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Send In The Clowns

Project Preempt

Jan Pottker and husband Andrew Fishel
Jan Pottker and husband Andrew Fishel have waged a seven-year court battle against Kenneth Feld, head of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus empire. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

During his long CIA career, Clair George was a highly regarded covert operations officer, an ebullient character known for his bravery and ability to handle crises in overseas hotspots. He rose to become chief of the agency's global clandestine service in the mid-1980s, only to see his career derailed by the Iran-contra scandal. Caught up in a grinding independent counsel's investigation, George was put on trial twice and convicted once, in 1992, on two felony counts of lying to a congressional committee. (Later he was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.)

As his legal bills mounted, George went to work as a consultant on "international issues" for Feld Entertaiment. Now 75 and ailing, he declined to comment -- he's also a defendant in the suit brought by Pottker and her husband -- but his role in the Pottker operation is detailed in contracts, memos and depositions that have since become part of the voluminous record in the case.

By October 1990 -- two months after the Regardie's story appeared -- George had already discovered that Pottker wanted to expand her Regardie's piece into an unauthorized biography of Irvin Feld, to be titled "Highwire." After getting his hands on a copy of her book proposal, George set into motion a plan that he would later refer to in a "top secret" memo to Feld as Project Preempt.

Fearing a scandalous treatment of his father, Feld signed a contract paying George $3,000 a week to oversee preparation of an authorized, "quality" book about the family business, according to court records. George had other duties, too:

"I undertook a series of efforts to find out what Pottker was doing and reported on the results of my work to Mr. Feld," he said in an affidavit. "I prepared my reports in writing and presented them to Mr. Feld in personal meetings."

George also devised a plan to "divert" Pottker from writing potential exposs about the circus, whether for other magazines or in a book. She wanted to probe the circus's child-labor practices and treatment of animals, among other topics, but the ex-CIA man took a dim view of her journalistic enterprise.

"Ms. Pottker is a professional mudslinger who was spending most of her time writing derogatory and tasteless pieces about the Feld family," George said in a deposition. "And it so came to pass that we decided that we would lead her astray from that and have her do something else."

The expert spook hired a onetime journalist named Robert Eringer, whom he described as a "very close friend," to help carry out the Pottker operation. George paid him $1,500 a week.

According to Pottker's suit, Eringer's mission was to worm his way into her life, becoming her confidant, editor and book "packager." He steered her toward researching other famous and fractious families, including the Rockefellers, the Mars candy clan and the Hafts of Washington.

A Rockefeller book, Eringer predicted in an early memo, "will side-track Pottker for many months to come -- probably a couple of years -- and this will mean she must relegate any possible Ringling book project to a back burner."

Eventually Pottker published two books that Feld had a secret hand in: "Crisis in Candyland," an unauthorized look at the Mars chocolate family, in 1995; and "Celebrity Washington," a small guidebook to the homes of media and political figures, in 1996. A Feld company even paid for the $25,000 advance on "Crisis in Candyland." Both books had small publishers and limited print runs.

In self-congratulatory memos, the operatives told Feld that they considered their mission successful. "Pottker is expending all of her time and energy on the two projects we packaged for her," says a report from the mid-'90s. "She has had no time to even think about Ringling Brothers. Our projects have effectively diverted her from the new investigation into Ringling."

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