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October 5, 1986: CIA Transport Plane Shot Down in Nicaragua; Story Reveals Illegal Contra-Arms Program

Eugene Hasenfus sits among the weapons captured from his downed cargo plane. His Sandinista captors surround him.Eugene Hasenfus sits among the weapons captured from his downed cargo plane. His Sandinista captors surround him. [Source: Nancy McGirr / Reuters / Corbis]A CIA C-123 transport plane (see November 19, 1985) is shot down in southern Nicaragua by a Sandinista soldier wielding a surface-to-air missile. The transport plane left an airfield in El Salvador with arms and other supplies intended for the Nicaraguan Contras. Three crew members—US pilots William Cooper and Wallace Sawyer, Jr, and an unidentified Latin American—die in the crash, but one, a “cargo kicker” named Eugene Hasenfus, ignores CIA orders and parachutes to safety—and capture by the Sandinistas. Hasenfus is a construction worker from Wisconsin who signed on to do temporary work with CIA contractors, and has no intention of “going down with the plane.” The next day, newspapers around the world run stories with Hasenfus’s face peering out from their front pages.
Reveals US's Arming of Contras - The Hasenfus shoot-down will break the news of the Reagan administration’s secret arming of the Contras in their attempt to bring down the democratically elected Socialist government of Nicaragua. [New York Times, 11/19/1987; Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 64]
Damage Control - Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (see Late 1985 and After) is the designated US spokesman on the Hasenfus shootdown. Abrams coordinates with his fellow Contra supporters, the NSC’s Oliver North and the CIA’s Alan Fiers, and with the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin Corr, on how to handle the situation. Between the three, they coordinate a denial from the Salvadoran military about any Salvadoran or US involvement in the Hasenfus flight. As for themselves, they agree not to flatly lie about anything, because they cannot be sure of what Hasenfus will say, but they agree to remain as quiet as possible and hope the media sensation surrounding Hasenfus dies down with little long-term effect. According to notes taken by Corr during one meeting, everyone knows that a leak—“eventually someone in USG [the US government] will finally acknowledge some ‘winking.’ Salv role now more public”—is inevitable. It is eventually decided that the Contras themselves will take all responsibility for the flight. Fiers worries that the flight will be connected to previous humanitarian aid supplied to the Contras (see October 1985). They also confirm that Felix Rodriguez, North’s liaison to the Contras in Central America (see Mid-September 1985), is in Miami, hiding from the press. Hasenfus will later acknowledge making at least ten supply flights into Nicaragua (see October 9, 1986). [Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986, 8/4/1993]

Entity Tags: Eugene Hasenfus, Central Intelligence Agency, Elliott Abrams, Contras, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

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