WASHINGTON — The CIA has suspended a covert operations officer who used agency helicopters in Honduras to carry supplies to Nicaraguan rebels when U.S. aid to the contras was illegal, intelligence sources said Thursday.
The suspension is the second disciplinary action against a CIA officer stemming from the Iran-contra scandal and the first tangible result of an internal investigation by the agency into secret operations in Honduras during the ban on contra aid. The CIA suspended its station chief in Costa Rica last winter.
The CIA helicopters, which operated from a Honduran air base, secretly delivered explosives and other supplies to contra forces during early 1986 and evacuated wounded contras from the battlefield, according to U.S. and contra sources. It was illegal for the CIA to deliver supplies or provide any tactical aid to contra military operations until last October.
According to two Americans who worked with the contras, the CIA helicopters also went inside Nicaragua on several occasions--another potential violation of the law. But U.S. officials said the officers involved denied that the helicopters had crossed the border.
Initially, the CIA flatly denied that any of its officers were involved in aiding the contras during the period of the congressional ban, from October, 1984, until October, 1986. But investigations by both the CIA's inspector general and the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra scandal slowly turned up a handful of lower-level agents who confessed to secret work on behalf of the rebels.
Now, sources say, the CIA and congressional investigations have turned to the issue of who authorized and directed the illicit operations and whether knowledge of the secret contra aid extended to the agency's higher levels.
"We're working our way up the ladder, rung by rung," one investigator said.
The clandestine agent who has been suspended, sources said, was the "chief of base" supervising CIA operations in support of the contras in Honduras--a man who used the nom de guerre "Stuart," according to one source.
The agent told investigators that he acted not on orders from his CIA superiors or from White House aide Oliver L. North, who directed efforts to support the contras but out of humanitarian concern for the contras, one knowledgeable official said.
"He said he was brought up to believe that you don't leave your wounded on the battlefield," a sentiment that spurred him to volunteer his help when the airlift to supply the rebels bogged down, the official said.
CIA spokeswoman Kathy Pherson said that she could not comment on the reported suspension. She repeated the agency's denial that any high-level CIA officials in Washington were linked to the contras' private aid network.
The CIA has said that it informed employees three times of a "longstanding policy" of avoiding dealings with persons supplying the contras.
Also under scrutiny, sources said, is a CIA official who worked in Honduras under the name of "Big George."
Investigators are trying to determine whether more senior officials were involved in directing the operations, including the CIA station chief in Honduras, who has been identified in congressional testimony as "Vince"; Alan D. Fiers Jr., chief of the agency's Central America Task Force, and Clair George, the agency's deputy director for operations.
One official said that the agency's internal accounting procedures would have made it "virtually impossible" for CIA officers in Honduras to aid the contras in any substantial way without the knowledge of the station chief. The agency's financial controls were reportedly made especially rigid in Central America--precisely because of congressional fears that CIA officers would illegally funnel aid to the contras.
"The system of accountability is such that you can't run helicopters between Aguacate and a contra drop zone for any amount of time without higher-ups knowing about it," the official said. "The chief of station is responsible for all activity in the country--and that includes helicopter movements, because they cost fuel, and fuel costs money."
The CIA already has suspended Joe Fernandez, its former chief of station in Costa Rica who used the name Tomas Castillo, for his part in aiding the secret contra airlift run by North and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord. Fernandez is scheduled to testify before the House and Senate committees investigating the scandal in closed session today.
Fernandez was recalled to Washington and suspended with pay last winter after admitting "unauthorized contacts" with the private operators of the contras' military supply pipeline. An internal CIA investigation initially cleared Fernandez of any serious violation of agency policy but evidence later showed that he had relayed key data on weapons airdrops to operators of the supply network, using a computer coding device supplied by North.