The Counterrevolutionaries (The Contras)

Reference: Brown University

U.S. Support for the Contras

U.S. Aims 

The United States provided money, material, and operational support to the contras.  However, the purpose of the United States’ Nicaragua policy during the early years of the Reagan Administration is a matter of debate.  According to Kagan, the ostensible goal of U.S. support for the contras, according to some in the Administration, was not to overthrow the Sandinistas but to compel them to stop sending arms to the Salvadoran rebels.  This changed, however, with the formulation of the Reagan Doctrine in 1982, which was “a policy of supporting democratic reform or revolution everywhere.”  At this point, the goal of the Reagan Administration’s policy in Nicaragua arguably became to overthrow the Sandinistas.  Others, such as Draper, suggest that regime change was the goal of the Administration’s Nicaragua policy from the beginning.

U.S. Actions in Nicaragua, August 1981 to December 1982

In August 1981, a CIA official met with Honduran military officials, Argentine advisers, and the FDN leadership and expressed his support for the contra operations.  On November 1, the Director of the CIA William Casey met with the Chief of Staff of the Argentine military; the two purportedly agreed that Argentina would oversee the contras and the United States would provide money and weapons.  In late 1981, President Reagan authorized the U.S. to support the contras by giving them “money, arms, and equipment” through Argentina, with the potential for “the occasional direct involvement of the United States in supporting individual operations.”  As a result, according to Kornbluh, “the frequency and destructiveness of the contra attack[s] increased rapidly.”  So, too, did their numbers.  Toward the end of 1982, the contras (who operated out of Honduras) were conducting attacks deep inside Nicaragua.

The First Boland Amendment

As contra attacks continued throughout 1982, the U.S. press began to report on U.S. support for the rebels.  Liberal members of Congress condemned the policy, arguing that it was immoral and perhaps illegal.  Eventually, Congressman Edward Boland (D-MA), Chairman of the House intelligence committee, offered an amendment “prohibiting the use of funds ‘for the purpose of’ overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a war between Nicaragua and Honduras” which became law on December 21, 1982.  The use of funds for this purpose had actually been secretly prohibited per an agreement between Congress and the White House; thus, the amendment had no practical effect on the conduct of U.S. policy.  Kagan identifies a “loophole” in the law; namely, that as long as the United States itself did not intend to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, the United States could support the contras, who did have that intent.  Indeed, according to a PBS Frontline documentary, the amendment did not affect the conduct of the war in Nicaragua.

U.S. Policy between Boland I and Boland II

After Boland I, contra attacks in Nicaragua continued to grow.  Despite summary executions of Sandinista soldiers and other brutal measures, the contras often found support among the people in the countryside.  The number of contra soldiers continued to grow as well.  To counter this threat, the Sandinistas received operational support from a Cuban military general and weapons from the Soviet Union.  The CIA began airlifting supplies to the contras, and the contras conducted “spectacular” guerilla assaults on their targets.  During the second half of 1983, with the help of the CIA, the contras conducted air strikes on Sandino airport near Managua and other targets.  The CIA itself used its own assets to carry out some covert actions in Nicaragua, including destroying several fuel tanks.  The CIA also placed mines in Nicaraguan harbors on January 7, 1984 and February 29, 1984, damaging several ships.  The contras initially took credit for the mining, but the Wall Street Journal reported it to be the work of the CIA a few months later.  Moreover, it was discovered that Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a U.S. Marine who worked on the National Security Council staff at the Reagan White House, had known of and recommended the operation.

The Second Boland Amendment
As the war in Nicaragua grew, many Congresspersons were concerned that the Administration’s policies violated the Boland Amendment, prompting political wrangling involving the White House and Congress over contra funding.  The revelation that the CIA was responsible for mining Nicaragua’s harbors infuriated Congresspersons of both political parties, including Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, who felt that the CIA had failed to inform the committee of the operation in advance as required by law.  (In fact, DCI Casey may have informed the committee, albeit in an arguably veiled way.)  As a result, the second Boland Amendment was passed on October 12, 1984.  It read:

No appropriations or funds made available pursuant to this [authorization bill] to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose or which would have the effect of supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement, or individual.

For all intents and purposes, this amendment appeared to prohibit the funding of the contras with U.S. government funds.

U.S. Policy Framework Post-Boland

The second Boland Amendment certainly forced the Administration to change some of its policies even as it was trying to get the amendment repealed.  Draper identifies two ways in which the Administration tried to get around Boland.  The first was by getting private American citizens and third-party countries to donate money to the contras since Boland did not explicitly outlaw these parties from funding the Contras.  The second was by controlling U.S. contra policy and support from within the National Security Council (NSC), which is “the President’s principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials.”  This option was based on the fact that the NSC was not explicitly mentioned in Boland and that, since the NSC deals with policymaking, it is arguably not an “intelligence agency or entity” involved in “intelligence activities.”


Third-Country Funding
Obtaining funds for U.S. foreign policy goals from third-party had been considered by 1983. That spring, Robert McFarlane, before he became President Reagan’s National Security Adviser, suggested that Israel could give some of the foreign aid it received from the United States to U.S. allies in Central America. Later that year, Secretary of State George Shultz suggested that “alternative benefactors” should be found to fund the contras.

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