Congress' investigation of the Iran- contra scandal Wednesday revealed a previously secret program that sent CIA paramilitary agents into the battlefield with the army of El Salvador, U.S. officials said.
Notes made by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, then a White House aide, revealed that the CIA ran a program of long-range reconnaissance patrols--daring, small-unit expeditions into territory held by leftist Salvadoran guerrillas--until 1985.
"I thought that was a classified program," North protested when House chief counsel John W. Nields Jr. read parts of his notes aloud during the public hearing. "It has nothing to do with the Nicaraguan resistance."
North himself made another unexpected disclosure during the hearing: He said CIA Director William J. Casey believed that the government of Honduras diverted U.S. foreign aid funds to buy weapons--which the Hondurans then intended to sell to the contras for a profit.
North said Casey warned him to keep his secret arms-buying operation for the contras at arm's length from the Honduran-sponsored arms brokers because of "potential adverse consequences"--presumably meaning the uproar that would ensue if U.S. economic aid funds were used to buy weapons for the rebels.
U.S. officials said they could not confirm that Honduras had used economic aid funds to buy the weapons, but they acknowledged that the issue has been under investigation.
A group of Honduran military officers and American arms brokers bought several million dollars worth of weapons and stored them in a warehouse near Tegucigalpa in hopes of selling them to the contras, whose main bases are in Honduras, the officials said.
"Casey, in particular, was very concerned about the source of their monies," North testified. "At one point, he apprised me that he was concerned that that Central American country might have diverted ESF monies--U.S. economic support funds--to the military, to purchase the arms that went in that warehouse. And so he told me that there shouldn't be any further transactions with that broker."
Officials said it would be illegal for Honduras to use ESF funds to buy weapons.
In the covert program in El Salvador, officials said the CIA organized and led special Salvadoran Army anti-guerrilla units to track the leftist rebels who have been fighting to overthrow the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government.
The use of CIA officers to train the units--known as "Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols," or "LRRPs"--allowed the Reagan Administration to secretly exceed its publicly declared limit of 55 American military advisers in El Salvador, two officials said.
The CIA agents were also allowed to accompany the units into the field, they said, unlike U.S. military advisers, who are under orders to stay out of harm's way.
Officials said the CIA program could have caused a major political flap had it been exposed before 1984, when U.S. military aid to El Salvador was highly controversial.
However, Congress' intelligence committees were informed of the operations at the time and did not object, Administration and congressional sources said.
"They were spectacularly successful," one official said. "Their mission was to infiltrate deep inside guerrilla territory, find the guerrillas and call in aircraft to hit the targets."
It could not be determined how many CIA officers were involved in the covert program, or whether any had been directly involved in battle. Long-range reconnaissance patrols normally attempt to avoid contact with the enemy so that they can continue moving undetected through hostile territory, one official said.
As the Salvadoran Army gained expertise in anti-guerrilla operations, the CIA phased out its program and turned over its advisory functions to the U.S. military group in El Salvador in 1985, the officials said. They said that the military advisers do not accompany Salvadoran patrols into the field.
Nields disclosed the operation when he read North's notes of a 1985 conversation with Gen. Paul Gorman, then commander of the U.S. armed forces' Southern Command, which directs military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.