Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, a CIA operative and official of dash, daring and swagger who helped establish and headed the agency’s counterterrorism center and also was known for his connection to the Iran-contra affair of the 1980s, died April 9 at his home in Leesburg, Va. He was 83.
The cause was cancer, his family said in a statement.
Over the years, Mr. Clarridge’s career, replete with secret missions, covert meetings and dealings at the edge of legality embodied much of the activities associated in the popular imagination with the shadow world of intelligence, and its art, craft and mystique.
An Ivy League graduate and hard-line Cold Warrior fond of undercover names such as “Dax Lebaron,” Mr. Clarridge conjured bold and imaginative schemes — often over gin and cigars — and cut a singular swath in the spy agency. His comfort with big risks, called “cowboy” instincts by some, brought him admiration by many colleagues. Others hedged their trust.
Robert M. Gates, the former director of central intelligence and defense secretary, once said of Mr. Clarridge: “If you have a tough, dangerous job critical to national security, Dewey’s your man. He’s talented, one of our best operations officers. Just make sure you have a good lawyer at his elbow. Dewey’s not easy to control.”
Mr. Clarridge made a secret trip to Baghdad in 1986 to try to get Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to surrender a wanted terrorist. While the leftist Sandinista regime ruled Nicaragua in the 1980s, Mr. Clarridge conceived a plan to damage the country’s economy by mining its principal harbor — an act that drew an international outcry and the condemnation of many members of Congress.
For his role in Iran-contra, he showed up for a court hearing with an outer coat made in camouflage pattern. “When you’re at battle stations,” he quipped, “you might as well be prepared.”
Mr. Clarridge, whose wardrobe consisted of white Italian suits, silk pocket handkerchiefs and other flashy attire, had a pungent way of expressing himself. “We will intervene whenever we decide it is in our national security interest to intervene,” he said in an interview for a documentary film on CIA operations. “And if you don’t like it, lump it. Get used to it, world. We are not going to put up with nonsense.”
His soldier-of-fortune charisma brought him to the attention of CIA Director William J. Casey, who tapped him in 1981 to run the clandestine branch’s Latin America division. At the times, President Ronald Reagan made it a top priority of the agency to counter “foreign-sponsored subversion and terrorism.”
Mr. Clarridge, a former Rome chief of station, came to the assignment with no knowledge of Spanish. But he seemed to the director the man for the job — “neither a fool nor a stickler for rules and regulations,” as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner described him in his history of the CIA, “Legacy of Ashes.”
“Casey said, ‘Take off a month or two and basically figure out what to do about Central America,’ ” Mr. Clarridge told Weiner. “That was the sum total of his approach. And it didn’t take rocket science to understand what needed to be done. . . . Make war in Nicaragua and start killing Cubans. This was exactly what Casey wanted to hear and he said, ‘Okay, go ahead and do it.’ ”
During his three years running the Latin America division, he was a top intelligence planner for the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 following a Marxist coup on that Caribbean nation. But much of his work overseeing Latin America — and, later, clandestine operations in Europe — enmeshed him with the sprawling Iran-contra operation.
Iran-contra designated the conjunction of two controversial initiatives pursued during the Reagan administration. One was to sell arms to Iran to get help in the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The other was the use of the funds obtained in that clandestine Middle East deal to support the right-wing “contra” rebels in Nicaragua.
Revelations about Iran-contra resonated for years, and during a special prosecutor’s investigation, Mr. Clarridge was indicted in 1991 on charges of perjury and making false statements to congressional investigating committees and a presidential review board looking into secret arms shipments to Iran. By then retired for several years, he received a pardon in 1992 from President George H. W. Bush before he could go to trial.
At the time of his indictment, a lawyer who represented him told the Los Angeles Times that he “served his country with honor and without reproach for over 30 years.”
In 1986, Mr. Clarridge had been a driving force in the creation of what was then called the CIA Counterterrorist Center. The aim of the new center was to address what he recognized as a rapidly growing major threat to national security after a terrorist bombing in 1983 at the U.S. military compound in Beirut left 241 U.S. service members, most of them Marines, dead.
The Counterterrorist Center, with a mandate to “preempt, disrupt and defeat terrorists,” was considered a radical idea at the time because of its interdisciplinary approach: combining spies with analysts, technical specialists and other national security personnel.
But it was credited with several major successes under Mr. Clarridge’s leadership. Among them, the center penetrated the Abu Nidal terror organization that had been responsible for a spree of bombings and hijackings throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and severely disrupted its operations. Another victory was the 1987 capture of Fawaz Younis, a Lebanese terrorist and hijacker, with the coordinated help of the FBI, Navy and Justice Department.
A dentist’s son, Duane Ramsdell Clarridge was born in Nashua, N.H., on April 16, 1932. He graduated in 1953 from Brown University and was recruited to the CIA in 1955 after receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Russian Institute.
When reports about Iran-contra began to circulate publicly, Mr. Clarridge was reprimanded and left the CIA in 1988 along with many colleagues dismayed by the new leadership of William H. Webster, a former federal judge brought in to reform the agency.
Mr. Clarridge went to work for defense contractor General Dynamics and remained involved in Middle East intrigue. After being called in to help free a New York Times reporter kidnapped in 2008 by the Taliban in Afghanistan, he set up a private intelligence network a few years ago that reportedly gathered information from sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mr. Clarridge made front-page news late last year when he was publicly identified as a top adviser on national security and terrorism to retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was seeking the Republican Party presidential nomination. The former spy told the Times of the candidate’s grasp of policy, “Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East.” His blunt comment played a role in sinking Carson’s bid.
His first marriage, to Margaret Reynard, ended in divorce. His second wife, Helga Birkmann, died in 2014. Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Ian Clarridge and Cassie Trowbridge; a son from his second marriage, Tarik Clarridge; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Clarridge wrote a blunt memoir, “A Spy for All Seasons” (1997), co-authored with Digby Diehl, a literary collaborator. He was similarly outspoken in defense of the unorthodox, often unsavory techniques used in the counterterrorism profession.
“You have a spy agency because the spy agency is going to break laws overseas,” he told The Washington Post in 2005. “If you don’t want it to do those dastardly things, don’t have it. You can have the State Department.”