Clair E. George, a widely respected veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service who oversaw all global espionage activities for the agency in the mid-1980s and was later convicted of lying to Congress during investigations into the Iran-contra scandal, died Aug. 11 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.
He was 81 and died of cardiac arrest, said his daughter Leslie George.
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.
As deputy director for operations from 1984 until his retirement in 1987 — essentially the man who presided over the agency’s multibillion-dollar cloak-and-dagger activities in every cranny of the world — he became a target for congressional and independent investigators looking into the imbroglio.
The Iran-contra operation began to unravel after an American cargo plane ferrying arms to Nicaraguan rebels was shot down in October 1986 by Sandinista forces. Congress, which had prohibited military aid to the contras, asked Mr. George and others at the CIA to explain what had happened.
Mr. George said he “categorically” denied the CIA’s involvement. This boomeranged on him as the extent of Iran-contra began to unfold.
Called back to Congress in 1987, Mr. George said he’d been “almost megalomaniacal in trying to prove one thing: that we were not involved in that activity because it would have been illegal.” Motivated by loyalty to the CIA, he said he had not answered as fully as he might have.
He said he had “perceived my charter too small” when initially hauled before Congress, but he added, “I don’t lie, and I did not mean to lie.”
Casey died in May 1987. FBI Director William Webster took over the CIA with a mandate to clean house. That December, Mr. George was essentially asked to retire.
A federally appointed special prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, spent years investigating the Iran-contra affair. He found “no credible evidence” that President Ronald Reagan broke the law. But criminal charges were filed against many top administration figures and some at the CIA.
In September 1991, Mr. George was indicted on 10 counts, including making false statements to Congress and obstruction. After the first court case ended in a mistrial, a federal jury at a second trial convicted Mr. George in December 1992 of two felony charges of perjury and misleading Congress.
Mr. George faced up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. But on Christmas Eve, before sentencing could occur, President George H.W. Bush pardoned Mr. George and several other former administration officials, including former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Ultimately, no one went to jail.
Clair Elroy George was born Aug. 3, 1930, in Pittsburgh and raised in the western Pennsylvania steel-mill town of Beaver Falls.
His father, who trained as a dairy chemist, worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The younger George, nicknamed “Red” because of his hair color, was an academic standout and a flamboyant drummer in his high school swing band.
After graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 1952 with a political science degree, he was scheduled to enroll at Columbia University law school when he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War.
After his CIA career, Mr. George worked as a security consultant for the secretive Feld family that runs Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was drawn again into headlines for his alleged role in efforts by the Felds to spy on critics of the family and its circus.
In 1960, Mr. George married a CIA secretary, Mary Atkinson. She died in 2008. Survivors include two daughters, Leslie George of Bethesda and Ann Davies of Wayne, Pa.; a sister; and three grandchildren.
Mr. George was a Bethesda resident until recent months, when he moved to an independent living facility in Chevy Chase.
Amid the Iran-contra investigations, Mr. George seemed to take the long view of a seasoned operative who knew the nature of politics and spycraft — and their shadowy nexus.
He told congressional Iran-contra investigators in 1987: “This is not the first administration and will not be the last that becomes totally frustrated with its spy service.”