One by one, the aging Cold War operatives ambled into St. Alban’s Parish late last week. In walked a former CIA director. Sitting on the right, the agency’s ex-operations chief in Afghanistan. Somewhere else, an ex-Latin America division chief.
As the organ began playing, the 300-plus attendees read their programs. The words on the cover laid out the ritual at hand, but they also symbolized an era’s completion: “In Thanksgiving and in Celebration of the Life of Clair E. George.”
And then, the ex-spies prayed. They bowed their heads in honor of one of their own: a man whose life story reveals the peculiar risks that faced CIA officers in the second half of the 20th century as the interplay between politics and patriotic duty became increasingly overt.
Clair George, who died in August from cardiac arrest at 81, has a rare status in CIA lore. He was the first high-ranking agency official to be found guilty of felony charges while carrying out official duties. Despite the public outrage about CIA actions, George remained a popular figure among agency alumni because they believe his loyalty — to them and to his country — never faltered.
George’s career, which began exactly 56 years ago on Oct. 17, 1955, encapsulated an era in which the CIA focused on the professional trade of espionage and less on the covert, paramilitary action dominating the agency today. He was a spy’s spy, or more precisely, a working man’s spy. Collecting intelligence. Meeting people late at night. And above all, recruiting foreign nationals to spy for the United States.
A 32-year company veteran, George took pride in his rise from a small Pennsylvania steel town to a top perch in an agency full of Ivy Leaguers. By the mid-1980s, he became deputy director of operations, in charge of the CIA’s global network of spies. Though paramilitary action did not excite him, George supported a team that supplied Afghan rebels with heat-seeking Stinger missiles to fight the Soviets — the deal made famous in the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Ultimately, George was forced to retire for his role in the Iran-contra scandal. He was indicted, found guilty, and thanks only to a presidential pardon, was spared a prison sentence.
At St. Alban’s, the old guard stood up for their old spymaster, viewing him as an apolitical agency man who was unfairly dragged into politics at the end of his career.
William Lofgren, a former chief of Central Asia and Russia operations, took the podium as the eulogist and addressed the issue of the indictment. George faced charges that he made false statements to Congress in its investigation of the U.S. government’s sale of weapons to Iran for American hostages and the diversion of profits from those sales to fund Nicaragua’s anti-Communist contras.
“One prominent U.S. senator who later ran unsuccessfully for president called Clair ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ while another who for a brief moment was on the Democratic ticket as a vice presidential candidate referred to him as ‘the godfather of this whole sordid mess,’ ” Lofgren said, eliciting laughter from a like-minded crowd. “Well, we all know that he was neither.” (Former senator Thomas F. Eagleton’s actual phrase was “founding father.”)
George’s first trial in 1992 resulted in a mistrial; months later, jurors in the second trial found George guilty on two counts, and he could have faced up to five years in prison. But President George H.W. Bush pardoned him before he was sentenced, on Christmas Eve 1992.
Congressional leaders viewed him as excessively secretive when pressed for information about the government’s shadow war against the Sandinistas. One intelligence committee staff member told The Post in 1992 that George viewed Congress as a “hard target,” adding that he believed George thought the lawmakers ought to be “manipulated and exploited . . . in any way possible, including surreptitious conversations and misinformation and whatever else you pulled out of your bag of tricks.”
Such sentiments would obviously not be the focus of a memorial service, and Jack Devine, who oversaw CIA operations in Afghanistan and Iran in the mid-1980s, said that many CIA officers never doubted George’s loyalty to them.
“Clair didn’t do something operationally wrong,” Devine said in an interview. “And to this day, I don’t believe he knew about the money going to the contras.”
During his eulogy, Lofgren traced the arc of George’s CIA career, depicting the individual against the backdrop of an agency adapting to counter the Soviet threat as it played out around the world. After an Army stint, George muscled his way past the corps of Ivy League graduates because he chose some of the riskiest assignments. He also wasn’t an idealogue.
“We were all against communism in the context of the Cold War, but Clair did not wear his politics on his sleeve,” Devine said. “He would not be comfortable at the table kibitzing about foreign policy. He was more about, ‘Who’s going to meet our sensitive agent in Belgrade?’ ”
Nor was he afraid to show his quirkier side — or his humanity. Lofgren described a lunch in Hong Kong given by George’s chief of station for a visiting British MI6 intelligence officer. When everyone went around the room saying which historical figure they’d like to have dinner with, the MI6 officer said Winston Churchill, and the CIA station chief said Abraham Lincoln. George — hovering nearby as a gofer — said he’d prefer Fred Astaire.
And in Lebanon in the ’70s, George led a pared-down CIA station during Beirut’s civil war. To illustrate the “hatred and madness” of the war, Lofgren said, George would describe a visit to a Christian warlord’s home. The warlord invited George to his roof, and when George asked why so many guests were “excitedly” gathered in one corner, his host said: “Firing mortars into Muslim neighborhoods. Do you want to take a turn?”
A year later, George volunteered to become the Athens stations chief, succeeding a man who had just been assassinated. To keep a low profile in Greece, George refused to drive around in armored vehicles, preferring his Volkswagen — and simplicity — over the romantic or overly complicated trappings of spyhood.
“He claimed the best document-concealment device was between his shirt and his stomach — a device he used on more than one occasion to carry documents from foreign ministries that will remain nameless,” Lofgren said.
Leslie George, 48, a St. Albans School science teacher who is the oldest of George’s two daughters, remembers finding Athens stressful as a 16-year-old.
“I remember complaining to my mom and dad about why they wouldn’t let us take the bus, because we had a chauffeur always take us home from the youth club. We also had a guard in front of our house, which was embarrassing to bring friends home to,” Leslie recalled. “I threw a temper tantrum and would say, ‘Why won’t you let me do what the other kids do?’ That’s when Dad said, ‘Leslie, I have something to tell you. I work for the CIA.’ It was completely the strangest thing. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was absolutely shocked.”
Since his death in August, Leslie and her husband, Manuel Miranda, a former State Department director in the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, have been sorting through some of George’s boxes of CIA artifacts: the gold medals, the framed certificates noting his fulfillment of the clandestine service’s “difficult and elusive” requirements; the fake State Department certificates that he’d hang in his offices abroad to throw off visitors; even his 1950s CIA application in which he penciled in his hobbies: “Play Drums. Collect Jazz Records. Enjoy All Athletics But Am Not Skilled At Any One.”
One letter stands out: “Dear Mom, I have been offered about $4500.00 per year or so to do something for Uncle Sam, exactly what I’m not sure. Nor do I know where, when, how, or why,” George typed. “So think it over and remember the child of 1955 has [a] strange and sometimes tortuous path to follow.”
It was a path that crossed into politics and ran afoul of the law and raised questions for some about the definition of patriotism, but in the complex world of espionage left George a hero to this small cadre of former spies.
One of George’s last jobs had nothing to do with espionage but did involve secrets. He worked for a suicide hotline and had a phone dedicated to the job in the basement of his Bethesda home. “He would go down there, and everyone in the family knew not to disturb him,” Leslie said. “There was a script he was supposed to stick with, and he would get in trouble for not following it. But he did have regulars.”
Those regulars, Leslie said, knew how to reach him by using his code name, which he used to conceal his identity from callers who might want to track him down. They’d ask for “Charlie.”