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Necessary Evil?

September 25, 1988

By revealing that the Central Intelligence Agency has provoked acts of opposition against Nicaragua's Sandinista government, House Speaker Jim Wright may have ensured that future U.S. intelligence activities will be hidden from Congress. Yet, given the manner in which the Reagan Administration has abused American power including the CIA and its resources--in its campaign to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, Wright's decision to go public may well have been necessary.

Wright surprised official Washington last week when he told a routine press conference that Congress "had received clear testimony from CIA people that they had deliberately done things to provoke an overreaction" from Nicaragua's Sandinista rulers. It was the first time that any government official had publicly acknowledged such CIA activity. Wright provided no further details of the agency's activities in Nicaragua, but that did not keep White House officials from expressing displeasure with him, as did other members of Congress.

Some critics charged that Wright was providing "ammunition" to the Sandinistas that they would use to further crack down on their internal opponents--not just the few who actively support the bloody guerrilla war being fought by the Contra insurgents, but the many more who have resisted the Sandinistas peacefully. That's a specious argument, however. The Sandinistas have always assumed that the CIA was behind their opposition, and they have hardly been reluctant to act on those assumptions.

Of still greater concern is the likelihood that Wright's action will confirm the worst fears of the intelligence and military officials who would prefer to keep their activities hidden from everyone, including the elected representatives of the people whom they are sworn to defend. After several painful CIA scandals were made public in the mid 1970s, laws were enacted to govern U.S. intelligence activities, and a key provision is a requirement that appropriate members of Congress be briefed whenever a President orders covert operations. It is no secret that some in the CIA and other intelligence agencies have chafed under even those minimal restrictions. One of those most resistant was William Casey, President Reagan's principal director of central intelligence and, until his death, one of the prime movers behind Reagan's dirty little war in Nicaragua.

As congressional testimony regarding the Iran Contra scandal revealed, Casey had no qualms about engaging in reprehensible activities for the sake of trying to overthrow the Sandinistas.He brought back to the CIA several cowboy-like operatives who had left the agency during the previous decade's scandals. Casey also assented to the sale of U.S. arms to Iran, where the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini oversees a regime arguably worse than the one in Managua. And Casey even discussed the possibility of creating an "off-the-shelf" intelligence agency to operate separately from the CIA.

In plain fact, Casey's desire to serve Reagan's obsessive campaign against Nicaragua led himto violate one of the most important duties that a CIA director has: providing the White House with a dispassionate and careful analysis of foreign events. Rather than analyzing what the Sandinistas were up to, Casey set out to prove that they were doing what he and Reagan wanted to believe they were up to. Worse, as many people suspected and Wright has confirmed, Casey ordered the CIA to try to provoke the Sandinistas into activities that would convince Congress and the American public that they were as bad as Reagan believes they are.

There were times when Casey's anti-Nicaragua activities were so outrageous that they angered even conservatives like former Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, who angrily lectured the late CIA director when it was revealed that his agency had secretly mined Nicaragua's harbors and tried to hide the fact from Congress. It was probably to preclude the possibility of further such covert actions that Wright chose to speak out. Certainly the Administration has shown that it has no intention of changing the way in which it deals with Nicaragua. The needless State Department delay in approving visas for a delegation that was to accompany President Daniel Ortega on a visit to the United Nations and Washington was just the most recent example of how petty this Administration is willing to act just to get at the Sandinistas. Wright may fear that, with only four months in power left to them, the right-wing zealots around Reagan might try to take one last desperate swing at Managua in the hope of landing a knockout punch. If that is true, and if Wright prevents the Reaganites from further sabotaging the tentative steps that are now being taken toward peace in Central America, his outburst will have been worthwhile. At the very least,one can understand the anxiety that prompted it.

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