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?”