The Consortium

By Robert Parry

WASHINGTON -- The CIA official who engineered the covert war in Nicaragua has disclosed that an original goal of the operation was to "start killing Cubans" who were aiding the leftist Sandinista government.

In his new book, A Spy for All Seasons, former CIA official Duane Clarridge acknowledges that "my plan, stated so bluntly, undoubtedly sounds harsh." But Clarridge defends the bloody objective as necessary to protect inhabitants of neighboring El Salvador from supposed Sandinista-sponsored massacres.

"Ask the Salvadoran civilians who watched their villages burn and their children die what harsh is," argues Clarridge in justifying the contra war. "The Sandinistas were literally getting away with murder because no one could find a politically acceptable way to stop them."

Clarridge recounts that his Cuban-killing plan "was exactly what [CIA director William J.] Casey wanted to hear. A smile broke across his rumpled countenance as he asked me to produce a Presidential Finding to cover and fund this operation. He knew as well as I did that the idea of killing Cubans was part bravado and part pandering to [Secretary of State Alexander] Haig and his supporters."

The formal finding, signed by President Reagan in November 1981, stated that the reason for supporting the Nicaraguan contra rebels was to interdict arms shipments from Nicaragua to leftist insurgents in El Salvador. Nothing was said about killing Cubans or another unwritten goal of the covert operation: to overthrow the Sandinistas militarily.

That finding would be only the first in a long line of half-truths that the Reagan administration would tell about the contra war. But Clarridge's new Cuban-killing admission seems to implicate senior U.S. officials in activities bordering on international terrorism and possibly a violation of U.S. policy prohibiting involvement in assassinations.

Inside Nicaragua, Cubans associated with Fidel Castro's government apparently were singled out for death, without regard for their civilian or diplomatic status. In 1982, for instance, a Defense Intelligence Agency report stated that a Honduran-based contra force had engaged in the "assassination of minor [Nicaraguan] government officials and a Cuban adviser."

Five years later, a contra unit ambushed American relief worker, Benjamin Linder, while he and other colleagues worked on a water project. According to forensic specialists, Linder was first wounded and then executed at on a water project. The contras defended their actions by claiming that they thought Linder was Cuban.

It is not clear exactly how many Cubans did die in the contra war. But the contra cause did attract a number of violent anti-Castro Cuban-Americans. One anti-Castro Cuban exile, Luis Posada, ran Oliver North's secret U.S. contra supply operation out of El Salvador's Ilopango airport in 1986, even though Posada was a fugitive from Venezuelan charges that he had masterminded the mid-air explosion of a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976. [For details, see The Consortium, Jan. 6, 1997]

Switching the Villains

Despite a few frank admissions, Clarridge's autobiography continues a pattern of former Reagan administration officials rationalizing their actions in Central America in self-serving memoirs.

Typical of the distortions is Clarridge's argument that the contra war was justified because the Sandinistas were responsible for burning down Salvadoran villages and killing Salvadoran children. In fact, it was the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military that carried out those scorched-earth campaigns and the slaughter of thousands of Salvadoran civilians with suspected leftist sympathies.

In December 1981, for example, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion swept through northeast El Salvador. Around the town of El Mozote, the troops rounded up about 800 unarmed peasants of all ages. The Atlacatl soldiers first massacred the men, then the women and finally the children, some of whom were bludgeoned and then burned alive.

When evidence of the El Mozote butchery leaked out in stories published by The New York Times and The Washington Post in March 1982, the Reagan administration sought to discredit the information and the journalists. Not until 1991, when a United Nations forensic team excavated the site and found hundreds of skeletons, was the reality of the El Mozote massacre confirmed.

Yet, even as Clarridge misrepresents who was behind these Salvadoran atrocities on one page, he does acknowledge on another that "the people then in power in El Salvador were an unsavory collection of rightist cutthroats with an abominable record on human rights," a concession the Reagan administration would not have made in the early 1980s.

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his CIA director, William J. Casey, wanted an aggressive, seasoned intelligence officer to oversee a U.S. strategy to quell a leftist revolutionary surge in Central America. Duane Clarridge, known to his friends as "Dewey," was regarded as just such a can-do guy. He had a flamboyant reputation, dressed loudly, smoked cigars, enjoyed red wine and took as his second wife a stunning German woman whom he met on an espionage assignment in Turkey.

Stopping Leftists

In early 1981, Casey promoted Clarridge from Rome station chief to head of the Latin American division. At the time, the Sandinista revolution was nearly two years old and was steering that country in a socialistic direction. In solidarity with this new leftist regime, hundreds of Cubans flocked to Nicaragua to assist in a variety of projects, from military advice to medical service, from intelligence training to teaching literacy and building public works projects.

A war also was raging in nearby El Salvador, where a right-wing military dictatorship had turned to "death squad" tactics to stop political gains by leftist politicians and Catholic "liberation theologians." The Sandinistas provided safe haven and logistical support for some Salvadoran leftist guerrillas who had taken up arms. Nicaragua became a sanctuary, too, for Argentine leftists who were escaping military "death squads" that had terrorized that South American nation since the mid-1970s.

In his memoirs, Clarridge cites the Sandinistas' harboring of these "terrorists" as important justification for the contra war. He also notes that by 1981, the Argentine intelligence services already had started training a ragtag band of 500 contras in Honduras, as retaliation for the Sandinista protection of Argentine leftists.

The little force first coalesced as the 15th of September Legion under the leadership of a former National Guard officer, Col. Enrique Bermudez. It then merged with another tiny contra force and became the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense, or FDN, also headed by Bermudez.

"Our intelligence told us that the Legion, now the FDN, was being trained, advised and equipped by a small group of Argentines from the Argentine Military Intelligence Directorate," Clarridge writes.

But Clarridge omits an important fact about the 15th of September Legion. In a secret 1982 report, the DIA denounced the Legion as "a terrorist group" which had hijacked a plane in Costa Rica and planted a bomb which exploded at the international airport in Managua. The DIA also reported that the Legion engaged in the practice of assassinations against Sandinista and Cuban targets.

The original contras had other political problems, Claridge recogized. Many came from the defeated National Guard of deposed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was a villain to many Nicaraguans. Still, with Reagan's enthusiastic approval, Clarridge threw himself into the job of whipping the Honduran-based FDN into a more effective military and political force. Using the pseudonym, "Maroni," Clarridge also traveled to Costa Rica to recruit disillusioned Sandinista hero Eden Pastora to the CIA's side.

'Our Guerrillas'

Back in Washington, the contra war captured Reagan's imagination like few other government projects did. "When it came to foreign policy, especially Central America, he was right there and right on top of it," Clarridge writes. "Over time, our guerrillas really became his boys."

Contrary to the current media spin questioning whether the CIA directed the contras, Clarridge presents himself as a kind of frenetic acrobat handling one contra crisis after the another: picking leaders, planning strategy and holding the army together with the sheer force of his personal will.

"Looking back, I sometimes wonder how I managed to keep so many balls in the air at the same time," Clarridge writes. "I was frequently in Honduras, trying to keep all of the antagonistic factions from ripping the operation apart."

Over the first two years of the CIA's covert war, the contras swelled in number, but never got beyond the military tactic of rampaging through villages along the Honduran border. In their attacks, the contras earned a grisly reputation for torture, rape, murder and the mutilation of victims. Befitting their Argentine trainers, the contras often acted more like a death squad than an army.

Even as Reagan hailed the contras as "freedom fighters," the White House grew worried about the war's lack of progress. According to a secret CIA timetable drafted around the time of the presidential finding, the spy agency's paramilitary experts had foreseen the contras marching into Managua by late 1983. But by early that year, the administration tossed out that optimistic forecast as "pie-in-the-sky," one senior U.S. intelligence official told me.

With growing impatience, Reagan and Casey pressed Clarridge for more clear-cut results. After one White House meeting about the need to destroy Sandinista aircraft, Clarridge recalls: "President Reagan pulled me aside and asked, 'Dewey, can't you get those vandals of yours to do this job.'"

In response, Clarridge began substituting direct CIA operations for contra attacks. The CIA bought a freighter for use as a "mother ship" which carried two attack helicopters and two high-speed "cigarette boats" which were modified with additional armor and retrofitted with guns.

From this "mother ship," CIA launched teams of so-called "unilaterally controlled Latino assets" or UCLAs -- commandos from other nations -- in attacks against commercial centers along the Nicaraguan coast. The seaport town of Corinto was set ablaze by the CIA's shelling of an oil depot. The contras' role was limited to falsely claiming credit for the attacks.

The Mining Brainstorm

But Casey and Reagan wanted more results, and a harried Clarridge was wracking his brains in January 1984. "I arrived home from the Agency early enough for once to do something other than fall into bed," Clarridge writes. "I remember sitting with a glass of gin on the rocks, smoking a cigar (of course), and pondering my dilemma, when it hit me. Sea mines were the solution. ...To this day I wonder why I didn't think of it sooner."

When Clarridge shared his brainstorm about mining Nicaragua's harbors with other Reagan insiders, he recalled that the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Soon, the CIA's UCLAs were salting the international sea lanes through Nicaragua's harbors with explosive mines. When Sandinista defense forces fired on one CIA boat, the CIA's attack helicopters swooped into action, firing rockets at Nicaraguan coastal batteries.

As with the earlier raids, the contras were assigned only a public relations role. The CIA ordered FDN spokesmen to take credit for the mining operations and to warn foreign ships away from delivering supplies to the ports.

But the mining didn't succeed in frightening off all commercial shipping, as Clarridge had hoped. Many freighters simply ignored the warnings and plowed ahead into the harbors. The CIA's mines began exploding and damaging ships from around the world. In an undeclared war, the United States had taken to endangering crewmen and cargo in international commerce. A political furor erupted and an angry Congress stopped all CIA assistance to the contras.

Still, Clarridge and his comrades saw nothing wrong with what they had done. "We were proud of the mining," Clarridge writes. Apparently carried away by the excitement of war, Clarridge and his colleagues felt it was Congress and the international community that had gone nuts. The World Court would eventually rule that the United States had broken international law with the mining and other attacks. It was the only time Washington ever faced such condemnation.

But the administration was not about to back down. Within a few months, responsibility for the contra war secretly was passed to one of Clarridge's friends, Oliver North of the National Security Council staff. Clarridge was transferred to a senior CIA job at headquarters, chief of the European division. The stage was set for a new act in the Nicaraguan drama.

Copyright (c) 1997

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