Try as it might, the Reagan Administration cannot seem to avoid controversy in its espousal of the Nicaraguan rebels who are seeking to overthrow their country's Sandinista government. Last week the White House was stuck with two new varieties of contra fuss. In the first case, a group of American citizens was kidnaped by the rebels. In the second, the White House had to come to grips with revelations that it has sailed close to the edges of a congressional ban on direct military aid to the insurgents. The Administration's controversial move was assigning a member of the National Security Council to meet with the insurgents and give them help in raising funds from private sources. Both affairs created headlines that diverted attention, for a few days at least, from the Sandinistas' most pressing problem: a new and vigorous contra military offensive.
The kidnaping incident lasted for barely 29 hours, and took place in a narrow, winding river between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Involved were 29 pacifist Americans and 16 journalists. The incident began when members of Witness for Peace, a group established in North Carolina, set sail from the Nicaraguan town of San Carlos, about 130 miles southeast of the capital, Managua. The group's aim: to travel by boat along the San Juan River, which is hotly contested by contra and Sandinista forces.
Running into danger is part of the role sought by the interdenominational Witness for Peace. The group was founded with a twin purpose: 1) to place U.S. protesters in the line of fire in Nicaragua, in the belief that their presence will reduce hostilities, and 2) to attract American citizens to Nicaragua in order, as a Witness spokesman puts it, "to permit them to learn about the consequences of U.S. foreign policy on Nicaragua." The Witnesses claim to be apolitical, but they are considered by Washington to be definitely favorable to the Sandinistas and hostile to the insurgent contras. Since its start in 1983, the group has sent about 1,300 people, each paying $900 in expenses, to Nicaragua.
Within 24 hours of setting out, the travelers were seized by contras. They spent 29 hours in custody before being released unharmed. Every stage of the Witnesses' saga received carefully managed press coverage. Even their capture was recorded, over an open radio link, by a television crew standing by in the Witness for Peace headquarters in Managua.
The Witness affair allowed the Managua regime to hammer away at a standard theme: the Reagan Administration's alleged hypocrisy in denouncing state-sponsored terrorism. As Interior Minister Tomás Borge Martínez, one of Nicaragua's nine ruling comandantes, put it last week, "The U.S. condemns terrorism when a plane is hijacked. This is terrorism, and these acts should also be condemned by the U.S."
Even as Borge spoke, some 14,000 contras were continuing their three-week-old offensive inside Nicaragua. Near the town of Cuapa, 100 miles east of Managua, the contras claimed to have killed 51 Sandinista soldiers. Fighting was said to be extending farther south, toward the cattle-raising center of Boaco. The Sandinistas claimed that about 150 contras had been killed and 40 captured in the past month.