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Gates backed strikes on Nicaragua

'84 memo written by defense chief nominee released

WASHINGTON -- In 1984, Robert M. Gates, then the number two CIA official, advocated airstrikes against Nicaragua's pro-Cuban government to reverse what he described as an ineffective US strategy to deal with communist advances in Central America, previously classified documents say.

Gates, President Bush's nominee to be defense secretary, said the United States could no longer justify what he described as "halfhearted" attempts to contain Nicaragua's Sandinista government, according to documents released yesterday by the National Security Archive, a private research group.

In a memo to CIA Director William J. Casey dated Dec. 14, 1984, Gates said his proposed airstrikes would be designed "to destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua's military buildup" and be focused on tanks and helicopters.

He also recommended that the United States prevent delivery to the Sandinistas of such weapons in the future.

The target of Gates's anxieties was Nicaragua's leftist president, Daniel Ortega.

Ironically, Gates's nomination to succeed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was announced just days after Ortega capped off a surprise political comeback by winning election as Nicaraguan president after voters rejected three previous bids.

Gates saw a calamitous situation in Central America in December 1984. Congress had ordered a halt to US support for the Contra rebels, leaving Ortega free, as Gates saw it, to establish Nicaragua as a "permanent and well-armed" ally of the Soviet Union and Cuba.

He said the United States should acknowledge that the existence of a Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua closely allied to Moscow and Havana "is unacceptable to the United States and that the United States will do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out."

In addition to airstrikes, he recommended the withdrawal of US recognition of the Nicaraguan government and the recognition of a Nicaraguan government in exile that would be entitled to US military support. Economic sanctions should be considered, "perhaps even including a quarantine," Gates wrote.

His proposals were never adopted, but the administration attempted to circumvent the Contra aid ban by secretly funneling money to the rebels that had been obtained through arms sales to Iran. Democrats say they will question Gates during his Senate confirmation about his knowledge of the Iran-Contra scandal, which erupted two years after his memo.

Gates's grim prediction in the memo of a disaster in Central America did not come to pass. Congress renewed aid to the Contras in 1986. In February 1990, Nicaraguans voted Ortega out of office. And within two years, the Soviet Union had disappeared.

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