WASHINGTON -- The long-stalled Iran-contra investigation got a jump start yesterday when a former CIA agent with close ties to the Reagan and Bush administrations admitted to participating in an agency cover-up of the scandal.
Alan D. Fiers Jr., former chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force, also agreed to cooperate further with the investigation as part of his guilty plea on two misdemeanor charges. He admitted in U.S. District Court that he twice withheld information from Congress about the scandal, in which profits from arms sales to Iran were illegally diverted to aid for Nicaraguan guerrillas.
In the statement of facts accompanying his plea, Mr. Fiers directly contradicted his own previous testimony to Congress, as well as that of one of his former bosses, Clair E. George, who was then the CIA's deputy director for operations.
Mr. George had testified to Congress that neither he nor anyone else in the CIA knew of the diverted money until a public announcement by Attorney General Edwin W. Meese III on Nov. 25, 1986. But in his statement yesterday, Mr. Fiers said that he had learned of the diverted money at least three months earlier, "in late summer 1986," from then-Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the national security aide in the Reagan White House who helped mastermind the plan. Shortly afterward, Mr. Fiers reported the diverted money to Mr. George, the statement said, and Mr. George responded at the time by saying, "Now you are one of a handful of people who know this."
Then, two months later, after one of the CIA's contra-supply planes crashed in Nicaragua, Mr. Fiers and Mr. George discussed how they would answer questions from a congressional inquiry of the matter. Mr. George instructed Mr. Fiers to hold back information because it would " 'put the spotlight' on the administration and thus reveal Colonel North's involvement in the operation," the statement said.
Mr. George, who announced his retirement in 1987 after criticism from a congressional panel investigating the Iran-contra affair, could not be reached yesterday.
The statement also contradicted earlier testimony by Mr. North, who had said that only the head of the CIA, William J. Casey, had then known of the Iran-contra arrangements.
Mr. Fiers' readiness to offer further information revived speculation over how deeply and how high the scandal might creep, not only in the CIA but also in the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush, who was Ronald Reagan's vice president.
Three of those with the closest ties to Mr. Fiers during the years the scandal unfolded are:
* Robert M. Gates, Mr. Bush's nominee to head the CIA. Mr. Gates was the CIA's deputy director in 1986, though he has said he did not know of the Iran-contra scheme. He was not mentioned in the statement of facts submitted yesterday in the Fiers case. But like most such statements, yesterday's was narrow in scope, pertaining only to the evidence of the misdemeanor charges against Mr. Fiers. Also, the apparent wider knowledge within the CIA implied by the statement is likely to prompt new questions about Mr. Gates' possible role. The nominee's confirmation hearing is expected to begin next week.
* Donald P. Gregg, who in 1986 was national security adviser to then-Vice President Bush and is now the U.S. ambassador to South Korea. The Senate held up Mr. Gregg's ambassadorial confirmation over Iran-contra concerns, but ended up backing him 66-33 after concluding that there was no evidence of wrongdoing or dishonesty. According to yesterday's statement, Mr. Fiers and Mr. Gregg both attended a discussion of Mr. North's contra-supply network on Aug. 12, 1986.
Mr. Gregg has testified that he remembered little about the meeting, but the statement said that Edwin Corr, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, reported in detail about the contributions to the North network by Felix Rodriguez, a longtime friend of Mr. Gregg's.
* Elliott Abrams, who was Mr. Reagan's assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. He was also one of three members of the Restricted Interagency Group that monitored the military operations of the contras. The other two members were Mr. North and Mr. Fiers. Mr. Abrams has testified he was not aware of the Iran-contra scheme.
By refueling old suspicions, Mr. Fiers' plea agreement offers new life and fresh relevance to the 4 1/2 -year-old case, which, at a cost of $25 million and counting, was becoming a political albatross for the few officials, mainly Democrats, still bothering to call for results.
It also provides something of an antidote to the appeals court setbacks that independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh has met during the past year. The appellate decisions have all but reversed the conviction of Mr. North in May 1989 on three felony counts. They also have jeopardized the conviction in April 1990 on five felony counts of John M. Poindexter, national security adviser to Mr. Reagan.
The plea agreement by Mr. Fiers represents the first time the investigation has been able to pierce the armor of the CIA, said Malcolm Byrne, director of analysis for the National Security Archive, a non-profit research organization. Until now, the agency has been able to withhold much information on the grounds of protecting classified information.
Mr. Walsh said in a statement yesterday that Mr. Fiers' cooperation and plea "mark a significant advance," but no one in his office would say in which direction Mr. Fiers might be able to lead them.
Mr. Fiers, after pleading guilty yesterday, said that in 1986 "I was faced with some very difficult decisions. . . . I did what I thought was in the best interests of the country. Today, I've done what I think is in the best interests of the country."
Each of his crimes carries a maximum one-year jail term and $200,000 fine. Judge Aubrey Robinson did not set a sentencing date.