Senate Panel Investigating Downed Plane
Sandinistas Say Pilot Flying Contra Mission May Be Tried
WASHINGTON--The Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff will conduct an inquiry into whether an airplane resupplying Nicarguan rebels was working in cooperation with the Reagan Aministration, the panel's chairman said yesterday.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., revealed the plan not long after the State Department raised the possibility that the U.S. Embassy in Managua may be shut down and accused Nicaragua of refusing U.S. officials consular access to American Eugene Hasenfus, captured when the airplane crashed Sunday in southern Nicaragua.
Lugar divulged the plan for the inquiry by his committee's staff in response to an accusation by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that "individuals are running around ... conducting their own foreign policy in violation of the law."
Acting State Department spokesman Charles Redman said the embassy delivered a diplomatic note Tuesday to Nicaraguan officials requesting consular access to Hasenfus, the lone survivor of the crash Sunday of a cargo plane in southern Nicaragua.
The embassy also asked for the remains and personal effects of the two Americans who died in the crash, Redman said.
Lugar said Reagan Administration policy toward Nicaragua is effectively in a sort of "limbo" because Congress has not given final approval to $100 million in U.S. aid to the Contras. That money for that aid program is contained in a pending catchall money bill.
The plane was on a mission to resupply Nicaraguan rebels but the Reagan Administration has said it had no connection with the U.S. government. Nicaragua has said the plane was on a CIA-sponsored mission.
President Reagan said his administration had known that American citizens and private groups were trying to help antigovernment rebels in Nicaragua but he denied anew that the plane had any connection to the U.S. government.
"We've been aware that there are private groups and private citizens that have been trying to help the Contras to that extent but we did not know the exact particulars of what they're doing," Reagan told reporters as he left the White House on a campaign trip.
Asked whether he approved of private efforts aimed against Nicaragua's leftist government, Reagan said, "We're in a free country where private citizens have a great many freedoms."
He added that "some years ago, many of you spoke approvingly of something called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War."
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, actually a battalion, was organized by a group of Americans in the 1930s to fight on the side of Spanish partisans against the fascist Gen. Francisco Franco.
Later, arriving in Raleigh, N.C., for a political speech, Reagan was asked who the men on the airplane were working for and replied, "Not us."
When asked "Who then, Singlaub?" He replied, "Don't know."
Retired Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, who has raised private aid for the Contras, and Civilian Material Assistance, a paramilitary group which has sent trainers to the rebels, have denied responsibility for the plane.
Nicaraguan troops said they found in the wreckage a wallet containing a business card belonging to Philip Buechler, who was assigned to the State Department office that administered a humanitarian aid program for the Contras. The program expired several months ago.
Redman said that while the office was in operation, the Nicaraguan rebels contracted for goods and services, including transport services.
He said the office paid the bills and regularly witnessed loading operations in the U.S. to verify that the program was carried out in accordance with U.S. law.
"Any number of commercial firms could have acquired the business card in this context," Redman said. "Neither the air transport companies nor the pilots had contracts with NHAO. They were free to operate cargo flights for any commercial customer."