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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us