Six years ago, in a large, packed room in Washington, Clair George took his seat at a heavy wooden table in front of John Kerry (D-Mass.). Behind a pair of spectacles, the white-haired, craggy-faced George could have passed for an investment banker or a corporate lawyer, which he almost became. In fact, he was the nation's chief spymaster: deputy director for operations of the Central Intelligence Agency. Seated behind the witness table in the hearing room of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, George listened as Kerry questioned him about the secret--and illegal--flights to resupply the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. His answer, without hesitation, was he knew nothing.
Last Friday, once again in a large, packed room in Washington, George took his seat behind a heavy wooden table in front of Kerry. But this time the retired spy was at the defendant's table in a federal courtroom, charged with three felony counts of obstructing Congress and a federal grand jury and six counts of perjury and making false statements concerning the Contra resupply flights and other Iran-Contra related information. And Kerry was seated on the witness stand, the lead-off witness against him. The long Iran-Contra investigation of Independent Council Lawrence E. Walsh, the Lt. Columbo of Washington, had at last extended its reach deep within the CIA.
But there is another factor that may also make this trial unique. It may also become the first trial of the CIA's longstanding secret code of silence. Among those scheduled to testify against George is Alan D. Fiers, a fellow former CIA official who ran the agency's Central American Task Force. According to the indictment, George, in preparation for their testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1986, instructed Fiers to delete portions of the text that would have exposed the CIA's knowledge about key elements of the Contra resupply operation.
To the members of the Old Boys Club at the CIA, few things are as holy as the club's unbreakable code of silence. Its members--white, male and mostly Ivy League--entered the agency in the 1950s and have been fighting the Cold War ever since. Today, many have retired but the code lives on. They join groups such as the Assn. of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), a sort of old-spies VFW, where they swap war stories and reminisce about the good old days when nothing counted as much as loyalty to the agency and loyalty to each other.
George certainly qualified for membership. At Penn State, he was a member of the secret society Skull and Bones. From there he went into the Army's counterintelligence corps, where he served in Japan. In 1955, he joined the CIA, where he quickly rose through the ranks, stationed first in Hong Kong, then as station chief in Bamako, Mali, and operations chief in New Delhi. In 1971, he took over as chief of the operations-external section of the Soviet Division at CIA headquarters, where he ran Soviet operations outside the Soviet Union and the East Bloc. Then, in 1975, he went to Beirut, followed by Athens, both as station chief. He returned to headquarters in 1979 as head of the Africa Division and then, under William J. Casey, became the agency's congressional liaison officer.
In Casey, George seemed to have found a soul mate. Like his boss, he failed to inform the Senate Intelligence Committee about the covert mining of Nicaragua's harbors, first disclosed in 1984. That provoked a bitter letter to Casey from then-committee chairman Sen. Barry M. Goldwater. Committee staff director Robert R. Simmons, himself a CIA veteran, told the Washington Post, "It seems clear that George cannot escape blame for failing to keep the committee informed." Two months later, almost as a reward, Casey named George his deputy director for operations, the No. 3 job at the agency. Said David Holliday, another Senate Intelligence Committee staffer, "Clair George had the same contempt for Congress that Bill Casey did."
Fiers saw firsthand how loyalty over truth operated in the club. At a meeting in Casey's office with the director, George and Oliver L. North, Casey turned to North and said, "Ollie, Alan tells me you're operating in Central America . . . Are you?" "No," North said. "Good, I want you to understand that you're not to operate in Central America." Perplexed, Fiers was later told by George, according to Fiers congressional testimony, that the whole thing had been a "charade" and that Casey had told President Ronald Reagan not to worry. "I'll take care of Central America. Just leave it to me." When Fiers expressed his shock to George, George simply shook his head and said essentially "that's not a problem."
Looking back, Fiers blamed his reluctance to come forward on the code of silence. "I could have been more forthcoming," he said, but I frankly was not going to be the first person to step up and do that. . . . So long as others who knew the details as much as I--who knew more than I--were keeping their silence on this, I was going to keep my silence."
Dean of the CIA's code-of-silence school and charter Old Boy is former CIA director Richard M. Helms, who was convicted of failing to testify fully and accurately to Congress in 1973. Following his sentencing, his lawyer told reporters that Helms would "wear this conviction like a badge of honor." He seems to believe that as long as intelligence officers follow the orders of the director, they should be immune from prosecution. "It does strike one as bizarre," he told one reporter, "that individuals who genuinely believed and can prove that they were following higher authority, the orders of their commander in chief or the director of central intelligence, should be legally persecuted."
Other Old Boys arrogantly argue that there is something almost unconstitutional about prosecuting CIA employees. "It's devastating," said David Whipple, executive director of the Assn. of Former Intelligence Officers. "Here is a man who served his country in danger, who is essentially being pilloried as a common criminal. It just doesn't seem balanced. It's wrong." Clair George saw a great deal less "danger" in his career than the average Vietnam vet or the average fireman, but there is no double standard for them.
Old Boy Ray Cline, a former deputy director, agrees. "I don't think people like George should be indicted," he has said. "The only thing they have ever been accused of doing is lying to Congress, which is a very delicate issue and isn't criminal in my opinion."
As prosecutor Walsh moves ahead in his cover-up investigation, the legacy of Casey and the Old Boy code of silence will certainly be one of his greatest mountains to climb. "Casey had the idea that you could bend, push, manipulate and exploit the law for your own purposes," Tom Polgar, a former CIA station chief and former staff member of the Iran-Contra committee told a reporter. "And that if you get caught, it's sort of an operational accident, sort of the cot of running the enterprise."