U.S. Error Seen in Not Openly Aiding Contras

Associated Press

The top State Department official for Latin American policy said in a farewell interview released Tuesday that the Reagan Administration made a mistake in making its aid to Nicaraguan guerrillas a clandestine rather than an open operation.

Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state, also said the Administration should have defined more clearly the goal of its Nicaraguan policy and perhaps should have considered invading the Central American nation.

Aides to President-elect George Bush have said the new Administration will adopt a new approach to Nicaragua. A diplomatic solution will be sought before asking for more military aid to the Contras, who have been battling the leftist Sandinista government, they indicated.


Abrams, a leading Administration spokesmen for U.S. aid to the Contras, has been admitting privately for several years that aspects of the policy were mistaken, and he has acknowledged it in recent interviews.

In an interview with the magazine Policy Review, published by the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, Abrams acknowledged that “you can argue that a mistake was made in going for covert aid for the Contras.”

‘Wrong Idea’

“Most Americans have the wrong idea about covert activity. They think that if we weren’t ashamed of what we were doing, we’d do it publicly, when in fact our reason for secrecy is to protect third parties,” he said.

“As a result of this misunderstanding, when our covert aid to the Contras was publicized, the effort was somewhat tainted.”

From the outset, he said, President Reagan should have told the American people “ . . . ‘we cannot have a Communist government in Nicaragua,’ and done whatever was needed to get rid of it, including a naval blockade or possibly even an invasion.”

“We shouldn’t have started out saying that our main purpose was to interdict supplies for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador,” Abrams said. “Instead, we should have said it was to get rid of a Communist government and to permit democratic institutions to grow in Nicaragua.”

Although the Administration made some errors, said Abrams, “we never made the mistake of misunderstanding the Sandinistas and their goals, and we never made the mistake of not knowing what was at stake in Nicaragua.”

‘Left-Wing Caucus’

The same cannot be said for House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), he said, describing him as “one of the leaders of the left-wing caucus of the House Democrats.”

Wright helped sponsor a plan that called for reduced aid to the Contras in return for promises from the Sandinistas that they would democratize their nation. Military aid to the Contras ended, but critics say the Sandinistas have not relaxed their oppression of the opposition.

“Wright bet all his money on the Sandinistas and, ultimately, painted himself into a corner where it became critical for him to defend their behavior,” said Abrams.