President Reagan on Wednesday accused House Speaker Jim Wright of talking indiscreetly about U.S. intelligence secrets but stopped short of denying Wright's claim that the administration used the CIA to foment civil unrest in Nicaragua.
Reagan's chief spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, also refused to confirm or deny Wright's statements. But Fitzwater said the Texas Democrat "has always been more than willing to take the positions" of the Marxist government headed by President Daniel Ortega.Wright said Tuesday that Congress had received "clear testimony" that the administration sought to secretly undermine the Nicaraguan peacemaking process, thus damaging long-term prospects for an accord between Ortega's ruling Sandinistas and the Contra rebels.
Wright told reporters the CIA has employed agents covertly in Nicaragua to organize and promote anti-government rallies and protests.
Asked about this during a picture-taking session Wednesday with the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Reagan said, "The reaction I have - and I think it should fit the speaker also - there is no way we should talk about intelligence operations of any kind."
Asked if he thought Wright had abused a process in which the executive branch shares secret intelligence information with selected congressional leaders, Reagan said, "I just say it's common sense to not discuss anything having to do with intelligence opperations and so forth."
Wright, speaking at his regular news conference Tuesday, had said that the Congress received information indicating the CIA had sought "to provoke an overreaction" by the Managua government to dissent in that country.
Fitzwater, questioned repeatedly during the daily news briefing about Wright's claim, said the administration's policy is to refrain from comment on reports involving covert intelligence operations.
When pressed to elaborate on his inference that Wright has been supportive of Ortega, Fitzwater said his statement spoke for itself.
Wright had said in an interview Tuesday: "Agents of our government have assisted in organizing the kinds of anti-government demonstrations that have been calculated to stimulate and provoke arrests."
Wright said the CIA had made the admission under questioning from members of Congress. Presumably, the disclosure would have come in closed-door oversight sessions of the congressional intelligence committees, most of whose work is classified.
A CIA spokeswoman, Sharon Basso, said, "There isn't anything the agency would say publicly about that to confirm or deny it. We do brief Congress, but wouldn't discuss that publicly."
Wright said he opposed the CIA activity as detrimental to regional peace efforts because it has led to government crackdowns on the opposition and complicated already hostile relations.
"I do not believe it is the proper role of our government to try to provoke riots, or deliberately to try to antagonize governing officials into foolish overreactions," he said. "We should be using the influence of the United States to encourage the peace process, not discourage it."