WASHINGTON -- President Reagan, in almost six years in office, has approved at least 50 secret operations designed to shape events at home and abroad, administration and congressional sources say.
From Iran to Nicaragua and from Cambodia to Chad, U.S. agents have armed anti-Communist rebels, helped stage a successful revolution, manipulated elections, mounted propaganda campaigns and blocked supplies to leftist guerrillas.
At home the administration has attempted to influence press coverage of Nicaragua and El Salvador and has monitored Americans opposed to U.S. policies in Central America.
None of the programs has generated as much controversy as recent revelations of secret contacts with Iran amid allegations that the Reagan administration authorized arms shipments to that country to gain the release of Americans held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.
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But the Iran affair has drawn attention to other little- noticed covert action programs and may lead to new congressional probes. At least one of the programs -- the approval of a shipment of U.S.-made tanks to Guatemala by a Belgian company -- came at a time when Congress had outlawed military aid to Guatemala.
The proliferation of covert operations also has caused dissension within government ranks. John McMahon, the CIA's deputy chief, resigned in March. McMahon cited only "personal reasons" for his departure, but administration sources have said he left because he felt the administration turned too readily to covert programs. Sources said McMahon did not object to the administration's goals, but did fear that the United States could lose control of covert programs and that their exposure and subsequent investigation could damage the CIA's reputation.
While most American presidents in recent history have authorized covert actions, Reagan's secret operations are different.
Previous projects began and ended relatively quickly, were generally carefully monitored or were limited to specific goals. If exposed, they were terminated immediately, or exposure came after the fact.
With only two or three exceptions, however, Reagan's covert operations have been open-ended, continue even if exposed, and grow in size and scope. For example, the Nicaraguan contra aid program began as support for a small force of commandos whose stated goal was to intercept arms shipments to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. The program now finances an army of more than 10,000 combatants.
The Reagan administration also has changed the way covert action programs are carried out. Not only is the CIA -- the agency traditionally charged with undercover foreign policy -- involved, but the White House has directed many of the actions itself, through the National Security Council. That appears to have been the case especially when officials wanted to skirt bureaucratic and congressional constraints, sources said.
The White House and the CIA declined to comment officially.
ADVANCING U.S. INTERESTS
But an administration official said the United States implements secret programs "not for sinister reasons" but to advance strategic American interests.
"The United States is not the only nation in the world that carries out secret operations. Most countries do, " the official said. "They are a necessary component of foreign policy."
Reagan's use of the CIA and NSC to conduct the 50 secret operations since he took office in January 1981 marks a return to the style of the 1960s and early '70s, when various administrations conducted some 900 large and medium-sized secret actions and thousands of smaller missions worldwide, the sources said.
Reagan's programs are not as numerous, but sources say they sometimes surpass in magnitude those undertaken in the CIA's golden age of covert operations, which ended by disclosures and congressional investigations of such CIA operations as assassination plots against Cuban President Fidel Castro and the destabilization of the government of Salvador Allende in Chile.
The administration's handling of covert action draws sharp criticism from some officials and former officials of U.S. intelligence agencies.
"I believe the excessive emphasis on covert action by the Reagan administration, especially covert action for objectives that are less than critical for our country, will jeopardize the CIA's ability to do covert actions that can be very important to our country in the future, " said former CIA Director Stansfield Turner.
The CIA did not respond, but one administration official noted that Turner fired about 800 covert agents during his tenure.
SHIFT UNDER REAGAN
It is not surprising that a shift from traditional diplomacy to secret action has occurred during the Reagan administration. Two key presidential advisers, CIA Director Casey and Oliver North, the deputy director of the NSC's Office of Political Development and Political-Military Affairs, have backgrounds that include extensive training in unconventional actions.
Casey, a veteran of the pre-CIA Office of Strategic Services, which conducted secret operations behind enemy lines in World War II, has rebuilt the spy agency's covert action division. It had been decimated under Turner, President Carter's CIA director.
North, a Marine lieutenant colonel who specialized in unconventional warfare, was a key player in the Iran affair and also oversaw a once-secret network to provide aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.
The NSC, with North in the lead, has conducted at least 10 of the Reagan administration's covert actions -- including the Iran project, which the president acknowledged Thursday night in a nationally televised speech.
Some of the once secret operations have been exposed and become famous, such as funding for the estimated 300,000 anti- Communist rebels in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua, an effort generally known as the "Reagan Doctrine."
But many of the other programs, most still active, have remained largely secret.
They include, according to interviews with congressional and administration sources:
* Iran: Reagan's involvement with Iran dates to March 1981, when CIA briefers reportedly advised the House and Senate intelligence committees that the president had authorized a plan to aid Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's opponents based in Turkey, Egypt and France.
While it is unclear whether the plan was implemented, Reagan said the flap over this year's arms shipments to Iran was not only a move to free the hostages, but also an effort to influence events in that country.
Arms shipments also have a precedent. In 1981 and 1982, Israeli officials were widely quoted as saying they had shipped American-made weapons and military spare parts to Iran with notification to Reagan.
Israeli officials also were quoted in 1982 as saying that one of the purposes of sending weapons was to bolster Khomeini opponents.
The latest Iran operation began 18 months ago to free the hostages held in Lebanon, end the 6-year-old Iran-Iraq war and persuade Tehran to curb its role in international terrorism, Reagan said.
NSC Director John Poindexter assigned North to handle the matter with former NSC director Robert McFarlane. North was aboard the plane that took McFarlane and other Americans from Israel to Tehran in May for talks with Iranian officials.
A well-briefed administration official said the effort to court moderates in Iran was part of a global project begun with a 1981 covert program to prevent Islamic radicals from eroding Western interests in the Middle East.
The official said the concept was developed by history- minded government strategists who fear that an unchecked, radical Iran eventually could overwhelm Israel, moderate Arab governments and Christian communities in Lebanon, thus reversing Western conquests during the Crusades.
* Ethiopia: Since 1981, the CIA has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to Ethiopian dissidents for a propaganda campaign aimed at undermining the pro-Soviet government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam.
In 1984, an American CIA covert operative was abducted, held for more than a month and tortured before then-Ambassador- at-large Vernon Walters gained his release during a secret trip, according to an April 25 Washington Post article.
* Chad: In an operation comparable to the covert triumphs of the 1950s, when governments were overthrown in Iran and Guatemala, the CIA in 1981 funneled about $10 million to a rebel movement in Chad that was battling a Libyan-backed government.
With Egypt, the Sudan and Zaire, the CIA assisted forces under insurgent leader Hissene Habre with cash, food, arms and ammunition between 1981 and 1982. In June 1982, Habre's forces marched victoriously into the capital, N'Djamena, ousting Goukouni Oueddei's regime.
* Angola: Before covert CIA support for Angolan rebels led by Jonas Savimbi began this year, the NSC's North helped organize a 1985 summit of anti-Communist insurgent leaders in Savimbi-held territory.
That summit brought to Jamba, Savimbi's "capital, " representatives of rebel groups fighting governments in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Laos. One of the goals of the conference, to persuade the U.S. Congress to scrap legislation prohibiting aid to Savimbi, was achieved.
* Guatemala: A March 9, 1981, presidential directive that authorized creation of the Nicaraguan contras to interdict weapons from Cuba and Nicaragua to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador was expanded in 1982 to implement a similar program in Guatemala, according to a 1982 NSC paper.
Administration sources said the program mainly involved covert training for and intelligence-sharing with the Guatemalan armed forces. Sources also said that, with covert U.S. approval, a Belgian company shipped 10 U.S. M41 tanks to Guatemala in 1982, at a time when congressional human rights restrictions prohibited military assistance to the country.
* El Salvador: In another expansion of the March 9, 1981 directive, the White House approved a covert operation in 1983 to monitor and, if possible, interdict supplies of weapons by air, sea and land to the leftist Salvadoran guerrillas.
CIA officers flew small airplanes outfitted with sophisticated sensing equipment over rebel-held territory to spot other aircraft that might be carrying weapons to resupply the rebels.
In October 1984, the program's secrecy was blown when one of the CIA aircraft slammed into a Salvadoran volcano in a storm. Four Americans were killed.
The CIA also financed a small flotilla of speedy gunboats operated by the Honduran navy to prevent arms shipments from Nicaragua to El Salvador through the Gulf of Fonseca.
While the CIA interdicted arms, the NSC moved in to persuade the Salvadoran government to hold early elections in a bid to persuade a balky U.S. Congress to pass military aid for the Salvadoran armed forces.
The White House dispatched North and conservative former Sen. Richard Stone, D-Fla., to El Salvador in March 1983 to persuade provisional President Alvaro Magana to advance presidential elections from March 1984 to December 1983.
Magana agreed to change the election date. But the operation's cover was blown when a Tampa television reporter overheard their conversations on the plane returning to the United States.
"When I identified myself as a reporter, North was really upset, " the reporter, Mark Feldstein, said Friday in Washington, where he is now working for a local station. "He pointed a finger at me and said, 'If you really love your country, you won't broadcast this.' "
Even though Magana had agreed to the earlier date, the election ultimately was held in March 1984 because of the government's inability to get it organized by December 1983. During the campaign, the CIA reportedly helped fund the successful presidential bid of Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte.
In 1985, the NSC and CIA joined to sponsor a media operation designed to influence the internal and international press coverage of El Salvador. The objective was to change the image of El Salvador from that of a war-torn country to that of one where peace was gradually returning.
The CIA reportedly provided funds for the campaign through a Venezuelan public relations company, while the NSC assisted the effort through its so-called Office of Public Diplomacy. It is located within the State Department but partly overseen by North.
* The United States: Through the Office of Public Diplomacy, the NSC conducted a three-year propaganda campaign to influence U.S. media coverage of Central America, including "leaks" to selected reporters that reflected negatively on Nicaragua and positively on El Salvador.
Initially, the effort focused on El Salvador, but it shifted to Nicaragua after Congress in 1984 dropped restrictions on military aid to the Salvadorans.
When Congress also quit opposing contra aid last summer, the White House shut down the operation and turned the office over to the State Department.
Over the past three years, the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency also have cooperated in an operation aimed at monitoring the activities of U.S.-based opponents of Reagan's Central America policies. They have concentrated particularly on those involved in the so-called sanctuary movement, which aids refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala.
The CIA did not participate directly in the surveillance, but sources say it provided "support" information to the FBI.
In other cases, FBI agents have interviewed hundreds of Americans who have visited Nicaragua.
Intelligence sources say the surveillance of groups that shelter Central American refugees is aimed at preventing terrorists from infiltrating the United States among the refugees. Interviews with the Americans returning from Nicaragua is an effort to learn what influence the Sandinistas may have on U.S. dissidents.
Besides these operations, the Reagan administration has aborted -- or debated but never implemented -- a number of other programs in Suriname, Lebanon and Mexico, sources said.
In June 1983, CIA briefers advised Congress that Reagan had authorized a plan to undermine the leftist government of Surinamese military leader Desi Bouterse. The intelligence committees objected to the plan; the CIA dropped it.
In 1983 and 1984, NSC officials proposed a covert program against Mexico to persuade it to change policies favoring Nicaragua and leftist Salvadoran rebels, intelligence sources said. The proposal entailed trade sanctions and funding for opposition groups.
But the proposal was never implemented, sources said, because "cooler" heads prevailed by arguing that U.S. national security would be harmed if Mexico were destabilized.
Meanwhile, planning for future covert actions continues.
Congressional sources say there is debate within the administration about providing aid to rebel forces in Mozambique and Ethiopia.
The sources also said that, while no planning had begun, some hard-line officials have discussed the possibility of giving funds to Vietnamese exiles to create an anti-Hanoi rebel movement.
Cuban exiles in Miami have asked the White House for aid to resume paramilitary actions against Fidel Castro. In March, veterans of the failed CIA-organized 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion published in The Miami Herald an open letter requesting aid to "fight for the liberation of Cuba."
An administration source said that, while the White House is sympathetic to the exiles' wishes, it has decided to focus its efforts on Nicaragua.
But the possibility of funding for a covert program in Cuba has not been foreclosed. "Cuba could well be next after Nicaragua, " one official said recently.