The chairmen of both the Senate and House intelligence committees said yesterday that they will examine the Reagan administration's counterterrorism program following reports that CIA-trained Lebanese personnel instigated on their own a car bombing in Beirut that killed at least 80 people.
A Central Intelligence Agency covert support operation was canceled after the Reagan administration learned that the Lebanese had hired others to bomb the residence of a suspected terrorist leader, The Washington Post reported Sunday.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a telephone interview that he started asking questions last week after a reporter contacted him about the CIA's connection to the March 8 car bombing. "I asked for a report on these matters and I expect to receive a full report," he said. "When you have units you do not control, obviously risks arise."
Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement yesterday that the counterterrorism issue is high on his committee's agenda.
"The committee already has plans to take a detailed look at the intelligence community's policy and action on counterterrorism," Durenberger said. He indicated that that study "will occur out of the limelight," and only after the committee finishes its review of intelligence budget matters.
"Effective oversight of the intelligence agencies is possible only when the committee operates quietly, in a unified manner and in response to its own agenda -- an agenda that is not set by The Washington Post or any other news organization," he said.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's vice chairman, said Sunday that committee Democrats have started their inquiry into the CIA's counterterrorism program, the bombing incident and several other CIA operations, which he declined to identify.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday: "That's our policy, of not commenting on any alleged intelligence matter. We point out that we do not undertake any activities -- have not -- that are inconsistent with the law and we meet our obligations under the law to report to Congress."
U.S. embassies were reported to be on alert for fear of anti-U.S. activity.
Administration sources have emphasized that the CIA had no direct connection with the March 8 bombing, and that when the Lebanese went off on their own, the counterterrorist support program was ended. The CIA issued a statement yesterday saying that the agency "never conducted any training of Lebanese security forces related to the events described" in the story and that the CIA "had no foreknowledge of the Lebanese counterterrorist action mentioned" in the news account. The statement added that the agency "scrupulously observes the requirements to keep all the congressional oversight committees appropriately informed."
Islamic Jihad, a shadowy group that is believed to be an umbrella for radical Shiite Moslem terrorists based mostly in Lebanon, has issued statements claiming that it has conducted two attacks to avenge the March 8 car bombing, one against a restaurant near Madrid frequented by U.S. servicemen. The explosion killed 18 Spaniards and injured 15 Americans, one seriously. The other attack is believed by some security experts to have been a blast on March 29 in a Paris movie theater that was holding a Jewish film festival, injuring 18.
Several congressional sources have questioned whether the new heads of the intelligence committees had been fully briefed on the counterterrorism program and its cancellation.
Leahy said Sunday he wanted to look at several CIA programs he did not feel fully informed about to prevent a recurrence of last year's controversy over the mining of harbors in Nicaragua.
Meanwhile, Reps. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Don Edwards (D-Calif.), members of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over terrorism issues, introduced a resolution yesterday that would require the CIA to provide the House with "documents and factual information" about covert support for counterterrorist units in the Middle East.
Edwards said, "The use of proxies to avoid executive order prohibitions against assassinations is fraught with problems . . . . Such groups are inherently uncontrollable. With a license to kill from the United States government, they serve only to escalate the problems of international terrorism and further tarnish our reputation abroad."
Hamilton said that he also was concerned about whether the CIA's reported role in the car-bombing incident violated the ban that prevents the U.S. government from either direct or indirect involvement in assassinations, and whether the agency lost control of the situation by training foreigners to make the preemptive strikes. "These are major points that have to be looked at," he said.
In Beirut, a cabinet minister said he doubted that Lebanon would order an investigation into the reported car bombing. Education and Labor Minister Selim Hoss said the report will "soon be ignored" because the truth about the attempted assassination is not likely to come out. "We all know that such explosions are arranged by foreign services . . . because catastrophes benefit those who have an interest at stake," he said on Beirut radio.