Cluttered Trail in Nicaragua

Among the many witnesses expected to testify during the course of Congress' hearings into the Iran/ contra arms scandal, Robert W. Owen was not initially regarded as a major actor. But, as has happened before with minor characters in big scandals, he has provided details about a covert operation that reached from darkened street corners into the White House itself.

A young conservative activist, Owen described how he moved back and forth between working officially for the Reagan Administration and serving unofficially as Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's courier to the contra rebels in Nicaragua, taking them everything from money to maps to medicine to arms.

As Owen described them, his adventures ranged from serious to almost comical--helping CIA agents in Costa Rica find the site for a secret airstrip that would be used to supply the contras on one day; flying to New York City another day to pick up a $9,500 donation for the contras in a Chinese grocery store from a mysterious man who pulled the cash out of his sock.

The elaborate game was very exciting, to hear Owen tell it. Exciting but illegal--intended to help overthrow a government with which the United States is officially at peace, and in direct violation of a congressional resolution, the Boland Amendment, that was supposed to force the Administration to keep its hands off Nicaragua.

While insisting that the Boland Amendment did not apply to him as a private citizen, Owen conceded in his testimony that North was nervous about the implications of their clandestine activities on behalf of the contras. "There were a couple of occasions when we would laugh and joke about (going to jail)," Owen told the committee. Nobody's laughing now, though.

Like the commentators for National Public Radio, which is providing thorough coverage of the Iran/contra hearings, we were struck by the similarity between Owen's testimony and the colorful detail provided by another minor character early during the Watergate hearings, Anthony T. Ulasewicz. A retired New York police detective who acted as a bagman for the Nixon Administration's plumbers unit, Ulasewicz was regarded as little more than comic relief when he testified before the Senate Select Committee. But the colorful activities he described at street-level would, ultimately, help bring down a President.

Owen helped illustrate the obsession Reagan and other Administration officials had with helping the contras, despite the objections of Congress and most of the American public.

We may yet learn of more questionable, and even illegal, activities that were spawned by their arrogant abuse of power.

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