By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Gust L. Avrakotos, 67, the CIA agent in charge of the massive arming of Afghan tribesmen during their 1980s guerrilla war against the Soviets, died of complications from a stroke Dec. 1 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He was a McLean resident.
Mr. Avrakotos, who ran the largest covert operation in the agency's history, was dubbed "Dr. Dirty" for his willingness to handle ethically ambiguous tasks and a "blue-collar James Bond" for his 27 years of undercover work. In the 1980s, he used Tennessee mules to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in automatic weapons, antitank guns and satellite maps from Pakistan to the mujaheddin.
Working with former congressman Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), Mr. Avrakotos eventually controlled more than 70 percent of the CIA's annual expenditures for covert operations, funneling it through intermediaries to the mujaheddin. As a result, the tribesmen drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and the long Cold War shuddered toward an end.
Those weapons later were used in the fratricidal war in Afghanistan before the Taliban took control. Critics noted that those weapons probably were still in use, both in support of and against U.S. troops, when the United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001.
Mr. Avrakotos, whose thermonuclear approach to internal politics twice led him to coarsely insult the CIA's European division director, lost his position just as the Stinger antiaircraft missile launchers downed the first Soviet gunships. He was transferred to an African assignment and retired shortly thereafter, in 1989.
Mr. Avrakotos remained obscure until 2003, when "60 Minutes" producer George Crile published "Charlie Wilson's War," a best-selling description of how Wilson and Mr. Avrakotos strong-armed Congress and the bureaucracy into supporting the cause of the mujaheddin. He may become still better known: Tom Hanks has bought the rights to turn the book into a movie.
Mr. Avrakotos was born in Aliquippa, Pa., the son of Greek immigrants, and attended Carnegie Institute of Technology until family finances forced him to leave after two years. He worked in a local steel mill, then sold beer and cigarettes to ethnic taverns throughout western Pennsylvania, learning to banter with the first-generation immigrants from eastern and central Europe. He returned to college and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh.
He joined the CIA in 1962, just after it began recruiting agents from beyond its Ivy League training grounds. Because he spoke Greek, he was assigned to Athens. While he was there, a military junta overthrew the democratic, constitutional government, and Mr. Avrakotos became the chief liaison to Greek colonels. Their fascist regime fell in 1974, and the November 17 terrorist group assassinated the CIA's station chief. CIA renegade Philip Agee, who had exposed the Athens station chief's name, six months later revealed Mr. Avrakotos as well, and the Greek press vilified him for his role in the regime.
He left Greece in 1978. But he could not get another decent assignment with the CIA, Crile wrote, because his superiors considered him too uncouth for promotion.
A second-generation, working-class Greek American with a profane tongue and bare-knuckle character, Mr. Avrakotos never quite felt at home in the polished WASP world of the CIA's elite. So when the intelligence scandals of the 1970s resulted in a purge of agents in 1977, and most were first- or second-generation Americans, Mr. Avrakotos felt betrayed by the organization. Not one to let bygones be bygones, Mr. Avrakotos once showed a photograph of a colleague who crossed him to an old Greek woman and requested that she put a curse on him.
He eventually found a position with the Middle East desk at the CIA and worked his way into a position as section chief of the area that includes Afghanistan. He was made a member of the elite Senior Intelligence Service in 1985 and received the Intelligence Medal of Merit in 1988.
"Throughout his Afghan tour, Avrakotos did things on a regular basis that could have gotten him fired had anyone chosen to barge into his arena with an eye toward prosecuting him. But then Avrakotos was not just lucky. He was brutally worldly wise, keenly aware of the internal risks he was taking. And so he always made it difficult for anyone to get him, should they try," Crile wrote.
Backed by Wilson's appropriations acumen, Mr. Avrakotos purchased so many weapons that he had to buy a special ship to move containers of them to Karachi. He badgered the Saudi Arabian government to keep a secret commitment to match U.S. funds to the mujaheddin and intimidated Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) into quieting his criticism of the CIA. He batted away a proposal by Oliver North and Richard Perle to set up loudspeakers in the mountains to entice Soviets to defect.
He shopped in Egypt for wheelbarrows and bicycles rigged as bombs. It was illegal to provide sniper rifles to foreigners, so he redefined the weapons as "individual defensive devices . . . long-range, night-vision devices with scopes."
But it was after he filed a memo warning against North's arms-for-hostages scheme that came to be known as Iran-contra that his career ascent ended, and he was reassigned to Africa.
He retired from the CIA in 1989, then worked for TRW in Rome and for News Corp., for whom he began a business intelligence newsletter, working in Rome and McLean.
He returned to work on contract for the CIA from 1997 until 2003.
His marriage to Judy Avrakotos ended in divorce. A granddaughter died in 2004.
Survivors include his wife of 19 years, Claudette Avrakotos of McLean; a son from his first marriage, Gregory Avrakotos of Melbourne Beach, Fla.; a sister; and two granddaughters.