Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said yesterday that the Reagan administration appears to be violating the law that bears his name and forbids secret operations to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
Boland announced that the committee, in a three-hour meeting, had decided to summon Secretary of State George P. Shultz and national security affairs adviser William P. Clark to discuss U.S. "policy goals" in Central America before it takes any action.
"The committee is very much aware it must make some judgments . . . ," Boland said.
His statement and the committee's bipartisan determination to bypass the CIA and go directly to President Reagan's top foreign policy advisers on the question of compliance with the law is a significant step for the traditionally low-profile chairman and generally cautious members when it comes to intelligence oversight.
According to participants, Boland outlined clearly at the start of the lengthy closed-door meeting that the administration is not adhering to the so-called "Boland amendment," which forbids U.S. assistance "for the purpose" of overthrowing the Nicaragua government or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras. The amendment was unanimously adopted by the House and signed into law by Reagan in December.
When Boland emerged last night he said that media and other reports he has seen "indicate to me that this covert operation is an apparent violation of the amendment . . . . "
Boland, who for the past several weeks has been traveling in the Far East, said he called the meeting "at the request of many members of the House and of many, many private citizens to consider whether the administration is following the letter and the spirit of the Boland amendment."
He said there were no formal votes, "but it is fair to say that the discussion we had reveals deep concerns about U.S. policy in Central America because the comments that were made went far beyond questions of compliance with the law."
Boland said the committee would bypass the CIA because "whatever our intelligence agencies do, they do at the explicit direction and under the supervision of the president and the National Security Council."
In determining whether the administration is complying with the law, Boland said the committee "will not split legal hairs," and added, "I think we have a responsibility to see the spirit of the law and congressional direction fully adhered to."
House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) attended the committee meeting and said later that if the panel determines that the law is being violated it will either tell the administration to "cease and desist" or "the law itself will have to be changed."
The House committee deliberations followed by one day a strong endorsement of the administrtation's Nicaraguan policy by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. After a lengthy briefing from CIA Director William J. Casey, Goldwater issued a statement saying he is convinced that the administration "is not violating the letter or the spirit" of the Boland amendment.
Goldwater's view, not yet backed by the Senate committee's membership, was challenged by the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, which Tuesday adopted an amendment offered by its chairman, Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), that would cut off all support for the guerrillas fighting to topple the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua "unless and until" Congress approved such funding by a joint resolution based on a detailed justification from the administration.
Reacting to the Barnes proposal, which must be adopted by a vote of the full committee, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday that such legislation "can infringe on the conduct of foreign policy . . . . It's something this administration and virtually all previous administrations have opposed."
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) told reporters that he is "not prepared to agree" that the law is being violated and sees no need for additional congressional action.
"I am never going to support an effort by this or any other administration to subvert" the law, he said. "But I'm not going to stand idly by and see the Soviet Union and Cuba have a free hand in Central America. It would be disastrous if we just roll over and play dead."
Democratic members of the Senate panel, however, have publicly expressed doubts about administration adherence to the law.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a candidate for president, introduced a resolution to tighten the language of the Boland amendment to forbid assistance to any group whose "professed aim" is to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
In yesterday's House committee session, according to one participant, a bipartisan spirit prevailed, with members of both parties agreeing to pursue the question with Reagan's senior advisers.
Members of Congress and former diplomats who visited Nicaragua this week said yesterday that there is "absolutely no doubt" that the administration is supporting guerrilla forces attempting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
One of the members, Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), quoted U.S. Ambassador to Honduras John D. Negroponte as saying that the Boland amendment is "a legal triviality" that should not stand in the way of U.S. objectives.
While lawmakers debated the nature and merits of U.S. actions, Shultz indicated under questioning by the Senate Finance Committee that the administration is moving toward formally designating Nicaragua a communist country.
Shultz told the committee, which is considering the administration's Caribbean Basin Initiative of economic measures, that Cuba will "certainly" be designated a communist country ineligible to receive the measure's benefits. He said Nicaragua "probably" will be so designated.
In a news conference Tuesday, Shultz called Cuba "a communist-controlled country" and charged that "the same thing is emerging rapidly in Nicaragua."
The formal designation of Nicaragua as communist-controlled would raise questions about its receipt of trade benefits under most-favored-nation tariff status. State Department officials said, however, that denial of trade benefits would not be automatic.
In a related action, a House subcommittee voted yesterday to grant El Salvador an additional $50 million in 1983 economic assistance rather than the military aid sought by the administration.
Barnes, the panel's chairman, said the vote reflects a concern in Congress that "the United States should not get directly involved militarily."