URGENT Bush Says He Played No Role in Contra Gunrunning
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ Vice President George Bush said Saturday he has played no role in directing secret flights that drop arms to Contra rebels in Nicaragua. He said he’s met a Cuban-American who helps direct the missions and he’s ″a patriot.″
Eugene Hasenfus, an American captured after a Nicaraguan missile brought his cargo plane down last Sunday, told a news conference in Managua Thursday of two Cuban-Americans who ″work for the CIA (and) did most of the coordination for the flights.″ He identified one of them as a Max Gomez.
Published reports said Friday that Bush’s national security adviser, Donald Gregg, helped place Gomez at a military airfield in El Salvador from which Hasenfus’ plane took off.
The Los Angeles Times said Saturday that Gomez told associates that he reported to Bush in his role as head of the Contra air supply operation.
″To say I’m running the operation that Hasenfus is involved in ... its absolutely untrue,″ Bush said. ″I can deny it unequivocally.″
Bush made his comments upon his arrival to campaign on behalf of the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Rep. Tommy Hartnett, R-S.C.
Gregg, in a telephone interview, also denied directing Gomez.
″Neither the vice president nor I coordinated operations in Central America,″ Gregg said.
Bush said of Gomez: ″To my knowledge, I met with him twice, shook hands with him a third time. He’s a patriot.″
″To the best of my knowledge, this man is not working for the United States government,″ Bush said.
The vice president said he met Gomez, who he referred to as ″Felix Gomez,″ in January, 1985 and again in May of this year.
″His role was to help the government of El Salvador put down an insurrection, put down a Marxist-led revolution,″ Bush said. ″That is the policy of the United States government to support that.″
Gomez, who is also know as Felix Rodiguez, is a veteran of the ill-fated CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Gregg is a retired exective of the CIA and Bush directed the CIA in the Ford Administration in 1976 and 1977.
A third former CIA official, Nestor D. Sanchez, deputy assistant secretary of defense for inter-American affairs, has been tied to the arms flights by AP sources.
They cited a report prepared by an international arms dealer which said Gomez ″was placed in El Salvador by Nestor Sanchez and Don Gregg of the vice president’s office. He (Gomez) says he has daily contact with the vice president’s office.″
Sanchez did not return a reporter’s call Saturday.
Bush was asked if he felt running guns to the Contras was in America’s best interests.
″To see the Contras prevail is clearly in the best interests of the United States,″ he replied.
At the summit conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said he knew nothing about whether Bush and Gomez had met.
In a television interview Saturday, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams said privately funded operations to help the Contras ″are generally approved of by the administration.″
Such missions, he said, keep ″the freedom fighters alive until the Congress finally acts″ on President Reagan’s proposal for $100 million in open aid to the Contras.
Abrams said he would not be surprised to learn that former CIA agents have been hired by civilian groups to carry out the supply missions in Nicaragua.
The San Francisco Examiner said Bush was aware that Gomez was being sent to the Ilopango airfield in El Salvador. It quoted its source as saying ″I know that the initial deal (to place Gomez at Ilopango) was cut by Gregg after the fellow (Gomez) was introduced directly to George Bush. Bush said, ’This sounds like a good idea. See if you can arrange it.‴
Martin Vega, counselor for political affairs at the Nicaraguan embassy in Washington, said Hasenfus would be charged with war crimes.
″Such a trial will send a message to others in the world not to get involved in the internal affairs of Nicaragua and a long jail term for such actions will send the message, especially to other Americans, not to get involved,″ he said before a speech Friday night at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.
″The downing of this American plane represents a dangerous escalation,″ Vega said. ″The war in Nicaragua is being Americanized. It doesn’t matter whether they’re private or public citizens. They are still Americans and they are getting involved. The U.S. citizens doing this are violating the Neutrality Act.″
Vega said that Hasenfus will be treated as a prisoner of war. He said the maximum penalty for any crime in Nicaragua, even murder, is 30 years. He predicted that Hasenfus will get a 30-year sentence.