Clair E. George
Deputy Director of Operations, Central Intelligence Agency
President George H. W. Bush
Personal details
Born (1930-08-03)August 3, 1930
Pittsburgh, PA
Died August 11, 2011(2011-08-11) (aged 81)
Bethesda, MD

Clair Elroy George (August 3, 1930 – August 11, 2011) was a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) clandestine service who oversaw all global espionage activities for the agency in the mid-1980s.[1] According to The New York Times, George was “a consummate spymaster who moved the chess pieces in the CIA’s clandestine games of intrigue.” [2]

After serving in Korea and Japan as an enlisted man in Army Intelligence, George was one of the CIA’s earliest recruits. As such George challenged the traditional image of early CIA recruits. 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.[3]

After a highly-decorated career lasting nearly thirty years, including dangerous assignments in Beirut and Athens, George served for three years in the Reagan Administration as Deputy Director for Operations.[4] He was the third-ranking official at the CIA under William Casey.

George made headlines when he became the highest-ranking target of investigation and prosecution in the Iran Contra Affair. After a first mistrial, George was eventually found guilty by a jury on only two counts of false statements to congressional committees investigating the Iran-Contra Affair. He was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush two weeks later along with others involved and was never convicted. The special prosecutor immediately thereafter moved to vacate the indictments against George altogether. In 1996, one of the laws used against George was held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in an unrelated case.[5]

After his retirement from the CIA, George continued to hold legendary hero status in the intelligence community and was a successful consultant on international matters. He also volunteered nightly for the Suicide Hotline. He died in Bethesda at age 81 of cardiac arrest.[6] His wife of 45 years, Mary, a figure in her own right as a model CIA wife, died in 2008.[7]

Beginnings[edit | edit source]

Clair Elroy George was born Aug. 3, 1930 in Pittsburgh. His family moved several times, ending up in the western Pennsylvania steel-mill town of Beaver Falls, Pa., when he was 9. George would often proudly point out that he was raised in Beaver Falls.

His father was a dairy chemist who worked for the United States 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 and president of the student council. He would later have to join the union to work as a drummer in local dance bands. He worked in a steel mill.

Later he majored in political science and debated at Pennsylvania State University, graduating in 1952. He was set to enroll in Columbia Law School when he joined the Army instead in the midst of the Korean War. He learned Chinese and worked in counterintelligence. He joined the CIA after being impressed by agency officers he met in the Far East.

In 1960, George married a CIA secretary, Mary Atkinson. She died in 2008.[8] They had two daughters both born in Paris while George was assigned to Bamako, Mali.

Long CIA service[edit | edit source]

As the CIA’s deputy director of operations for three years of the Reagan administration, the third-highest post in the spy agency, George was responsible for cloak-and-dagger activities worldwide. He reached this pinnacle after three decades of working as a spy around the world, specializing in recruiting foreign agents to spy on their own countries for the United States.

After the Korean War, George joined 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 went from Hong Kong to Paris, from Mali to New Delhi.

The Washington Post Magazine in 1992 quoted a colleague as calling George “a top-notch street man” who operated in what spies call the “night soil circuit” — the less desirable posts of the world.

George served as the CIA’s station chief in Beirut when civil war erupted there in 1975. His successor would be kidnapped and assassinated. The following year he volunteered to replace the Athens station chief, who had just been assassinated by left-wing terrorists. 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.[9]

George returned permanently to Washington in 1979. He placed first out of 100 candidates in a promotions ranking and was put in charge of the agency’s African division. William J. Casey, whom Reagan had named director of central intelligence, appointed George to successively higher positions, among them as the CIA’s liaison to Congress. He served later as deputy director from 1984 until his retirement in 1987.

Distinctions and medals[edit | edit source]

George was the recipient of three Distinguished Intelligence Medals from 1983 to 1988 and was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit.

Iran-Contra Affair[edit | edit source]

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. George initially told Congress that CIA was not involved in the operation, and he later apologized for being evasive. He said he was trying to protect the agency.

George would later explain that 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,’ ” George testified before Congress in 1987.[10]

In the early 1980s, Casey brought 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 — George 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 George and others at CIA to explain what had happened.

George said he “categorically” denied CIA’s involvement to Senate staff. This boomeranged on him as the extent of Iran-contra began to unfold.

Called back to Congress in 1987, 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 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 CIA with a mandate to clean house. That December, George was asked to retire. In September 1991, George was indicted on 9 counts, including making false statements to Congress. After the first court case ended in a mistrial, a federal jury at a second trial found guilt in December 1992 over two charges, but George was never convicted. On Christmas Eve, President George H. W. Bush pardoned George and several other former administration officials, including former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. The special prosecutor immediately thereafter moved to vacate the indictments against George altogether. In 1996, one of the laws used against George was held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in an unrelated case.[11]

Amid the Iran-contra investigations, 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.” [12]

Professional reputation[edit | edit source]

Bob Woodward, in his 1987 book, Veil: The Secret Wars of CIA 1981-1987, said veteran spies regarded George as “an old warhorse symbol of the CIA at its best and proudest.” [13]

Jack Devine, who oversaw CIA operations in Afghanistan and Iran under George, told the Washington Post that his former boss was widely admired for shunning self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.

Devine described 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.” [14]

During George’s trial, the defense repeatedly tried to inform the jury of his espionage achievements, which prosecutors tried to quash because they might impress jurors. Finally, Judge Royce C. Lamberth told prosecutors they could admit “something equivalent to war-hero status” and leave it at that.[15]

After the CIA[edit | edit source]

After his distinguished CIA career, George worked as a consultant for a variety of international interests from Halliburton to Ringling Brothers to European aristocrats. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus found George’s talents especially useful as they sought the defection and recruitment of performers and athletes from totalitarian countries. The secretive Feld family that owns the circus also drew George again into headlines for his alleged role in efforts by the Felds to spy on critics of the family and its circus. George testified in court that he worked as a consultant in the early 1990s for Kenneth Jeffrey Feld and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus where he was involved in the surveillance of a journalist who was writing about the Feld family, and of various animal rights groups such as PETA.[16]

References[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

Government offices
Preceded by
John H. Stein
CIA Deputy Director for Operations
July 1, 1984 – December 1, 1987
Succeeded by
Richard F. Stoltz

pl:George Clair

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