Mr. George was the highest-ranking CIA official to stand trial over the biggest White House scandal since Watergate: a White House-led operation to covertly sell weapons to Iran and divert the profits to right-wing Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras.
The operation had been engineered out of the White House by Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, who served on the National Security Council staff. North was then aided by CIA Director William Casey.
Aspects of the operation violated a congressionally-mandated restriction of overt U.S. support of the contras. Mr. George initially told Congress the CIA was not involved in the operation, and he later apologized for being evasive. He said he was trying to protect the agency.
He explained he had reservations about the operation all along but said he did not push hard enough to stop it outright.
“At no time — which maybe I should have — did I dash into the director’s office and say, ‘Hey, Bill, we have got to stop all this stuff,’ ” Mr. George testified before Congress in 1987. He received a presidential pardon on Christmas Eve 1992, shortly after his conviction by a federal jury.
Mr. George challenged the traditional image of CIA recruits in the 1950s. He was not a son of privilege and lacked an Ivy League pedigree. By many accounts, he developed a loyal following for his ebullient manner and courage working in some of the world’s most volatile regions.
Raised in a Pennsylvania coal town, he did Army counterintelligence work in the Far East before joining the CIA in 1955. Through cunning and mettle, he advanced through the ranks of the clandestine service, working in Cold War proxy zones in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. He was chief of station in Beirut when civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975.
The next year, he volunteered to replace the station chief in Athens, who had been assassinated by a terrorist organization. This gesture, perhaps more than anything, brought him recognition as a dedicated officer willing to make his safety secondary to the needs of the agency.
Jack Devine, who oversaw CIA operations in Afghanistan and Iran under Mr. George, said his former boss was widely admired for shunning self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.
Devine, who now runs a private intelligence company in New York, described Mr. George’s management style: “If you wanted Paris, he’d send you to Somalia, and when you were done in Somalia, he’d send you to Paris. He wanted to know if you were a committed operator, or are you a dandy who wants to be pushing cookies around the diplomatic circuit? That’s how he sized people up.”
In the early 1980s, Casey brought Mr. George into the top management ranks, and he became unwillingly — some said unwittingly — embroiled in the Iran-contra affair.