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Comandos. Sam Dillon. Holt, $27. One of the big myths propagated by the Reagan administration was the urgency of winning the war in Nicaragua. For eight long years, the Reagan White House served the American public romanticized images of the Nicaraguan contras: freedom-loving democrats who would rise up and liberate their nation from the shackles of communist tyranny. They were, Reagan told us, defenders of human rights, "the moral equivalents of our founding fathers," and certainly worthy of a little CIA support.

To help drive the message home, the administration mounted a multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign led by the now-convicted former secretary of state, Elliot Abrams. Its mission? To overcome persistent reports that the contras were little more than a cast of armed banditos. At the White House, the axiom perception is reality" dominated; that is, the administration believed that by altering public perception it could achieve the desired reality. Abrams quickly labeled any reports of abuse by the freedom fighters outright lies. The messengers of those subversive reports-the press and human rights groups-were, at best, willing dupes of what he called the "Sandinista lobby." At worst, they were themselves Sandinista spies.

The fallaciousness of this campaign has since been made clear, but for those with lingering doubts about the legacy of the contras, this book by Miami Herald reporter Sam Dillon should help put them to rest.

Dillon follows the the trail of Luis Fley, a contra field commander who went by the nom de guerre Comandante Jhonson [sic]. As the war wound down in early 1988, Jhonson was selected as chief investigator of a congressionally mandated review of the contra human rights program. But instead of pursuing the rampant rumors about contras raping, torturing, and murdering suspected Sandinistas or sympathizers, he focused on reports of rape, torture, and murder by contra commanders against their own troops.

Dillon deftly documents the frustrations-and ultimate futility-of Jhonson's efforts to bring some of the most brutal contras to justice. For the rebels it was a time of war, and what little justice prevailed was rooted in a military code of conduct adopted from the former regime's National Guard. Theirs was a system of tribunals where the judges and jury were rebel peers and where the maximum sentence was mere expulsion from the contras' ranks. Even so, Jhonson faced resistance at every step of his investigation, as rebel leaders took the notion of being held accountable for their actions rather poorly.

Along the way, Jhonson and his small team of investigators received alarming reports of secret prisons run by the rebels' elite intelligence units, where their own soldiers were being held as enemy infiltrators. He learned that virtually every prisoner was tortured and that virtually every woman detainee was systematically raped-in some cases for months on end. Dillon also recounts how the elite corps garnered its evidence: by eliciting statements under torture. If a prisoner failed to "confess" and offer the names of co-conspirators," the torture continued.

What's more, Jhonson discovered that CIA trainers had schooled the rebel interrogators and that other CIA officers had been assigned to directly oversee the performance of intelligence and counterintelligence units. Not surprisingly, when Jhonson reportedly tried to inform these and other CIA officials about the rebels' abuse of their captives, his claims were brushed aside.

Dillon's recounting of Jhonson's efforts is compelling, but he deals with only a narrow part of the broad picture. Had he done more homework, he could have told us that, while rebel intelligence units were extracting tortured confessions, Washington officials were proudly boasting that close CIA supervision and training of the rebel forces were paying lofty dividends, as a massive Sandinista spy ring supposedly had been uncovered and dismantled by our allies.

When Dillon turns his attention to the contras' political leaders in the U.S., however, he unearths some significant details. It turns out that Adolfo "I never took a dime from the CIA" Calero and all the other contra political directors each received a whopping $180,000 per year CIA salary. This is the kind of mouth-watering detail that could excite an independent counsel investigating Iran-contra crimes, as just about the only thing these Miami-based founding fathers did was lobby Congress for more contra aid. Using CIA funds to do that is a crime by any other name.

Dillon also provides a glimpse of the guerrilla war waged within the administration-a drama pitting professional civil servants against ideologically driven political appointees. Dillon's heroes are a handful of State Department officials who attempted unsuccessfully to rid the contra army of some of its most notorious thugs.

Since the Iran-contra scandal broke in November 1986, several volumes of drab prose have piled up on my shelf, some penned by reporters who have claimed to offer the "inside" story. Other tomes were written, or ghost-written, by some of the actors themselves, offering little more than self-justifying bravado. Yet only a handful of books on the contra war are truly noteworthy, including Christopher Dickey's With the Contras and Roy Gutman's Banana Diplomacy.

Comandos hails itself as "the first book to tell the rebel army's full story." Of course, it comes nowhere close. By relying heavily on the often self-serving memories of Comandante Jhonson, Dillon fails to offer the kind of critical perspective expected in a reporter's book. Nonetheless, he provides a significant contribution to the body of knowledge about the latter years of the contra war. And in so doing he illustrates the importance of continuing the investigation into what really happened in Nicaragua.

-Brian Barger
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Author:Barger, Brian
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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