updated 11/24/2006 10:01:29 PM ET 2006-11-25T03:01:29

In 1984, Robert Gates, then the No. 2 CIA official, advocated U.S. airstrikes against Nicaragua's pro-Cuban government to reverse what he described as an ineffective U.S. strategy to deal with communist advances in Central America, previously classified documents say.

Gates, President Bush's nominee to be defense secretary, said the United States could no longer justify what he described as "halfhearted" attempts to contain Nicaragua's Sandinista government, according to documents released Friday by the National Security Archive, a private research group. .

In a memo to CIA Director William Casey dated Dec. 14, 1984, Gates said his proposed airstrikes would be designed "to destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua's military buildup" and be focused on tanks and helicopters.

He also recommended that the United States prevent delivery to the Sandinistas of such weapons in the future. The administration, he said, should make clear that a U.S. invasion of the country was not contemplated.

The target of Gates' anxieties: Nicaragua's leftist president, Daniel Ortega.

Ironically, Gates' nomination to succeed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was announced just days after Ortega capped off a surprise political comeback by winning election as Nicaraguan president after three previous bids were rejected by the voters.

Ortega has recast himself as a moderate, assuring Nicaraguans that his Marxist-Leninist days are over.

Gates saw a calamitous situation in Central America in December 1984. Congress had ordered a halt to U.S. support for the Contra rebels, leaving Ortega free, as Gates saw it, to establish Nicaragua as a "permanent and well-armed" ally of the Soviet Union and Cuba.

He said the United States should acknowledge that the existence of a Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua closely allied to Moscow and Havana "is unacceptable to the United States and that the United States will do everything its power short of invasion to put that regime out."

In addition to airstrikes, he recommended withdrawal of U.S. recognition of the Nicaraguan government and recognition of a Nicaraguan government exile that would be entitled to U.S. military support.

Economic sanctions should be considered, "perhaps even including a quarantine," Gates wrote.

His proposals were never adopted but the administration attempted to circumvent the Contra aid ban by secretly funneling money to the rebels that had been obtained through arms sales to Iran. Democrat says they will question Gates during his Senate confirmation about his knowledge of the Iran-Contra scandal, which erupted two years after he sent his memo to Casey.

Gates' grim prediction in the memo of disaster in Central America did not come to pass. Congress renewed aid to the Contras in 1986. In February 1990, Nicaraguans dealt a blow to the Soviet Union and Cuba by voting Ortega out of office. And within two years, the Soviet Union had disappeared.

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