Retired Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub has stood in the public spotlight as the chief American fund-raiser for the rebels fighting to topple Nicaragua's leftist regime ever since Congress cut off the contras' U.S. military aid in 1984.
But the real action was not in the spotlight at all, Reagan Administration officials and rebel sources now say. The colorful Singlaub, whose dogged fund-raising efforts yielded relatively modest results, actually played a double role: He led the public relations charge for private aid to the contras, but he also served as a front to divert attention away from other, more clandestine supply lines.
It was a role the Administration, the contras and their secret backers all exploited. And it was a role that Singlaub, a veteran of clandestine operations since World War II, was happy to play to the hilt.
'Willing Fall Guy'
"I was willing to be the fall guy," Singlaub said in an interview Sunday, "both to take the heat as far as the media were concerned and to help keep the other guys out of the limelight."
A knowledgeable U.S. official said he did not believe that the Administration initially planned to use Singlaub to conceal other secret supply systems. "But it was certainly useful to have him out there drawing all the attention," he acknowledged.
"He was used," one of Singlaub's associates said more bluntly. "They (the Administration) let us work our tails off, but they gave us no support. The only support went to CIA people like Max Gomez."
Gomez, whose real name is reported to be Felix Rodriguez, has been identified by several sources as the chief of the contras' air supply operation in El Salvador, which lost a cargo plane to Nicaraguan anti-aircraft fire last week.
Bay of Pigs
Gomez, a Cuban-American who fought in the CIA's failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, reportedly worked for the agency at least as recently as the 1970s. He is no longer on the CIA payroll, Administration officials said.
Gomez reported his activities to Vice President George Bush, and Bush approved of them, knowledgeable sources said last week. Bush confirmed on Saturday that he had met Gomez three times, but he has refused to say what their relationship was.
Singlaub did succeed in raising several million dollars for the rebels, assembling a small fleet of supply planes in Honduras and putting the contras in touch with foreign donors who could supply them with weapons.
But as a source of arms and ammunition for the growing rebel army, he now appears to have been less important to the contras than was a secret network of ex-CIA officials, foreign governments and arms dealers that has operated with the knowledge and approval of the White House but out of public view.
That network has still been only partially revealed. But contra officials and Administration sources say it included the governments in Honduras and El Salvador; members of the Cuban-American community in Miami; one or more private donors from Saudi Arabia, and a retired air force general with CIA connections, Richard Secord.
During the last year, when reporters asked Administration officials and rebel leaders about their sources of supplies, they were often directed to Singlaub. As recently as last week, when the contras' cargo plane was shot down over Nicaragua and three of its four crew members were killed, Administration officials suggested to reporters that Singlaub might have been behind the flight.
That drew an angry denial from Singlaub, who has never shied away from claiming credit for supplying the contras in the past.
"I had nothing to do with that operation," he said. "I just wish I had been in charge of it. I would have done it right. If I had done it, that plane would not have gone down with all that evidence that the Sandinistas have been using to bash us with."
Singlaub had another reason to distance himself from the Nicaraguan crash: The Internal Revenue Service has been investigating his fund-raising group, the U.S. Council for World Freedom, to see whether it has violated its tax-free status by engaging in the arms trade.
"When someone accuses me of something illegal, and something that I'm not doing, that doesn't enhance my reputation with the IRS," Singlaub said.
In fact, the general said, he was never properly briefed on Max Gomez's operations at El Salvador's main military air base, Ilopango.
Singlaub said he has met several times with CIA Director William J. Casey over the last two years, but whenever the subject of Nicaragua came up, Casey would say: "Jack, I can't even talk about it."
"He's been treated like a pariah," one of Singlaub's aides fumed.
The Reagan Administration has actually intervened to scuttle some operations undertaken by Singlaub on the contras' behalf, the general's aides said.
Israeli Help Sought
Several months ago, said one source, Singlaub traveled to Israel to lobby government and military officials there for aid to the contras.
"The Administration blocked it," he said, referring to the attempt to get Israeli help. "We were locked out."
And earlier this year, Singlaub persuaded former Sandinista hero Eden Pastora to join with the U.S.-backed rebel groups for the first time--only to see the CIA woo Pastora's followers away and an angry Pastora quit the battle.
So Singlaub, an unabashed believer in President Reagan's doctrine of helping anti-Communist rebels overseas, is angry at Reagan's Administration. But he has not abandoned his cause; he says he will continue raising money for the contras, and he attended a fund-raising dinner in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday.
But what Singlaub really wants, he said, is for Congress to send its promised $100-million aid package to the contras--and use some of that money to buy the equipment and supplies he has amassed for the rebels during the last two years.
"I'd like to take the proceeds and send them to some of the other anti-Communist rebellions out there," he said. "Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia. There are plenty of people who need the help."