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Joseph Fernandez  Central Intelligence Agency, Station Chief (Costa Rica)

Joseph Fernandez was the Central Intelligence Agency station chief for Costa Rica. The charges against him stemmed from his support of NSC staff member Oliver North’s Contra aid network, despite the Boland Amendments, which prevented the CIA from helping “in the planning or execution of military operations” relating to the Contras, as well as in the “logistics activities integral to such operations.”

In August 1985, Fernandez worked with North and private Contra benefactor (and former CIA operative) Rafael Quintero to build an airstrip in a remote area of Costa Rica. The purpose of this strip was for emergency landings and to allow Contra-supply planes to refuel on the way to the base in El Salvador. In addition, through an NSC communication device North had given him, Fernandez informed them both about the Contras’ needs, as well as flight path and drop-off coordinates. Fernandez even enlisted CIA field personnel in 1986 to select the best drop-off sites and share that information with him; he then passed that knowledge on to Quintero and North.

After the crash of Eugene Hasenfus’s plane, which was carrying weapons to the Contras, Fernandez asked a Department of State employee to remove records of his phone calls with North and Quintero, of which there were hundreds. The employee placed them in a personal safe.

In early 1987, Fernandez was repeatedly interviewed and consistently provided false information, leading to his indictment. Walsh indicted him on the grounds that he falsely claimed the airstrip was a Costa Rican initiative designed to defend against possible Nicaraguan invasion rather than to refuel supply planes. He also claimed that he only spoke with Quintero regarding supply planes, failing to mention their collaboration on the airstrip project. Finally, he claimed that he did not know that North was involved at all with the Contra aid network or that the flights in September 1986 contained weapons.

Fernandez raised a number of legal objections to the case, which was eventually dismissed under the Classified Information Procedures Act. Fernandez claimed a wide range of classified material as relevant to his defense. The presiding judge held that the operational details of certain other sensitive Costa Rican projects were relevant to Fernandez’s efforts to prove that the Costa Rican government was afraid of a Nicaraguan invasion and had built the airstrip in its defense. The judge also deemed relevant the identities of three other CIA Central American stations, which Fernandez planned to use in order to demonstrate knowledge of the Contra supply efforts by other officials. The theory followed that, if these headquarters also knew, it would be less likely that Fernandez would have lied knowingly.

Because President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general, Richard Thornburgh, refused to allow the disclosure of this information, the indictment was dismissed, the first time the Classified Information Procedures Act had been used to this effect.