U.S. District Court Judge June L. Green has ordered the CIA to make public 15 classified documents dealing with the origins and planning of the Reagan administration's program supporting rebels in Nicaragua.
In a decision made Tuesday and released yesterday, Green said administration officials had publicly acknowledged the officially secret program in ways that "are sufficiently 'deliberate' and 'conscious' to bring the requested information into the public domain."
The Central Intelligence Agency, which had argued that disclosure would reveal the program, will be permitted to withhold CIA employes' names and titles in the documents, the ruling said.
A CIA spokesman said there would be no comment until CIA attorneys decided whether to appeal. If the ruling is not appealed, it will make public papers that "described or authorized CIA 'covert operations in Central America which were approved by President Reagan between Aug. 6, 1981, and Aug. 6, 1982,' " according to the decision.
"This is the first time the CIA has ever been ordered to release documents on a current covert operation," said Jay Peterzell, attorney for the Center for National Security Studies, a Washington-based research organization critical of Reagan's policies in Central America. The center won the ruling under the Freedom of Information Act.
"The ruling establishes the principle that documents about current covert operations, if they're being talked about on the record by senior officials, are subject to the FOIA," Peterzell said.
The center asked in August 1982 for copies of documents on CIA involvement in El Salvador's March 1982 elections, CIA aid to El Salvador in its war with leftist guerrillas, and CIA covert operations in Central America.
It argued that the information should be made public because CIA Director William J. Casey referred to the programs in a letter and interview in The New York Times in July 1982. The CIA refused, and the center filed suit the following October, citing additional administration public statements as further evidence that the material could be released without damaging national security.
"The administration has been having it both ways on Nicaragua," Peterzell said. "On the one hand it refuses to answer pointed questions on the purpose of the operations and whether what is going on is consistent with those purposes, saying they can't talk about covert operations. But when it's of political benefit, they talk about it."
Green first ruled in favor of the CIA last April, finding that newspaper articles and official administration statements did not constitute an "official acknowledgement" of the various programs.
The judge agreed to reconsider her ruling on 15 documents pertaining to Nicaragua when the center submitted evidence that the administration had publicly admitted the program's existence on 18 occasions since her April verdict.
This included statements in the Congressional Record, excerpts from a Reagan news conference and statements by Casey and Reagan's spokesman Larry Speakes, according to the ruling.
The CIA shifted ground, arguing first that there had been no acknowledgement by high-level sources and then that even Reagan's remarks could not be used to justify publication unless they had been made with the intent to cause all the diplomatic consequences.
Green held yesterday, however, that "publicly known information cannot 'reasonably' be expected to damage national security."