ONE of the issues central to the Iran-contra hearings is that of the congressional review of covert action. Rear Adm. John Poindexter, Lt. Col. Oliver North and, undoubtedly, William Casey, shared the view that effective covert action was impossible if Congress was informed. Hence they sought means to avoid congressional oversight, an effort that led directly to the diversion of funds to the contras. To meet this problem, perhaps a distinction needs to be made between types of covert action. Undoubtedly in this and previous administrations, small-scale clandestine actions in support of a democratic political party, an individual, a press, or a specific event have been taken with appropriate congressional notification and without disclosure.
To consider that large-scale military operations supported by the United States can similarly pass without disclosure is highly unrealistic. If one among several hundred in a military force does not talk voluntarily, ubiquitous reporters will come upon them. In a force such as the Nicaraguan contras, where conflict exists among the leaders, vulnerability to disclosure is even greater.
Large-scale actions supported and, as in the case of the contras, organized by the US inevitably involve US equipment and military advisers. Foreigners are encouraged by the US to risk their lives. Especially in Central America, the ultimate possibility of the use of US troops to achieve an objective cannot be ruled out. Every reason exists to base US support and involvement upon consultation with Congress and broad public consensus. In a day when the US fights wars by proxy, a decision to support a force in another country is, perhaps, the modern equivalent of a declaration of war. The Constitution clearly puts this power in the hands of Congress.
Supporters of aid to guerrilla movements, however, will argue that the decision on such issues should rest with the executive and that to proceed only after a public discussion and clear evidence of support needlessly ties the American hand in its global struggle with the Soviets and risks endangering cooperative allies and individuals. But this has not been the case with US assistance to the Afghan resistance, because broad support exists for such help. The question of aid to elements of the Cambodian resistance was fought out in the Congress and is not now an issue. Although opposition exists in the country to aid to Jonas Savimbi in Angola, after open debate that help, too, has been approved. Each of these cases suggests that public knowledge of US support does not make support impossible. What is important is that reasonable efforts are made to protect the methods and channels by which aid is delivered.
To proceed on the basis that public disclosure and congressional review can be avoided is to create exactly the kind of circumstances that have been at the heart of the contra problem: vacillations by a Congress uneasy about the project but unwilling to kill it, uncertain commitments to the contras themselves, and the temptation within the National Security Council to circumvent the congressional intent if not the laws.
The seeds of the contra diversion issue lie not in the steps taken by the NSC in 1985 but in the decision of the administration in 1981 to assist, in cooperation with former Somocistas and the Argentine military regime, to organize a resistance force in Nicaragua. Presumably, a very general covert action finding was made and submitted to the appropriate committees of the Congress, but little evidence exists to suggest that a full review of the pros and cons took place at that time. The intended value of the requirement that Congress be notified of covert actions is that an administration, if it is listening, can be warned by perceptive politicians in the Congress of domestic pitfalls. If the warning was given at the time the action began in 1981, it was not heeded.
The Reagan doctrine calls for military support to movements opposing regimes considered to be under Marxist-Leninist influence. Many in the US are skeptical about this approach, in particular, about the democratic nature of some of the movements supported by the administration. If the President, however, believes such support to be in the US national interest, the proposals should be given a full review.
In such a review, Congress and the executive should face squarely the impossibility of maintaining the secrecy of US support for a guerrilla movement. To do so would not remove the possibility of continuing to undertake, after appropriate secret consultations with congressional select committees, covert actions on a lesser scale.