Clair George: CIA officer who was convicted of lying to Congress over the Iran-Contra affair

In the mid-1980s, Clair George, who has died aged 81, was deputy director of operations for the Central Intelligence Agency, its third-highest position, in charge of covert espionage operations worldwide. George was in one sense an American George Smiley, a professional less concerned with his own advancement than with the success, and the reputation, of the agency he served. But Smiley never found himself brought before congressional committees to testify about his agency's involvement in, or knowledge of, illegal activities run out of the White House. To protect the CIA, George lied about the Iran-Contra operation, and was eventually convicted of two counts of perjury. Though a presidential pardon meant he avoided a jail sentence, by then he had been forced to resign from the agency he had tried to protect.

George's reputation within the CIA had been built over three decades of service. He represented the new breed of agent, following on from the original "Old Boys" from Ivy League backgrounds, who were part of the agency at its founding.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 3 August 1930, he grew up in Beaver Falls, where his father was a chemist for the US Department of Agriculture. He played drums in a dance band and worked in steel mills during holidays, and graduated from Penn State University in 1952.

He left law school to join the Army, learned Chinese, and, in the era of the Korean War, was assigned to counter-intelligence work in the Far East. He joined the CIA in 1955 and rose steadily over 20 years in the field. In 1975 he was station chief in Beirut when, on 23 December, Richard Welch, his counterpart in Athens, was assassinated. George volunteered to replace him, a move seen by colleagues as typical of both his courage and lack of interest in personal advancement. In 1979 he returned to Washington top of the agency's promotion lists, and under new director William Casey, appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1980, he rose quickly, becoming deputy director for operations in 1985.

But in October 1986, a CIA plane carrying supplies to US-sponsored "Contra" rebels in Nicaragua was shot down, and one of its crew, Eugene Hasenfus, who had disobeyed orders and carried a parachute, survived. This provided public confirmation of what became known as Iran-Contra; shorthand for an operation run out of Reagan's White House to finance the Contras' fight against Nicaragua's Sandinista government, despite a series of laws passed by the US Congress to make such funding illegal. The plan, run by Lt. Colonel Oliver North, an aide to the National Security Council, involved selling weapons to Iran – in contradiction of the administration's own public policy – and diverting the profits to the Contras.

The administration's first major success had been the release, immediately after Reagan's 1980 inauguration, of the US embassy hostages in Tehran; critics have long insisted an arms-for-hostages deal had been negotiated, in part by Casey, then Reagan's campaign manager, with Iran to delay any release until after Reagan had defeated Jimmy Carter in the election.

As the man in charge of all CIA operations, George was called before Congress, and denied any agency involvement with the plane or the overall operation. But more and more details of Iran-Contra quickly became public, including evidence that Contra leaders were shipping drugs back to the US in the same CIA planes which delivered their arms. Alan Fiers, head of the CIA's Central American task force, testified that he had discovered the operation, and informed George, but had been told to deny any knowledge of it. George was recalled by Congress and forced to admit that he had not answered questions as fully as he might have, but said "I don't lie; I did not mean to lie."

In 1987 Casey died, and William Webster was made director of the CIA with a mandate to clean the agency up. In December 1987 George retired. Investigations by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh led to the indictments of George and 13 other officials, including Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger, national security advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. Some convictions, including North's, were overturned on appeal, and on Christmas Eve 1992, outgoing President George H W Bush pardoned the remaining six, including George, saying he was "trying to put this bitterness behind us". Abrams and Poindexter would later return to jobs in George W Bush's administration.

George, however, entered private security work, and was hired by the Feld family, who owned Ringling Brothers circus, to negotiate with the Chinese for release of panda bears. His duties expanded. In a bizarre tale, whose echoes of Iran-Contra are unmistakeable, freelance writer Janice Pottker, researching a biography of Irving Feld, discovered a deposition given by George as part of a lawsuit against the family by a disaffected investigator. In it he admitted he had both spied on her and tried to divert her career away from her research on the family. He had also run operations against organisations like PETA, devoted to animal welfare, who were perceived as "enemies" of the circus. In a later deposition, George said he couldn't swear to the accuracy of that previous deposition, but claimed he gave it "because the squeeze they put on me you'll never dream." He declined to answer who "they" were or what the squeeze entailed.

George died on 11 August in Bethesda, Maryland, of cardiac arrest. His wife Mary, a former CIA secretary, predeceased him in 2008. He is survived by two daughters.

Clair George, CIA operative: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 3 August 1930; married 1960 Mary Atkinson (died 2008, two daughters); died Bethesda, Maryland 11 August 2011.