The Reagan administration, as part of a strategy to gain approval for further aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, plans to assemble a new White House team to solicit public and congressional support for the embattled contra program, administration officials said yesterday.
This comes at a time when Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, the administration's "point man" on the contra initiative, has been widely criticized in Congress for his role in the Iran-contra affair and after some congressional supporters of the Nicaraguan rebels have said that Abrams has become a liability to the program.
White House officials, however, stressed yesterday that the decision to increase the White House role in the contra promotion effort and to add experienced hands was made before Abrams' latest problems and "has nothing to do" with congressional calls for his resignation.
Officials said that probably two people will be added to the senior White House staff, one to head the effort to win congressional support and another in communications to help build public approval.
"The increased attention contra policy is having on the Hill" requires that the administration coordinate the campaign from the White House, rather than have officials from several agencies try to run it, a senior White House official said.
Abrams, in an impromptu interview yesterday after he addressed a closed-door session of congressional aides, acknowledged a need for additional personnel to help sell the contra program and said discussions on that issue have been under way for many months.
Abrams predicted yesterday that news stories about efforts to oust him "will die ultimately. You guys will see as the weeks go by, here I am."
Abrams has won strong backing from Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who has said Abrams has done a "sensational" job. Shultz's backing has irritated some White House aides, but Republican congressional sources said it appears that Shultz's vote of confidence for Abrams is a key factor in his continued tenure.
One aide to the Republican congressional leadership said yesterday that "In effect, Abrams will stay on as assistant secretary for Latin America except for Nicaragua."
In another matter yesterday, Abrams said he will direct the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua to withdraw a $1,500 bill sent to the family of Eugene Hasenfus, the crew member captured after a cargo plane bringing arms to the contras was shot down over Nicaragua last October.
The downing of the plane exposed a secret operation to resupply the contras that was organized by then-National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
Abrams said the bill, which covered lodging for Hasenfus' wife and other family members, was inappropriate because the State Department had urged the Hasenfus family to stay at the embassy while they sought Hasenfus' freedom. Hasenfus was released shortly before Christmas.
United Press International reported that Hasenfus' wife, Sally, said that Abrams and one of his assistants conveyed the impression to her last fall that the family's expenses would be paid. The Hasenfuses estimate that they have incurred more than $30,000 in legal, travel and telephone expenses.
State Department spokesmen deny that any such assurances were given.
According to an Oct. 8, 1986, message retrieved from the National Security Council computer system and released by the congressional panels investigating the Iran-contra affair, Abrams told an NSC staffer that State Department aides would attempt to find a lawyer for Hasenfus. The computer message quoted Abrams as saying that if the lawyer would not work for free, "private money can be found."
Abrams has repeatedly denied any role in raising funds for the contras through the private network of American citizens that North assembled.
Former attorney general Griffin Bell, who represented Hasenfus, said yesterday he was told that the State Department gave his name to the Hasenfus family, along with those of two other lawyers. Bell, who accepted the case on a pro bono or nonfee basis, said no one ever told him the State Department had assured the Hasenfuses that their expenses would be paid. Staff writer Lou Cannon contributed to this report.