While Lt. Col. Oliver North dominates media coverage of the Iran-contra investigation, top contra leaders say that the United States official who was, and continues to be, most involved in the day-to-day management of the contras remains veiled in the background. He is Alan Fiers, head of the Central Intelligence Agency's Central American task force. According to informed sources, Mr. Fiers oversees on a daily basis what many contra, congressional, and administration analysts term the ``CIA's management'' of the contras and the administration's contra program.
Fiers is said to have reported directly to the late William Casey, the director of the CIA until shortly before Mr. Casey's recent death.
Until recently, when Fiers's name began to appear in the press, contra leaders knew him only as a mysterious CIA official code-named ``Cliff.''
``He was the stage manager of the whole operation,'' a top contra says, ``the man who got everything done. At the top levels of the contras, most of the help was channeled through `Cliff' - the arms, the money, the logistical problems, aid for setting up newspapers and radio stations, funds for political action, everything. He was the real thing.
``Most of all, he was our political manager,'' this contra source adds. ``He tried to keep us in line politically with [the Reagan administration's] policy, and in the end was the best ally of both the US and Nicaraguan ultra right in blocking contra reform.''
During much of the time Fiers allegedly worked with the contras, the Boland amendment barred aid to the rebels by US intelligence agencies.
In testimony before the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair, Lewis Tambs, a former US ambassador to Costa Rica, identified Fiers as a member of a three-member Restricted Interagency Group (RIG) that allegedly ran the covert contra resupply operation. Mr. Tambs identified the other members of the RIG as Colonel North and US Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. Secretary Abrams, however, last week denied Tambs's characterization of the RIG and its purpose.
Attempts to contact Fiers at his home and through the CIA for comments on this story were unsuccessful.
Knowledgeable sources, both among the contras and in the US, say the congressional hearings are disclosing what most insiders knew all along - that the CIA actually had more influence in organizing and running the overall contra operation than Colonel North did. And, sources say, while Mr. Casey (and the White House above him) gave general directions on the operation, the man who directed the field operations, the man who was plunged into the midst of wheeling and dealing among the various contra factions, the man who not only carries out but also made policy, was Alan Fiers.
And today, according to contra leaders still active in the movement, with North out of the picture and Mr. Abrams under fire in Congress, it is still ``Cliff'' or his subordinates whom they contact when they want something done.
Fiers's rise to power in Central American affairs has been relatively recent. He was named chief of the CIA's Central American task force in the fall of 1984, though he had no previous experience in Latin America.
Fiers has spent roughly 20 years with the CIA. He started off, according to one US analyst, in South Asia, and with the exception of a tour of duty in Washington, spent most of his time after that (10 to 12 years) in Turkey and the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, where, according to US sources, he probably served as CIA station chief.
He speaks almost no Spanish, according to contras he deals with, and to many of these Nicaraguans it is a mystery why Casey plucked Fiers out of the Middle East and put him into the top Central American job.
`Frontal approach' to problems
But US sources close to the situation say it is not surprising that the administration would find it useful to have in Central America someone with Fiers's Saudi Arabian connections and experience at a time when the Saudis were going to become one of the main foreign suppliers of aid to the contras.
Other US observers who know him stress that Fiers was seen by Casey as a man who ``got things done, a man who took a frontal approach to a situation, but at the same time, a real professional.''
Fiers's ``frontal approach'' may have first developed on the football team of Ohio State University. During his CIA years, US sources say, Fiers often referred with pride to the training he got under famed football coach Woody Hayes.
Fiers later joined the Marines. This proved to be another toughening experience, which he often referred to during his agency years.
But an American source who knows him says that ``Fiers was no [wild] guerrilla.'' As another American observer puts it, ``Of all the US crowd involved in the underground contra effort, Fiers was the craftiest and wiliest of the whole bunch.''
``Everyone,'' this observer continues, ``imagines that Ollie North was top dog in the contra effort. What they don't realize is that, to begin with, this was basically a CIA show, and second, most of the time Fiers, who is much slier than North, was able to manipulate Ollie into doing what he wanted.''
And what Fiers most wanted, knowledgeable sources agree, was to protect the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the main contra military force, and its leader, Adolfo Calero.
`Cliff's' preference for military solution
According to one American close to the situation who knew both ``Cliff'' and the contra leadership, ```Cliff' sees communists as being the same all over, whether in Asia or in Latin America. He thinks the only solution is to fight them militarily. He does not see a political dimension, although he speaks about it often.
``He never understood that the FDN leadership consisted of a `Somocista' and oligarchical clique unacceptable to most Nicaraguans,'' the American says. ```Cliff' was only interested in the military force, and he had a good relationship with Calero, who had a longstanding relationship with the CIA which dated back to Nicaragua even before the Sandinistas took power.
```Cliff' wouldn't do anything that he thought might weaken the military force,'' the source continues, ``so contra reform was never anything he was comfortable with, although he spoke about it when he was together with liberal contras. But [contra leaders Arturo] Cruz and [Alfonso] Robelo were never part of the main game for him. They were simply needed for other purposes, diplomatic and congressional, and because of that, they had to be manipulated and to some extent appeased.''
One prominent contra leader also charges that Fiers made promises about contra reform he had no intention of keeping. ``All of us who wanted to reform were manipulated from the beginning. `Cliff' pretended to mediate in our internal struggles, but he used his mediating offers as tools of manipulation. He spoke at length of the need for reform and let it die.''
Keeping Arturo Cruz on board
This view is also taken by an American source close to the situation who has never been identified with either the liberal or conservative wings of the contra movement. ``When `Cliff' came in '84, he first helped destroy Ed'en Pastora, whom the CIA no longer trusted. Then later, after the creation of UNO [the Unified Nicaraguan Opposition, a contra umbrella group formed in June 1985] and the issue of contra reform came up, each time Cruz and Elliott [Abrams] pushed for a reform, his tactic would be to say yes to Elliott and make long speeches agreeing with Cruz, and then to sit back and let Calero and the FDN leadership, which he could have controlled had he wanted to, block everything.''
According to one contra leader, in time Fiers wanted to replace Cruz with contra leaders Fiers thought would be more manageable than Cruz.
But until mid-1986, according to this leader, Fiers wanted Cruz to stay on board, believing that was essential for garnering congressional support for the contras. Fiers, this source says, did everything possible to placate Cruz, making promises of reform and also attempting to influence the Nicaraguan through his two most trusted US advisers, Bruce Cameron, a prominent liberal lobbyist, and Robert Leiken, a frequent writer on Nicaraguan affairs then with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Cruz, who resigned from the contra leadership in March, says that Mr. Cameron and Mr. Leiken played a role in his decision to remain in the contra leadership as long as he did. ``However,'' Cruz adds, ``I have to take the main responsibility myself. My basic mistake was agreeing to join UNO in the first place. UNO never had anything more than a paper existence, and the Reagan administration never wanted it to be anything more than that. UNO was born dead, and for that reason today it is a corpse.''
According to a knowledgeable US observer, Fiers's power base may not last for many more months. ``In the view of many people at the [congressional] investigating committees, Fiers has clearly overstepped the boundaries of the Boland amendment, and he will probably eventually pay for that with his job,'' the observer says.