The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Nicaragua -- Covert Ban?
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. The House Intelligence Committee, resisting strong Reagan administration pressure, today voted to ban U.S. covert military activities in or against Nicaragua. The vote in the 14-man committee was nine Democrats for and five Republicans against the bill, which extends the course of the Boland Amendment passed by Congress last December. That banned the use of U.S. funds to back efforts to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. The administration has since been accused of breaking that law through CIA backing for anti-Sandinista rebels operating from Honduras. The administration says it is only trying to stop Nicaragua from sending arms to rebels in El Salvador.Today's committee action gave the administration an alternative -- $80 million for friendly governments in Central America to stop such arms flow. The bill still has to pass the full House and the Senate. While the committee was deliberating today, Nicaragua claimed that some 1,200 rebels and launched what it called a massive new invasion from Honduras. Tonight, tying the President's hands in Nicaragua. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, one of the nine Intelligence Committee members who voted to tie those hands was Congressman Norman Mineta, Democrat of California. Congressman Mineta recently visited Central America at the invitation of the administration. Congressman, why did you vote the way you did?
Rep. NORMAN MINETA: Well, first of all, the funds that were given to the administration for the covert operation was ostensibly for the interdiction of the arms supply line going from Nicaragua to El Salvador. And in Congress in December they passed the Boland Amendment to prohibit the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government or to provoke war between El Salvador and Honduras. And I just felt that the administration --
LEHRER: Nicaragua. You mean Nicaragua and Honduras.
Rep. MINETA: Between Nicaragua and Honduras, that's right. And I just felt that the administration had gone beyond the Boland Amendment, and I think the bill today does two things. First of all, it cuts off the covert funding and it says let us look at this whole issue of whether or not we want to have assistance to those friendly foreign countries in Central America to interdict on this arms supply line in an open, public policy manner.
LEHRER: So there's no question in your mind that the covert action is going beyond trying to interdict those arms supply lines?
Rep. MINETA: In my estimation I think the administration, in this recent trip that I took with our fine colleague Bill Young, has -- didn't show, at least to me, any shred of evidence that they were within their current goals or policies.
LEHRER: Did you see evidence to the contrary, that they were actually involved in trying to overthrow the Sandinista government?
Rep. MINETA: I think it's there, and again that's just open to interpretation, but I am not convinced that what we were financing there was strictly for interdiction of arms supply, and I think that the administration was beyond the Boland Amendment.
LEHRER: What did you see that made you think that?
Rep. MINETA: Well, first of all, they have not been able to show, or at least to satisfy me, that there's been an interdiction of that arms supply line or that there's been one round of ammunition or one pound of high explosives that they've interdicted in the length of time of this covert operation.
LEHRER: Did you see -- what I really meant to ask was what evidence did you see that made you believe that something else is on the agenda besides that, like trying to overthrow the government?
Rep. MINETA: Well, I think we've seen that in the public media already in terms of the news stories coming out about what's happening in this secret war.
LEHRER: This amendment that you voted for today, Congressman, how long does the administration have now to stop -- if assuming -- of course, not from this day; it has to go to the House and it has to go to the Senate, but from the time -- assuming this amendment passes into law, how long does it have to stop the covert action?
Rep. MINETA: That has been put into the classified annex in order not to divulge the number -- the time element there as to when the funds would be effectively prohibited.
LEHRER: Can you -- okay, I won't press you on that.The vote today was strictly along party lines. You democrats voted all one way; you Republicans voted all the other. Is this now a partisan issue, Central America?
Rep. MINETA: Well, I don't think so, but you know, just the fact that we have these differences, I don't think we should all of a sudden label that as a partisan difference. I think to do that I think is unfair to the reatment of the whole situation. I think it's important that we look at the Central America region, but not as a partisan issue, but what is in the best interests of the United States in terms of public policy.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: In banning covert action, the committee rejected a compromise proposed by the administration that would have limited U.S. aid to blocking arms shipments to El Salvador. The compromise was introduced by Republican Congressman C. W. Bill Young of Florida. Congressman Young also recently visited Central America and strongly backs President Reagan's policies there. Congressman Young, what's your view of the consequences of the bill that was passed out of the committee today?
Rep. C. W. BILL YOUNG: I think today, Robin, the consequences are going to be one of morale. As has been pointed out, we're a long way towards enactment of this legislation. It not only has to go through the Senate as well as the House, but it has to be approved by the President. Whether that happens is questionable. What happens now is the nation of El Salvador has just gone into an amnesty program releasing political prisoners from jail, offering amnesty to the insurgents who are now bearing arms against the government, and I'm afraid that this kind of a morale boost to the Sandinista-backed insurgency is going to offset what good might have been done by the amnesty program suggested by the Salvadoran government. My main problem in this whole effort is that, with Mr. Mineta, I visited and had an opportunity to meet with the junta leaders of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And they made no bones about it. They made it very clear that their revolution in the region was going to continue. Now, I don't want to see the Cuban-Marxist-Sandinista influence in Central America allowed to expand, and I certainly don't want to see our friends in Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala threatened by this Sandinista revolution, which everyone today concedes is actually a Marxist revolution.
MacNEIL: Can I ask you this, Congressman?
Rep. YOUNG: Sure.
MacNEIL: Congressman Mineta has just said that he suspects that the covert operation was going beyond the Boland Amendment of last December. Do you believe that?
Rep. YOUNG: We made the same trip together, and I would like to say that in my opinion we saw nothing to convince me or any thinking person that there had been a violation of the Boland Amendment.
MacNEIL: Then why, sir, was the administration introducing a compromise today to limit the covert operation to interdicting arms supplies if that's only what it's been doing all along?
Rep. YOUNG: Well, I ought to correct that assumption. This amendment that I offered today was written by me and it was authored by me and offered because I thought it was an appropriate amendment. This was not prepared by the administration or at their requeot. I offered this on my own.
MacNEIL: I beg your pardon. But can I ask the question again? Why offer that amendment to limit the covert operation to interdicting arms shipments if that's all that the administration has been doing all along?
Rep. YOUNG: Well, that's not what the amendment did. What the amendment did was to provide that this legislation would not be effective until 45 days after an agreement had been reached between the United States and the Sandinistas guaranteeing that the Sandinista aid to the insurgency in El Salvador was terminated as well as the U.S. aid to whatever might be happening through or from Honduras was terminated. A bilateral approach to this problem rather than the United States getting out of the ballgame and leaving it totally up to the Sandinistas.
MacNEIL: Finally, Congressman, to your knowledge is the CIA involved in this so-called new invasion that the Nicaraguans claimed today had been launched from El Salvador?
Rep. YOUNG: Well, it's very difficult for us to discuss any covert activity because of the rules that we work under from the intelligence committees of the House and the Senate both. But I'd have to respond to the effect that I don't see a 1,200 -- if it's ture, and if 1,200 Nicaraguans return to their home country, I don't see that as a massive invasion. But I think the point ought to be made, Robin, that what's happening in Nicaragua today is not happening with American personnel or Honduran personnel or Salvadoran personnel. These are Nicaraguans, many of whom were involved in the original Sandinista revolution, but who became disenchanted with that revolution because they did not give the free elections; they did not provide the democratic government; they did not allow a free press; and there are some very -- the same people, many of whom fought with the Sandinistas before who are fighting against the Sandinistas today.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Moving now from the House to the Senate, where the issue is just as ripe and hot, and to a key leader of the opposition to the Reagan Central America policy, Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut. It was Senator Dodd who delivered the televised Democratic response to Mr. Reagan's speech last week to a joint session ofCongress. Senator, I assume you support what the House Intelligence Committee did this afternoon?
Sen. CHRISTOPHER DODD: I think it was a step in the right direction. It's 80 -- it's a high number.I don't know if the number is public -- it's 30 and 50 -- all right, I was going to be careful. All right, it's $80 million over two years. It's going to provide the countries down there the ability to interdict arms, so I think that's a better way to go than by supportng a group which you really can't control. That's been historic. I mean --
LEHRER: All right, you support the thrust of that, which bans the covert action.
Sen. DODD: Yes, I do. I support the thrust of that.
Sen. DODD: Well, because one, it's going to give us, I think, a better management of those dollars. The problem with the previous program was that you were giving funds or supporting a group which you then could not control. And, contrary to what our good friend Bill Young of Florida says, the entire command structure of that opposition are former Somoza National Guardsmen. And that in itself was going to, and was galvanizing the population of Nicaragua to support the Sandinistas where there had been clear erosion of popular support. Let me add quickly, however, that I'm uneasy a bit about it. Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind. I'm sure everyone will appreciate the fact that had there been any significant interdiction of arms or supplies or ammunitions coming from Nicaragua through Honduras to El Salvador, the hour would not pass before those would be shown to the American public as a justification for this effort over the past three years. I don't see any. I'm hoping that $80 million may produce some so that the administration can make its point, but up to date we haven't seen them.
LEHRER: Do you agree with Congressman Young when he says the real issue is the spread of the Cuban Marxist influence in Central America via the Sandinista government of Nicaragua?
Sen. DODD: I think that's a threat. I don't disagree with the threat. I think the threat is a bit exaggerated, but I don't disagree with it. I think that's a point that needs to be made, unfortunately, more clearly. Those of us who disagree with the administration are not disagreeing with the threat, except to the extent that it may be exaggerated. Where we disagree with the administration is over the policy on how to deal with that threat and other problems of the region.It is our belief that the administration, if it pursues its policy, will create a situation with what they fear most being a greater likelihood of occurring.
LEHRER: Now, how would that happen?
Sen. DODD: In effect by militarizing the entire region, in effect; by having military solutions. We very well could see -- and I don't think it's a wild exaggeration to suggest this -- that the Nicaraguans arguing that to defend its sovereignty invites in Cuban troops, in effect, to help them wage its war against troops that are coming in from Honduras and in from Costa Rica or other places. That then -- the ante goes up at that point, and I'm concerned that they would be able to use that argument effectively in international forums. We have suggested alternatives to that option, which we think not only minimized the spread of war but minimized the spread of Marxism in the region, our argument being that if you deal with this in a negotiating process you minimize the profile of the military people -- that is, the guys with the guns -- and you elevate the profile of the political people. If we wait until it becomes a military fait accompli, then we very well may have what the administration fears most. That's where the difference is. Not over the threat or the worry; we all worry about that.
LEHRER: Let me ask you this. The Congressman just said that he questioned whether or not what Congressman Mineta and his committee did today is going to go very far in terms of the House and the Senate and eventually to the President. He questions whether it's ever going to be enacted into law. My question to you is, is it going to go anywhere in the Senate, which is controlled by the Republican Party?
Sen. DODD: Well, I don't -- Senator Wallop is here and can comment on what may happen in his committee. He is far more knowledgeable to comment on that. I think de facto it's going to occur, in effect. I think there is enough dissatisfaction and worry that in fact the groups that are getting these funds -- they're the ones who have said, "See you in Managua next summer." They're the ones who are saying, "Thank you for the assistance, United States, we're going to overthrow the Sandinista government." Now, thoes are their comments to our American press that have interviewed them. That's as good a piece of evidence as I know of that what their intentions are; and I think the administration is worried about that, I think far more worried today than they were in the past. So whether or not we actually get this all the way through Congress, my suspicions -- and it's only a personal view, that the administration will begin to recognize that this is not a wise policy to be following in Nicaragua and will very well pull back on it.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: The Republican view now from Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, who is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Senator Wallop, do you agree with what Senator Dodd just said, that the administration is beginning to recoginze this is not a wise policy and will begin to be pulling back from it?
Sen. MALCOLM WALLOP: No, I don't agree with that at all, and I would not agree with them if they did state that as their policy. I believe what has happened is really a very serious blow to any attempt that we're going to have in this country to stabilize the great isthmus that joins North and South America.
MacNEIL: By "what has happened," you mean the vote in the House Intelligence Committee?
Sen. WALLOP: The vote in the House. Yes, I mean, if we were to do that, and I don't think we will.
MacNEIL: You don't think it will get anywhere in the Senate?
Sen. WALLOP: I don't believe that anything like what passed in the House will in the Senate. For one thing, I do not believe that the Senate agrees with Congressman Mineta that we broke the law, and I think sometimes we, the Reagan administration, broke the Boland Amendment. I think you forget the legislative history of that.There were two amendments in the House by Congressman Harkin of Iowa, one of which, the first of which, prohibited any military activity; the second of which prohibited any military activity or support of people with military activity known to have the intent of overthrowing the government. Now, then we did the same thing to a similar kind of amendment by Senator Dodd, and now, when we have a government that is trying to do and live by an amendment which is there which says that we could not supply money with our intent of overthrowing the Sandinista government, they're telling us that somehow or another we or the President has misinterpreted the law which both houses of Congress had specifically rejected.
MacNEIL: All right, you also heard the administration accused -- in fact, I heard Congressman Mineta say this on the radio this morning, that the administration was naive or disingenuous in claiming that it wasn't responsible for the intentions of the people it was helping in Honduras.
Sen. WALLOP: It makes no consequence even if it were. I don't admit that we are, but the fact is that having voted down the Harkin Amendment, the first one, and then the second one, which said that we couldn't support people known by the U.S. to have the intent of overthrowing that government, we rejected that in both houses of Congress. And all we said was, in the Boland Amendment, that we as a country could not have the intent of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua, and we have no such intent.
MacNEIL: There was an article today in The Christian Science Monitor by columnist Joseph Harsch, who suggested the administration would be a lot more persuasive in this policy if it would separate its identity of the strategic threat -- in other words, that Cuban troops or somebody Marxist might place missiles there, things that would directly threaten the security of the United States and which by past performance the United States would be justified in removing or opposing -- from its own political preferences in Nicaragua, namely its opposition to the establishment of a Marxist state there where Marxist states are tolerated elsewhere. Do you think that agrument makes any sense?
Sen. WALLOP: No, I think it's too simplistic because the problem is at least as much social as it is strategic. We are beginning already to see coming into this country an entirely different group of people crossing the border from Mexico. They now can be classified to some large degree as refugees, not people just seeking a better livelihood. And I see a great exodus from Central and South America and Mexico coming into this country, which we simply will not be able to handle here -- by the millions.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Congressman, do you agree with the Senator's point that the real issue in the Boland Amendment, and thus this amendment that you all added to it today, is that it's the United States' intent that's important, not the intent of the guerrillas that we may or may not be providing arms to?
Rep. MINETA: Absolutely not. I mean, again, going back to this point about saying that the Boland Amendmant was directed at the intent of the United States government and not to the beneficiaries of our assistance, I think is a specious approach to this whole issue. I mean, my kid can't stand next to someone else, hand him a rock and have that kid then throw the rock through the window and bang you on the head and my kid saying, "Oh, I didn't have anything to do with that. That wasn't my intent." That's ludicrous.
Sen. WALLOP: Well, the way he characterizes it, it would be ludicrous, but of course that is not what is taking place down there.
Rep. MINETA: But we've given the rocks to someone else to --
Sen. WALLOP: But, come, Congressman, my friend, look at the reality of it -- you know, all told, the number of people that might be being receiving assistance from us is some couple of thousand, opposed to 20,000 regular army troops. 30,000 militia men, East Germans, the PLO, the Bulgarians, the North Koreans and the Cubans. We're not going to overthrow that government with any kind of support like that, nor could we be accused of trying to.
Rep. MINETA: Now, you know as well that we can'tdiscuss the numbers, but they're nowhere near that proportion that you just indicated.
LEHRER: Congressman Young?
Rep. YOUNG: Jim, it's important to follow this legislative history, as has been suggested. The Boland language came directly from language that was in the report that accompanied the intelligence bill last year. Now, that language was developed by the Intelligence Committee in a rather heated discussion in exchange of questions and answers as to what would be permitted and what would be prohibited by this language, and I have to say that I wish we could be public tonight with what that question-and-answer period produced because specific questions were asked. Would they be allowed to do this, that or something else? The answers were also very specific, and what I'm suggesting is that at one point they were told to go ahead with something that they're now being told they can no longer do.
LEHRER: Clearly we're not going to resolve that one.Let's go to the substance of this. Senator Dodd, you heard what Senator Wallop says. What the House committee did today and what this action, if it goes any further, would be a serious blow to stability in Central America, which as you say, that's what you want; that's what everybody wants. But he says what you want is going to do just the opposite.
Sen. DODD: No, I totally disagree with that. I think in fact it's a move towards stability, provided it's coupled with other things. Let's just take it to its natural conclusion. Let's follow -- let's assume for a second, let's just assume that the administration in fact does want this guerrilla group, in addition to interdicting arms that may be coming -- may or may not be coming -- from Nicaragua to El Salvador, is also going to so harass the Sandinista government militarily and build up some support in the country that they do threaten their existence. The Sandinistas then say, "We're going to invite in help. We're being threatened. The United States clearly has acknowledged that it's helping these people; we want help. We're going to invite in the Cubans. And we know that the camps for these guerrillas are not only in Nicaragua, they're in Honduras, and we're going across the border to get them because we believe our sovereignty is in jeopardy." What do we do then? Now, here we are in that position. What is our response at that point? And that's not a totally unrealistic conclusion.
LEHRER: Congressman Young? The question has been asked, what is our response then?
Rep. YOUNG: What do we do? We have already brought in -- they have already brought in the Cuban advisers and PLO advisers and East German advisers --
Sen. DODD: What happens, Bill, if they go across the border? They're in Honduras now and they're attacking the Honduran army. Now what do we do? What's your next move?
Rep. MINETA: Well, the ante goes up, and I think that's the point. The cycle of violence keeps stepping up, and I think that's where we have to stop. Let's say they go into Honduras to get the guerrilla camps.
Rep. YOUNG: If some of the Sandinistas attack Honduras, the president of Honduras told us what he was going to do.
Sen. DODD: What's he going to do?
Rep. YOUNG: That he was going to defend the integrity of his nation.
Sen. DODD: And if he can't?
Rep. YOUNG: If he can't then he's got a problem, doesn't he?
Sen. DODD: What do we do?
Rep. YOUNG: Are we supposed to stand by --
Sen. DODD: What do we do at that point? What do we do?
Rep. YOUNG: What we should do is prevent it. Prevent it. Let's not allow the Sandinistas to expand their Marxist revolution by just sitting back and saying, "Okay, go ahead and do it."
Sen. DODD: You haven't answered my question, Bill. What do you do? They just crossed the Honduran border to go get the guerrilla camps that are challenging their sovereignty. They're at the United Nations; they've got the photographs and the proof: "Here are the people who are threatening our sovereignty." You say there are 2,000, 1,000, 3,000. Whether they can or cannot, the fact is that they can make the case they are threatening their sovereignty. They've crossed the Honduran border and they're going after those camps. The Hondurans can't handle them. What do we do?
Rep. YOUNG: I say we prevent it by exactly what's happening in Nicaragua today.
Rep. MINETA: By a military thrust?
Sen. WALLOP: That's not what's happening in Nicaragua today.
Rep. MINETA: Well, I think --
LEHRER: How would you answer the question?
Sen. WALLOP: My first answer is that what the House did today is more likely to achieve that result than what we are doing presently. First of all, by saying that we're going to give this aid overtly to Honduras or to any other country down there we're setting them up to declare war or go to war or defend themselves against Nicaragua.
Sen. DODD: To interdict weapons coming through their own country?
Sen. WALLOP: Absolutely. You are putting them into a position where they are going to have to defend against Nicaraguans as opposed to dealing with guerrilla bands whose sole purpose is to slow down the flow of arms from --
LEHRER: What do you say, Senator, to the point that both Congressman Mineta and Senator Dodd have made, that there's no evidence yet that any arms have actually been interdicted?
Sen. WALLOP: Well, they have the same evidence that I do, and I disagree. I just plainly -- we do have evidence, it has been presented to us.
Sen. DODD: Malcolm, do you doubt for one second that if there were boxes and caches of weapons the administration wouldn't be on television with that stuff?
Sen. WALLOP: I do doubt it because I know for a fact that we have. What Senator Dodd wants is instant perfection. We just started this program. We have been funding it at minimal kinds of levels, and all of a sudden we've created one which was the reason for the Boland Amendment in the first place. We have a program that is less than a year old of any stature, and now all of a sudden they want instant success, and it has had success.
Rep. MINETA: The presidential finding was made in December of 1981.
LEHRER: That the arms were flowing from Nicaragua to Honduras via El Salvador?
Rep. MINETA: And that we had to do something to --
Sen. WALLOP: And the first funding was in the '83 budget, of any consequence.
Rep. YOUNG: That's correct, and the operation in Nicaragua did not begin when that finding was agreed to in 1981, and I think that's the key. And I think we ought to admit that the interdiction effort has not been as successful as we would like. They're coming by land, they're coming by sea, they're coming by air. There's no question the interdiction effort has not been as successful as we would like. But now all of a sudden the Nicaraguans themselves are back in Nicaragua keeping the Sandinistas busy, and this is beginning to have an effect. The Sandinistas are beginning to feel it for the first time.
LEHRER: Congressman Mineta, what about the charge that Congressman Young made a moment ago, which is what you all did today -- your Democratic majority did -- was a terrific morale booster to the Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua and a negative morale booster for -- a negative morale factor for the government in El Salvador?
Rep. MINETA: Again, I -- you know, again this is one of these things where just philosophically we disagree. I don't think that that's the case at all, but what we are doing is removing it from the thrust of a military operation to try and deal with two things: one, first of all, let's recoginze, what is our public policy towards Central America? And then try to deal with the political, economic and social but not just continue this as a military thrust, and that's where we've been.
LEHRER: We have to leave it there. Robin?
MacNEIL: Senator Wallop, Senator Dodd, Congressman Young, Congressman Mineta, thank you for joining us. Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: That's all for tonight. We will be back tomorrow night. I'm Robert MacNeil. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Nicaragua -- Covert Ban?
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- Episode Description
- This episode's headline: Nicaragua -- Covert Ban?. The guests include Rep. NORMAN MINETA, Democrat, California; Rep. C. W. BILL YOUNG, Republican, Florida; Sen. CHRISTOPHER DODD, Democrat, Connecticut; Sen. MALCOLM WALLOP, Republican, Wyoming. Byline: In New York: ROBERT MacNEIL, Executive Editor; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; DAN WERNER, Producer; PATRICIA ELLIS, Reporter
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- Politics and Government
- Copyright NewsHour Productions, LLC. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode)
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Producing Organization: NewsHour Productions
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