Congress, in approving humanitarian aid to antigovernment rebels in Nicaragua, will likely bar the Central Intelligence Agency from handling the program. But major disputes remain over who will distribute the aid and how it will get to the recipients.
White House officials say they are considering several distribution approaches, including using established channels of the Agency for International Development (AID), setting up a bureau within the State Department or running the program through the National Security Council (NSC).
Direct handling by the NSC is unlikely, the sources said, because it would require many people to be hired on a crash basis to put together an operation from scratch.
However, AID officials are not eager to be involved, according to several congressional and State Department sources.
"We've been called CIA fronts for years, and this is all we'd need," said one AID official. If AID did receive the program, assistance would probably be channeled through private volunteer groups, the way aid to countries worldwide is handled, another official said.
The prospect of moving funds for the counterrevolutionaries through AID's bureaucracy seems almost to bring shudders in Foggy Bottom. Officials there say they expect to wind up distributing the aid and are working on a plan for it.
"I hope we get it and not AID. We can take the heat a lot easier," said a senior State Department official.
The House and Senate are expected to confer next week over their different approaches to the question. The Senate version would give the president discretion over $38 million, in effect allowing him to leave it in CIA hands -- where he has said it belongs. The House, however, has appropriated $27 million on the condition that the president not channel it through the CIA or the Defense Department.
The House-Senate conference committee also will have to reconcile the amount to be distributed, the definition of "humanitarian aid" and the extent of restrictions upon other direct or indirect aid to the rebels.
Sponsors of the House approach say that they will insist that banning CIA control is critical.
"We've made it clear that if they take that language out, it'll kill the measure on the House side," said Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), a cosponsor of the House bill.
McCurdy said the CIA has been "discredited" in Central America and is not needed to handle nonmilitary aid. "The contras have been handling their own aid for a year. They can get by," he said.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a cosponsor of his chamber's version, said Senate conferees wil resist ending CIA involvement but would back down if that were the price of passage.
"The CIA has been furnishing the assistance, they have the administrative procedures and the experienced personnel, and there are fewer risks because of this," Lugar said. "The president wants to continue in that way." In a crunch, however, "there is no doubt in my mind that the principle of getting the aid to the contras is the most important," he added.
Lugar said that "it is probably preferable" to leave the choice of an administrative agency to the president.
When the CIA ran the program from 1981 to May 1983, it had secret but "very strict accountability procedures to protect the funds and the goods," said John Horton, who resigned last year as the CIA's national intelligence officer for Latin America.
Former CIA director William Colby expressed concern in an interview that Congress, because of "hypersensitivity" about the CIA connection, is converting a covert program "into one subject to full audits and checks and public debate over who gets every 15 cents." He said, however, that changing the program from military to nonmilitary aid would eliminate any need for "the certain unique ways the CIA handled paramilitary assistance."