Man who took on CIA is unlikely hero

April 08, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- All week long, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been saying he wants to throw Rep. Robert G. Torricelli off the House Select Committee on Intelligence. He and others in the House were angry that the New Jersey Democrat had revealed evidence of CIA links to the killer of an American in Guatemala.

But in the end, House Republicans decided yesterday that they so disliked Mr. Torricelli that they did not want to make him a martyr. And at the last moment yesterday afternoon, they referred the matter to the House ethics committee.

Mr. Torricelli's troubles stem from his disclosure two weeks ago that a Guatemalan army colonel who had been on the CIA payroll was responsible for the murders in that country of an American and the husband of an American. He also accused the CIA of deliberately withholding information about the murders.

All this has thrown even more attention on the man many of his colleagues describe as one of the least popular members of Congress. Mr. Torricelli says he did not reveal any information obtained through his work on the intelligence committee, and maintains that his constitutional oath of office to uphold the law took precedence over the secrecy requirement. On the House floor yesterday he said, "I make no apology."

Mr. Torricelli (pronounced: Tor-i-SELL-e) had seemed an easy target. He has a reputation for abrasiveness and for eclectic foreign policy views.

He is anti-Castro and favored the Persian Gulf war, but he sides with liberals on Central American issues, as does his companion Bianca Jagger.

He has been in one scrape after another over the years. He has been nicked by the House bank scandal, after bouncing 27 checks, and passed over for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, a position for which he aggressively campaigned.

And Mr. Torricelli is routinely attacked from both the right and the left.

"Because he's strong-minded, that to some signifies that you're not the hail fellow well met," said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, the Florida Democrat who is a friend. "We have backslappers and then we have, 'Here's how you do it,' guys, and that's what he is."

Still, for some in Washington, Mr. Torricelli emerged as an unlikely hero this week. Even some people who have disagreed sharply with him in the past said he had put his career on the line to expose criminal activity by the government.

"After a long, long time in this town I have few unmixed feelings about anyone being a hero," said Robert E. White, the former ambassador to El Salvador and president of the Center for International Policy, who said he has sometimes clashed with Mr. Torricelli.

"But on this issue I will award the title of hero to Bob Torricelli," he said. "You take them where you can get them."

Ms. Jagger suggests that he is simply very different from many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

"Bob is a very passionate person, not a person that takes issues lightly or superficially, and he's either all or nothing," she said. "He does not always win the popularity contest, but he doesn't choose his issues for that.

"He has old-fashioned principles and sees the world very much in terms of right and wrong. And it was very clear in his mind that this is the only thing he could have done."

Ms. Jagger, who is well-known for her work with the international aid organizations Oxfam and Amnesty International, met Mr. Torricelli when she was lobbying on a Central American issue. They became close two years ago, both said, when he helped her bring a sick child out of Bosnia.

"A lot of people don't know that side of him," she said.

And indeed, on a recent day in his office, with the phones going crazy, Mr. Torricelli was serious and single-minded, moving from one job to the next with a minimum of chat and wasted movement.

Physically compact and mentally focused, in the course of the morning he met with ambassadors from Guatemala and Nicaragua, fielded a "hang in there" call from former New York Mayor Edward I. Koch, attended a committee hearing, held a strategy session with the Democratic leadership about his fate and generally appeared utterly unfazed.

In a conversation with Guatemalan Ambassador Edmond Mulet, he described being asked by a ruling party member in Mexico, "How does it feel to be the most despised person in Latin `D America?"

But he said his views on the instability of the government there, and the need to address the country's social problems, had since been proved correct.

And speaking of matters closer to home, he implied that the criticism from other lawmakers was not too disturbing. "It's not the biggest internal problem I've had," since being elected in 1982, he said, adding that his support of the Persian Gulf war made him something of a pariah in his own party. "The republic will endure if I'm not on the intelligence committee."

Robert Guy Torricelli was born in Franklin Lakes, N.J., the son of a lawyer and a school librarian.

His childhood friend, George McLoof, a real estate developer in Midland Park, N.J., said Mr. Torricelli was always a serious person. Even in seventh grade. "I've known him since I was 11 and the first day I walked in his room he had his entire room covered in American flags and a bust of Abraham Lincoln," Mr. McLoof said.

"My mother made my childhood a graduate course in public affairs," Mr. Torricelli said over a lunch of tuna salad. "I never spent a single night at the dinner table talking about sports or films. They were decidedly activist and progressive, and I'm considered more conservative than either of my parents."

Mr. Torricelli said this week would have been a very proud one for his mother, who died three years ago.

"She almost didn't talk to me during the gulf war and even had a petition drawn up against me," he said, smiling.

But this episode, he said, would have made her heart glad.

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