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Aid to the contras: illegal on two counts

A RECENT newspaper headline proclaims: ``CIA is Assigned Role of Running Contra Activities.'' Whether the headline writer knew it or not, he has raised a basic issue in the complex of questions presented to the country by the Reagan administration's campaign against the Nicaragua government and Congress's strange acquiescence in that campaign. Why? Because there is a law on our books known as the Neutrality Act which dates back to the early days of American history (1794) and which provides that whoever furnishes the money for or takes part in any military or naval expedition or enterprise carried on from the United States against any foreign state, colony, district, or people with whom the United States is at peace is subject to a fine or imprisonment.

Not only does this statute make such actions illegal -- it makes them a criminal violation of our laws. There is no exception in the act for actions taken by our government. The language is sweeping, aimed as much at government as at individual actions.

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Yet now this administration is flouting the law -- as is evident by all the facts of Central Intelligence Agency participation in planning, assisting, financing, and even executing military actions against the government and people in Nicaragua.

The administration is not only openly violating the law but, more important, the policy behind the law. The Congress that enacted this legislation was mindful of the dangers of involving the US in foreign wars by allowing our territory and resources to be used in expeditions against other countries. By its present actions in both creating and supporting the contras, the administration is doing precisely what the Neutrality Act was intended to prevent.

Whatever doubt may have existed as to US obligations under international law has now been resolved against us by the overwhelming decision of the International Court of Justice (World Court), which held in the suit brought against the US by Nicaragua that the US, ``by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State.''

This decision by the highest court of international law places us in the embarrassing position of being a law violator. In the face of this decision, a vote by the Congress to appropriate any funds for the contras would in effect ratify an action held to be illegal by that court.

The State Department was embarrassed by the disclosure in April 1984 that CIA agents had mined the harbors of Corinto and Puerto Sandino without the approval of the Senate Intelligence Committee. This too was declared illegal in the same decision of the International Court of Justice which held that such acts were ``in breach of its [the US] obligation under customary international law not to use force against another state.'' Thus in reality we are conducting an open and illegal war against a duly recognized government with which we have diplomatic relations, an exchange of ambassadors, normally functioning consulates in both countries, etc. Is this what the American people really want?

It would not seem so from the results yielded by recent polls. The statistics have shown that about 70 percent of the people interviewed do not favor military aid to the contras. Then why does this administration carry on this campaign to assist a group of mercenaries who receive American dollars and cannot even honestly account for their expenditures for the purposes for which they had previously been appropriated? (It is noteworthy that the General Accounting Office has been unable to check out and to account for how this money has been spent.)

Why is it that Congress, which is also charged with the responsibility of seeing to it that money is honestly accounted for, is willing to appropriate more millions to the very people who it is believed may have been stealing it or expending it improperly?

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Why has the House of Representatives been willing to vote funds for the contras when no less than three House committees had not yet completed investigations of potentially illegal activities by the contras, including possible drug running?

Why has the Senate voted more funds for the contras when its subcommittee chaired by Sen. John Kerry has not yet completed its investigation of contra activities? Is this Congress a respresentative of the people of the US, or is it a rubber stamp for an administration that can do nothing more constructive than to violate its own laws as well as international law?

Congress should carefully reconsider what is the lawful, responsible answer to these troublesome questions.

Ramsey Clark is a former attorney general of the United States and Robert L. Boehm is board chairman of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City.

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