Comandos: The CIA and Nicaragua’s Contra Rebels
Executive Report 10219 on the Nomination of Robert M. Gates to be Director of Central Intelligence
The sixty-four senators who voted to confirm Robert Gates as the fifteenth director of the CIA had to dismiss a lengthy catalog of mistakes and misjudgments attributed to him. Among them were his belief that the Soviet Union was behind the attempted assassination of the Pope; his exaggerated sense of Soviet ambitions in the third world; his excessive estimate of the strength of the Soviet economy; his failure to perceive the strength of the Soviet reformers; his conviction that Moscow had designs on Iran; his willingness to share intelligence with Iraq; his meddling in an intelligence estimate on Mexico; his faulty memory on the diversion of funds to the contras; his abrasive personality and autocratic style of management; his contribution to the growing sense of malaise and tension within the agency; and more generally, his part in politicizing and slanting the intelligence reports that were circulated to policy makers in Washington.
At first glance, it would seem hard to hold the Senate Intelligence Committee responsible for Gates’s confirmation. In contrast to the fractious, bumbling performance of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, the hearings on Gates seemed a model of informed inquiry. The committee reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed hundreds of witnesses, including eighty intelligence analysts. Gates testified for four full days, responding to almost nine hundred oral questions and one hundred more in writing. The committee’s summary report on the nomination, a remarkably dense and detailed document, runs to 225 pages. Not since 1975, when the Church Committee investigated the CIA’s assassination plots, has the agency been so closely scrutinized, and never before has its day-to-day intelligence-gathering process been so thoroughly examined.
Often, though, the proceedings had an unreal air about them. For all the important revelations about distorted data and slanted intelligence, the panel left untouched many of the CIA’s most important activities. At times it seemed as if its members had an unwritten agreement to limit the scope of their inquiry, probing deep on some aspects of the CIA’s work while determinedly ignoring others—some of them certainly bearing on Gates’s fitness for the job.
This paradox was most apparent on the subject of Nicaragua. On the one hand, the senators were eager for information about the diversion of funds to the contras. Over and over again they pressed Gates on when he first learned of Oliver North’s resupply operation and on what action he took when he did. More than a third of the committee’s report is devoted to the matter, with lengthy sections on such matters as “Gates’ Knowledge of Private Benefactor Support Prior to Becoming DDCI in April, 1986,” “WhetherGates Was Privy to Information Known to Casey,” and “9 October Gates/Casey Lunch with North.” Warren Rudman summed up the committee’s mood when he observed that “the underlying question here, when all is said and done…is whether or not Bob Gates has told this committee the truth, whether his testimony about his state of recollection is accurate or whether he lied then and he lied now. And that’s really what this is all about.” In the end Gates was forced to admit he should have “asked more questions” about North’s activities in Central America.
As for the actual conduct of the war in Nicaragua, the senators could not have cared less. Barely a question was asked about the CIA’s largest field operation since the Vietnam War. Under William Casey, the agency was obsessed with this impoverished nation of three million people. Single-mindedly seeking to overthrow its government, the CIA mined harbors, built airstrips, set up extensive supply lines, formed elaborate intelligence networks, and sustained the largest peasant army the region has seen since the Mexican Revolution. Hundreds of agents, operatives, and contract employees streamed into Tegucigalpa, turning the sleepy Honduran capital into one of the CIA’s most active stations. The issue of how well those agents performed, though, hardly seemed of interest to the members of the intelligence panel.
Had they read Sam Dillon’s explosive new book, Comandos: The CIA and Nicaragua’s Contra Rebels, they surely could not have ignored the issue. A correspondent for The Miami Herald, Dillon spent years covering both sides of the Nicaraguan war. When a cease-fire was signed in 1988, most reporters in the region considered the story dead and moved on to more exciting places. Dillon was tempted to join them, but the contras continued to perplex him. As he writes in his preface,
Was the rebel force just the latest in a long string of CIA proxy armies, recruited this time to punish the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, for rebelling against Washington? Or was this an indigenous insurgency, rebels fighting for a just cause against a ruthless regime?
As Ronald Reagan’s presidency came to an end, Dillon took a leave from the Herald and began investigating. He sought out contra fighters at their base camps along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border and in the seedy apartment blocks ringing Miami, where they were settling as illegal immigrants. He traveled through the Nicaraguan countryside, visiting old battlefields and talking to the war’s victims. He looked up a number of the CIA officers who had run the war on the ground.
Most important, Dillon met with Luis Fley. A slightly built man with an easy manner and a quick intelligence, Fley, a farmer who worked for a government agency, was among the first to join the contras. Courageous and confident, he rose quickly in the rebel ranks, eventually commanding a battalion under the nom de guerre “Jhonson.” In 1988, amid growing concern over contra abuses, Fley was named the rebels’ chief legal prosecutor. In that position he accused a number of the rebels’ top commanders of military crimes. Dillon interviewed Fley on some forty occasions, recording one hundred hours of conversation, and gained access to his extensive files. Seeing in Fley a sort of “Everycontra,” Dillon decided to build his book around him. The result is both an engaging personal story and one of the most damning indictments ever written of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Luis Fley grew up a humble farm boy in the north-central province of Matagalpa. Affable and industrious, he went to work in the mid-1970s for the Nicaraguan Agrarian Institute, a Somoza-era agency that rented idle government lands at low prices to landless peasants. Fley traveled through the northern countryside, visiting farm sites and collecting rents. While doing so he had a run-in with the National Guard: an overweight sergeant smelling of rum pulled him over at a checkpoint and demanded a bribe. It was the first of many such encounters, and Fley grew increasingly disgusted with the Guard. In 1978, with the Sandinista revolt spreading and the Guard’s brutality increasing, Fley was arrested and briefly jailed. Not long after, he decided to throw in his lot with the Sandinistas, joining a band of guerrillas in the northern hills.
After the FSLN victory, Fley was rewarded with a job at Encafe, the government’s coffee-purchasing monopoly. Proud of the revolution, Fley joined the Sandinista militia and attended meetings of the Sandinista Defense Committees. Before long,though, he grew uneasy. Workers on government estates seemed to be doing little better than they had under Somoza. Peasants deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime had trouble getting credits; some had their farms confiscated. “By the spring of 1980,” Dillon writes, “many peasant farmers were so fed up with government policies, they were already looking back with nostalgia to a romanticized time before the revolution.”
Fley’s first overt protest came in March 1981, when he attended a rally for Alfonso Robelo, a leader of the budding opposition. The meeting was uneventful, but days later Sandinista police picked up Fley and threw him into the local jail—the same one he had visited under Somoza. He was quickly released, thanks to his three brothers—all members of the Sandinista army—but he lost his job and was branded a counterrevolutionary. When local officials attempted to take over his farm, Fley decided to leave for Costa Rica. He applied for exit papers but was refused. And so, in June 1981, Fley joined hundreds of other disgruntled farmers heading for Honduras.
As Dillon’s account makes clear, peasant opposition to the Sandinistas emerged well before any involvement by the CIA. It was the FSLN’s own heavy-handed policies, rather than any outside incitement, that gave rise to the contras. Those fleeing Nicaragua at this time tended to be small-business owners or poor dirt farmers, a good number of whom had fought against the National Guard. Fley was typical. “He wasn’t a thug or a thief,” Dillon writes. “He was neither a mercenary nor a murderer. Like the vast majority of the rural men who’d joined the contras, he was fighting for a simple vision of good government.” Unfortunately, Dillon adds, these peasants “would wield little influence” in the contra army taking shape. Instead, “power would be held by the ex-Guards.”
This was due largely to the CIA. In 1981 and 1982, about fifty fulltime American agents—paramilitary veterans, pilots, mechanics, and logisticians—quietly moved to Honduras. They rented a house in Comayaguela, Tegucigalpa’s twin city, and converted it into a CIA safe house. This became the nerve center for the Agency’s expanding war against the Sandinistas. The CIA employees oversaw construction of a base for the contras and built a thirty-mile road to supply it. They rented a string of warehouses to hold rebel supplies and a fleet of trucks to transport them. They assembled an air force, set up a radio network, established medical clinics—even hired Nicaraguan exiles to speak for the contras in Washington. In the process, Dillon writes, the CIA “utterly transformed every aspect of the rebel force…. If, when Jhonson first took up arms, the Nicaraguan rebellion had been an independent, if sputtering, peasant revolt, it now became a U.S.-sponsored covert action.”
The problems this caused began at the very top. To head the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), as the rebel army was known, the CIA named Colonel Enrique Bermúdez. Bermúdez had spent many years in the National Guard, amassing a record entirely without distinction (“no guts, no charisma, no accomplishments,” according to Dillon). Even fellow ex-Guardsmen had little respect for him. The CIA, though, found him ideal. It was seeking not a warrior but “a recruiting officer, a paymaster, a supply sergeant, and a training camp administrator.” Bermúdez “spoke English, needed money, and didn’t mind following orders. Obedience was his strong suit.”
Bermúdez spent little time in the contra camps along the Honduran border, preferring his elegant house in an exclusive quarter of Tegucigalpa. He spent his nights drinking and playing the roulette tables at the casino in the plush Maya Hotel. He also developed a taste for teen-age girls, recruited for him by his men in Nicaragua. At the time, the CIA was channeling tens of thousands of dollars a month to Bermúdez to pay the salaries of field commanders and to feed their troops; most of it, though, was pocketed by his general staff. By mid-1983, hunger was prevalent throughout the rebel camps.