WASHINGTON -- A three-year effort to prosecute a former U.S. intelligence operative for his role in the Iran-contra scandal was forced to an end yesterday without a trial after the Bush administration held fast to its refusal to allow secrets to come out in the case.
As a result of the administration's renewed refusal, the special Iran-contra prosecutor said he would do nothing further in the criminal case against Joseph F. Fernandez, the former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Costa Rica.
This marked the first time that a federal criminal case had ever been scuttled by government resistance to a judge's order that an individual had a right to bring out, in open court, how the CIA carries on some of its secret work overseas.
Yesterday's developments also appeared to ensure the continued secrecy about the CIA's role in the supply of arms to the contra rebels in Nicaragua -- part of the Reagan administration's secret Latin American war that was a major part of the Iran-contra scandal.
The Iran-contra prosecutor, independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, sharply criticized the administration action yesterday, saying it resulted from an "overprotective attitude toward classified information." He said that the administration was responsible for wiping out the case against Mr. Fernandez.
Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh's action in barring Mr. Fernandez from offering secret data in his defense, Mr. Walsh complained, "shows a lack of concern for applying the rule of law to officials of the intelligence community."
Mr. Fernandez's lawyer, Thomas E. Wilson, hailed the end of the case, saying it was "a bloated and completely unfair prosecution" from the beginning. Mr. Wilson also said that, by prosecutingMr. Fernandez for the way he reported to agency and White House investigators about his role in the Iran-contra scandal, the case "fundamentally altered the relationship between clandestine service officers serving overseas and the people who direct their activities from Washington."
Mr. Fernandez was charged with lying to CIA and presidential investigators about the contra supply operation. A federal judge in Alexandria, Va., ruled that the former operative could tell the jury about what went on in Costa Rica in order to show he had no reason to lie about his role.
But, using powers that a 1980 federal law gives to the attorney general to stop the release of any secrets ordered disclosed by a judge in a criminal case, Mr. Thornburgh barred Mr. Fernandez from offering at trial any data about CIA locations and programs in Costa Rica.
After a federal appeals court ruled that Mr. Fernandez had a right to the information unless the attorney general persisted in blocking it, Mr. Thornburgh reconsidered. After that review, he announced yesterday that intelligence agencies unanimously favored keeping his earlier ban in effect. Otherwise, he said, there was a threat of "serious damage to national security."