Frustrated liberals ordinarily do not look to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for relief. But that group may be about to vote the first formal interdiction of President Reagan's Central American policy by closing down the CIA's dirty little war in Nicaragua.
Just how this silent consensus built up against a covert activity, which was made public a year ago, cannot be detailed because of the iron rules under which the committee operates. House members hate to defy a president on foreign policy, particularly when he has warned them he is prepared to charge them with "losing" El Salvador.
What gives them courage on "a long-smoldering thing" is the lopsidedness of public opinion against Central American adventurism and a widespread skepticism about Reagan's readiness to undertake the negotiations which have been urged on him by our Latin neighbors and most recently by the distinguished Inter-American Dialogue, a group headed by former ambassador Sol Linowitz.
The success of the rebellion in the House derives in part from its sponsorship. The committee chairman, Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.), whose name is on the current amendment to forbid the CIA from trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, is known in the House as a patriotic conformist, not given to giving grief to the agency.
But when evening television began showing Nicaraguan "contras" publicly thanking the United States for its help in bringing down the Sandinistas, Boland's concern for the House's reputation, as well as his own, came into play. He shocked his colleagues when he stood up to Secretary of State George P. Shultz and CIA Director William J. Casey. Shultz called him the other day, from the Middle East, but Boland is now beyond reach.
One of Boland's staunchest allies is Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D), a defense-minded Texan who says he feels personally betrayed by the Sandinistas, whom he once befriended. Wright is predicting that the House will follow the committee's lead and shut down the overt-covert operation.
Never suspected of any radical taint, Wright last week refurbished his establishment credentials by praising the president's Latin American speech and taking exception to the Democratic response of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).
The third out-front leader of the revolt is Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr. (D-Ga.), a junior member of the committee, who made an Easter trip to Nicaragua and came back saying, with typical southern circumlocution, that he thought "the law was not being fully adhered to."
Fowler, who likes to describe himself as "a flaming moderate"--he says that "any liberal type activity can make you a comsymp" in his part of the country--volunteered for the on-site inspection because he is a bachelor, and didn't have to take any children to an Easter parade or an egg roll. Boland was facing increased pressure from committee members who protested that the situation was out of hand.
Fowler, a lawyer, took particular exception to the "insulting, shameful legal jingoism" of administration apologists, such as U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who claim that our only purpose is to stop the flow of arms from Nicaragua to El Salvador and that we are not responsible for the intentions of the riflemen who are shooting up the hills of Nicaragua.
His four-day tour of the region convinced Fowler that the military action we are supporting is strengthening the position of the Sandinista government, thereby delaying the democratic reforms we profess to promote. At a White House meeting, where the president made a last-ditch stand to save the operation, Fowler told Reagan that it is "undermining our policy in Central America."
The rebels are offering an alternative to the doomed covert enterprise. It bears the names of Chairman Boland and of Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and it provides open appropriations for El Salvador, Costa Rica and Honduras to help them stop arms shipments into their territories.
Fowler is trying to write in a provision for "diplomatic activity." Reagan, in what sounded like a footnote to his speech, advocated negotiation, then made it a joke by naming former Democratic senator Richard B. Stone of Florida as his chief negotiator.
Stone, who has confronted the Nicaraguans publicly and once worked for the Guatemalans, will, senators mumble on the record, be confirmed. Off the record they give unflattering views. An ex-brother said, "He is a pompous windbag who will not shut up long enough to hear what the other side is saying."
Only House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) blurted out what others were thinking. Stone, he said, is "not up to the job." It was another sign that the House is where you have to go for strong opinions and strong action on Latin American policy