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From Reagan to Obama: Secrecy and Covert Operations in the Fight against “Terrorism”

The The "Save the Contras" posters were part of short-lived fund-raising campaign by college Republicans in 1985. It came to a halt after "Save the Children," which it was mimicking, complained. [Congress' Iran Contra Depositions, v. 22, 855]

Ronald Reagan was the first American president to put “terrorism” at the heart of his foreign policy discourse. During his first term, Reagan did so mostly in reference to conflicts in Central America. In El Salvador, his administration presented US military aid as necessary to help the Salvadoran armed forces fight the “terrorist threat” posed by the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional, an umbrella group of leftist guerilla organizations). In neighboring Nicaragua, Reagan repeatedly accused the Sandinistas of supporting the “terrorist” FMLN and belonging to a Moscow-led “international terrorist network” bent on exporting “subversion” and “terrorism” throughout the region.

In Nicaragua, US policy followed the covert route, namely the provision of military aid to various anti-Sandinista groups collectively known as the Contras. Revelations in the press rapidly pulled Reagan’s “secret war” from the shadows and led many in Congress to question the program’s morality and legality. The Executive branch systematically met such inquiries with claims to secrecy. 

These debates highlight the difficulties involved in defining “terrorism” not in the abstract, but as applied to a specific conflict, especially one about which, as was the case with Nicaragua,  Democrats and Republicans were deeply divided. They also bear striking similarities to contemporary debates on the Obama administration’s policies of “targeted killings” or the provision of aid to the Syrian rebels. These debates were for the most never covered in the US press at the time. Consequently, this article is based on a study of the Congressional Record itself (A much more comprehensive version of this research can be found in my dissertation). This “hidden history” of Congressional debates over US covert policies in the first “war on terrorism” suggests historical parallels that may shed light on the present situation. 

In March, 1981, United Press International (UPI), the Washington Post and the New York Times published a series of articles revealing the existence of camps in California, Florida and New Jersey where Nicaraguan exiles trained with the explicit intent of overthrowing the Sandinista government. Senator Edward Zorinsky, a Democrat from New England, immediately insisted that “our allowance of terrorists training on US soil” was illegal under international law, and complained about the administration’s refusal to answer any questions on the issue: “When I ask for names and activities, I am told that is classified information.”

On 8 November 1982, Newsweek published “America’s Secret War - Target: Nicaragua,” a cover story describing the central role of US Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte in conducting what the New York Times would call two months later “The Worst-Kept Secret War.” Following these revelations, and with a strong, increasing majority of the American people forcefully opposed to any US involvement in the region, Congress decided to rein in the Executive branch and adopted the Boland Amendment, which banned any kind of support to a group or individual “for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of Nicaragua.”

On 4 April 1984, the Senate authorized further funding for the Contras, under the understanding that such monies would go solely to staunch the flow of weapons between Nicaragua and the FMLN, and not towards overthrowing the Sandinistas. Following the vote, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) proposed an amendment stipulating that “None of the funds appropriated under this heading may be made available, directly or indirectly, for planning, directing, executing, or supporting acts of terrorism in, over, or offshore from the territory of Nicaragua.”

Dodd suggested that the Senate use the State Department’s definition of “terrorism,” quoted speeches in which President Reagan had condemned various uses of force by Libya, Iran, the African National Congress (ANC) or the Salvadoran FMLN as “terrorist acts” and stated:

The Contras […] are paid with American dollars, armed with American weapons, and trained by American advisers. And they are systematically conducting operations which, under any other circumstances, we would routinely define as terrorism and vigorously condemn.[…] Are we going to have an office for combating terrorism in the State Department and an office for implementing terrorism at the CIA?

During these debates, Senator Warren Rudman, from New Hampshire, was the only Republican to take to the floor. He emphasized that the very secrecy of US policies in the region made it difficult for him to know much about the methods used by the Contras, and thus to determine whether they amounted to “terrorism”: “I have no personal knowledge, not being privileged to be a member of the Intelligence Committee, to give an authoritative answer, so I cannot answer the question.” 

The Republican Senator then engaged in a long exchange with Senator Paul Tsongas, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Tsongas had just gotten back from Nicaragua, where he and others had heard first hand testimonies documenting a series of killings of civilians by the Contras. Notably, he referred to the case of a doctor and a nurse who had been driving a jeep with clear Red Cross markings and whom the Contras had gunned down.

Rudman acknowledged that this was “a very horrible situation” and that “of course it is terrorism.” The fact that the Contras resorted to methods that fit the State Department’s definition of “terrorism” did not, however, lead him to support the Dodd amendment. To the contrary, the Republican Senator insisted that he would vote against the amendment precisely because it would in essence make it impossible to conduct any “covert operations”: 

With the kind of activity that is being engaged in in Central America on both sides, there will be instances, there have been instances, in which, I suppose, terrorism could well be defined. But there is no way to place a restriction with the kind of definition that is contained in this particular amendment on this appropriation and essentially allow any funding whatsoever.

The Dodd amendment was tabled by forty-seven votes to forty-three, mostly along party lines. Four days later, the CIA was revealed to have been directly involved in mining Nicaraguan harbors. Several boats had hit those mines, leading to several lives lost as well as severe material damage. 

The Contras had immediately claimed responsibility. For the Nicaraguan and Soviet governments, however, such actions bore the hallmarks of the CIA. In response, the State Department had drafted a statement noting that “anti-Sandinista forces have widely advertised that certain Nicaraguan ports have been mined,” and added: “We have no further information on the incident. We have received a protest from the Soviet Union charging US responsibility, and we reject that charge.”

However, Congressional and Administration sources revealed that the CIA had, in fact, been directly involved in laying mines in Nicaraguan harbors. This was made clear in a 2 March 1984 secret memorandum written by Oliver North: the agency had made “prior arrangements” asking the Contras to “take credit for the operation” to cover up its involvement. 

On 9 April the Senate adopted by a vote of eighty-four to twelve a resolution banning funding for such practices. Most Senators agreed that such acts violated international law, while many Democrats added that this operation was further proof of the “terrorist” nature of US policy in Nicaragua.

In the following weeks, representative of the Executive branch refused to give Congress any information regarding the extent of the CIA’s involvement in the region, repeatedly insisting that such issues had to be dealt with in “closed” session. Expressing the frustration of many of his colleagues, Jim Leach, a Republican from Iowa, argued that it was “not enough simply to say that these activities are accounted for in secret reporting to Congress on covert actions and that they may be funded by the CIA” and that the American public was not well served “by disingenuous comments that mask issues of war and peace.”

Following revelations that the Contras used so-called CIA “torture manuals,” on 3 October 1984 Senator Dodd re-offered his amendment. Confronted with several specific examples of attacks against civilians, Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, acknowledged that such acts did amount to “terrorism” and were indeed “terrorism” “in terms of our law,” but added: “But in terms of people fighting for their freedom, what they do in Afghanistan, is that done?” 

To Senator Stevens, what mattered was not whether the methods of the Contras amounted to “terrorism,” but that the United States be able to continue, in Nicaragua as in Afghanistan, to support “freedom fighters.” Senator Dodd rejected that logic, pointing out that this was precisely the logic followed by Yassir Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO):

That is the argument the PLO uses, that any act they engage in, no matter how many civilians die when they blow up a bus, that is a legitimate act. That is their argument, that it is not a terrorist act. The Senator from Alaska has just provided us with the kind of rationale they use. 

Senator Stevens did not reply to this critique. Rather, he explained that the Dodd amendment should be rejected because it would “send the GAO down to Nicaragua to stand beside a Contra to determine whether or not the dollars could be spent” and thus make it impossible for the United States to continue funding the Contras. Furthermore, he argued, this amendment would send the wrong message to the world, since it would imply that the United States had indeed supported “terrorism”: 

The impact of this amendment, if it were adopted, would be to send a message to the world that we have in fact been supporting terrorists, and we have not. That is not our goal. It is not our desire.

The Dodd amendment was defeated fifty-three to forty-five. Before the vote Senator Arlen Specter had explained his opposition with arguments similar to Stevens’s: 

There is no reasonable basis to conclude such acts of terrorism are contemplated by the executive branch. Therefore, such a prohibition casts an unwarranted aspersion on the executive branch. The United States is not known for and does not have a record of engaging in acts of terrorism.

Throughout Reagan’s first term, representatives of the Executive branch consistently refused, in public and “open” sessions, to answer questions related to the legality of US aid to the Contras, or to the exact nature of the latter’s methods. On 20 October 1984, only a few days after the Dodd amendment was defeated for the second time, the Miami Herald provided a rare glimpse into the kind of statements made during “closed” sessions: 

In late 1983, Duane Clarridge, the agent in charge of the covert war, admitted in a closed briefing of the House Intelligence Committee staff that the contras had killed “civilians and Sandinista officials in the provinces, as well as heads of cooperatives, nurses, doctors, and judges.” “After all,” Clarridge reportedly reasoned, “this is a war.” 

Away from the public gaze, officials were thus acknowledging that the Contras used methods amounting to “terrorism.” Reliance on covert operations and “secrecy” had led to a situation where parallel discourses, one public, the other secret, coexisted and profoundly weakened the ability of the citizenry and elected representatives to acquire basic facts.

The failure of the US news media to cover these issues at the time only made the situation worse. The debates on the Dodd amendment, for example, are of particular historical significance as they represent one of the very few instances when Republicans and Democrats publicly argued over the proper way to define “terrorism” not in the abstract but as it applied to a specific conflict involving the United States.

The US press, however, was almost completely silent about these debates. Consequently, the American public remained unaware of the existence of the proposed Dodd amendment; unaware of the remarkable extent to which many Democrats were willing to publicly state that forces funded by the US engaged in “terrorism”; unaware of how, when faced with testimony about specific acts by the Contras, every Republican Senator who took to the floor acknowledged that such methods amounted to “terrorism”; unaware that these Senators nonetheless voted against the proposed amendment; and unaware, crucially, of the impossibility of defining “terrorism” in a way that would include methods used by the United States’ enemies without also including those used by many of its allies.

To this day, these Congressional debates over the “definition of terrorism” have remained completely absent from scholarly accounts of US policies on Nicaragua. This applies also to great critical work on the media produced by Noam Chomsky and others, and which appears to have assumed that since no Democrats were quoted in the media as saying that the Contras were involved in “terrorism,” such a critique from Democrats must not have existed in the “real world” either. Finally, and just as is the case for its policies in El Salvador, discussion of the Reagan administration’s support for the Contras is also fully absent from the literature produced by “terrorism experts.”

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States’ “war on terrorism” has, to a great extent, been waged in the shadows. And it has, all too often, borne a close resemblance to some of its most troubling Cold War policies 

US practices in Salvador have apparently served as the template for the “counterinsurgency” campaign in Iraq in 2004, where the United States once again allied itself with “death squads,” thus deciding to fight “terrorism” with “terrorism.” 

The increasing centrality of assassinations and “targeted killings,” via drones or other military means, in President Obama’s “counterterrorism” policies also present troubling parallels to the past. When a missile strike in a small village in Al-Majalah, a region of south Yemen, in December 2009, reportedly killed forty-one people, including twenty-one children, President Saleh immediately claimed responsibility, insisting that his air force had struck an Al-Qaeda training camp. As in the case of the mining of Nicaragua’s harbor in 1984, a cable published by Wikileaks soon revealed the existence of a secret agreement between President Saleh and Washington aimed at covering up the US’s involvement. 

Pressure from human rights organizations and legal experts, as well as pushback from prominent members of Congress from both parties, has been slowly lifting the veil of secrecy covering such practices. Nonetheless, much of what the American people know continues to come from media accounts based on leaks from officials who, because they are unnamed and off-the-record, cannot be held accountable. Meanwhile, and despite repeated promises of greater transparency by President Obama himself, the Administration continues to hide behind expansive “state secrets” claims when pressed to make its case before the Courts – that is to say, in a context where it could, in fact, be held accountable for its policies. A Federal Judge pointedly referred to Alice in Wonderland to describe the problems created by this double discourse. 

Early in his second term, Reagan declared that “support for freedom fighters is self-defense.” This came to be known as the “Reagan Doctrine.” Early in Obama’s second term, arms provided by the CIA have just started to reach the “rebels” in Syria.

Most of the original Contras came from Somoza’s hated National Guard. As early as 1979 Argentina, fresh from waging its “Dirty War” against its own population, and then the United States became intimately involved in funding, training and arming these groups. In contrast, in Syria the struggle against the Baath regime started fully as a popular, indigenous movement. Any historical parallel is of course tentative, and imperfect. Nonetheless, remembering the fate of Reagan’s policies may provide insight into the current situation. 

In 1985, and following Congress’s decision to stop aid to the Contras, Reagan pursued this policy in secret. Soon, revelations that the proceeds of illegal weapons sales to Iran, a country on the State Department’s “terrorist list,” went to the Contras led to the “Iran-Contra” scandal. Meanwhile, and with fully bipartisan support, the CIA expanded its support for the “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, with long term consequences that are all too painfully resonant. 

In 2013 Syria, making sure that various forms of “aid,” whether of the lethal or non-lethal variety, whether from the CIA, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Turkey, is not reaching “extremists” is proving extremely arduous. Al-Nusra, a group tied to al-Qaeda and reportedly one of the most efficient in the fight against the Assad regime, has been designated by the State Department as a “foreign terrorist organization” so that any material support to its members would be against US law. Finally, International Law does not appear to allow for military aid to actors such as the Syrian opposition

In his 1995 autobiography Dreams from My Father, Barak Obama had strong words for President Reagan and what he called his “dirty deeds.” In 2011 however, President Obama openly praised Reagan’s “leadership in the world” and his “gift for communicating his vision of America.” As documented here, many of Reagan’s policies were in fact veiled in secrecy, protected by prevarication and often outright lies. They were illegal, immoral, and ultimately led to serious blowback. More than President Obama’s words, it is the fact that some of his policies have come to so closely resemble President Reagan’s that should trouble his supporters, as well as Democrats in Congress. It should also lead them to pressure their Commander in Chief, so that he may yet choose a more open, more democratic and less violent path.

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