the normal way that we arrange op-ed pieces, which is by direct arrangement with the principals," Rosenfeld said. "I'm 100% convinced that it was a perfectly good, authentic op-ed piece that represented Calero's views. . . . But was a White House hand on Calero's pen? I can't answer that."
At the New York Times, the editor of the op-ed page, Robert B. Semple Jr., issued a brief statement:
"It is far from clear that the article we published in December, 1985, was in fact the article that apparently was being prepared the previous March. In any case, the op-ed page, since its inception, has been meticulous in checking on authorship."