WASHINGTON -- President Reagan signed a secret 'finding' in January 1986 that authorized the CIA to kidnap suspected terrorists overseas and bring them to the United States for trial, The Wall Street Journal reported today.
The concept, described by one law enforcement officer as a 'snatch, grab and deliver operation,' was placed under the overall supervision of an interagency group headed by Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the National Security Council staff member who was fired for his leading role in the secret sale of arms to Iran and the subsequent use of arms sale profits to aid the Contra rebles in Nicaragua.
The Journal, quoting law enforcement and administration officials, said the finding also approved pre-emptive strikes on terrorists to keep them from launching their operations.
The CIA has not tried to kidnap any terrorists yet because identifying them, tracking them down and taking them prisoner is harder than it looks, the Journal said. 'If you go into another country and snatch someone up, you're mounting a paramilitary operation,' one official said.
The finding was the second signed by the president in January 1986. The first, signed Jan. 17, was the secret authorization to sell arms to Iran that included an order to the CIA to keep the operation from Congress.
The Journal said Reagan approved the kidnapping authorization despite fiery opposition from some officials in his administration, in the CIA and the FBI.
'Senior administration officials said that (CIA Director William) Casey, Attorney General Edwin Meese, Secretary of State George Shultz and Col. North were the most vocal advocates of kidnaping suspected terrorists in order to bring them to justice,' the Journal reported.
Those opposed included FBI Director William Webster, one of his top aides, Oliver Revell, CIA deputy director John McMahon and Clair George, the spy agency's deputy director for operations.
The Wall Street Journal dispatch does not mention Robert Gates, the acting CIA director who has been nominated to replace Casey, who resigned Feb. 2 following an operation for a brain tumor.
Gates told senators during his confirmation hearing this week he was unaware of any other secret findings and that he would consider resigning in the future over such an issue.
The kidnapping finding followed the administration's frustration in failing to track down the June 1985 hijackers of TWA Flight 847, the newspaper said. That hijacking and the subsequent help of Iran in the release of the plane's passengers in Lebanon has been cited as a reason why the administration began dealing with Iranian officials, a move that led to the Iran arms-Contra scandal.
At the Justice Department spokesman Pat Korten said, 'The Department of Justice's policy in fugitive matters is to comply with all relevant laws. We don't do anything that is illegal or extralegal.'
Korten declined to say whether Meese had given Reagan any legal advice on the finding. Other Justice Department officials, however, said Meese supported the plan to kidnap suspected terrorists in order to bring them to justice and considered the concept within the law.
Bill Baker, a spokesman for the FBI director, declined to confirm the existence of the presidential finding or that Webster had opposed it.
However, he said Webster has expressed serious concerns about the issue of forced abduction of terrorists.
In a recent statement unrelated to the presidential directive, Webster said, 'We should weigh carefully the larger implications of taking any such action without the knowledge or approval' of foreign governments.
He said such action erodes the integrity of law enforcement agencies and 'gives the appearance of having thumbed our nose at the host country.'