WASHINGTON -- A federal grand jury indicted the former head of CIA covert operations yesterday, charging him with lying for more than four years about the Reagan administration's secret arms shipments to Nicaraguan rebels and Iranian revolutionaries.
Clair E. George, 61, the agency's deputy director of operations from 1984 to 1988, became the highest-ranking CIA official ever charged with a felony.
A 10-count felony indictment handed up in U.S. District Court accused him of committing perjury before Congress, obstructing justice with his falsehoods and lying to a federal grand jury investigating the Iran-contra affair.
The indictment follows a guilty plea two months ago by Alan D. Fiers Jr., who led a CIA task force that worked with White House aides to defy a congressional ban on aid to the Nicaraguan contras in 1985 and 1986. Mr. Fiers is cooperating with independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh's investigation of the Iran-contra operation. His confessions led to Mr. George's indictment.
Together, Mr. George's indictment and Mr. Fiers' plea describe an organized cover-up of the operation at the highest levels of the CIA.
The indictment comes at a crucial time for the CIA and the Bush administration.
Long-delayed confirmation hearings for Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to head the CIA, are scheduled to begin Sept. 16. The indictment is likely to taint the atmosphere surrounding the hearings.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Mr. Gates, then the CIA's acting director, to run the spy agency, but Mr. Gates withdrew in the face of unanswered questions about the Iran-contra affair.
Mr. George, retired and working as a $200-an-hour security consultant, was third-in-command at the CIA during the Iran-contra operation. No one who held so high a rank at the CIA has ever been charged with a felony.
In the Iran-contra affair, the Reagan administration secretly shipped weapons to Iran in attempts to ransom American hostages held in Lebanon. Then it funneled millions in profits from those sales to finance its secret war against the Nicaraguan government, although Congress had outlawed aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.
The indictment alleges that a pattern of lies began Oct. 9, 1986, four days after Nicaraguan soldiers shot down a CIA-supported plane carrying arms for the contras. The downing threatened to expose the CIA's links to the illegal arms pipeline run by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, a White House aide.
The indictment said:
* Mr. George lied to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that day about what he and the CIA knew concerning aid to the contras, privately telling Mr. Fiers that the CIA had to lie to Congress to "turn the spotlight" away from the White House's role in the affair.
* Mr. George continued to lie to the panel the next day, saying that he did not know Richard V. Secord, a retired Air Force major general deeply involved in the secret weapons shipments to Iran and the contras.
* Mr. George lied to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence the next week, saying he knew nothing about the contra supply flights except what he had read in the newspapers.
* He repeated these lies to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence six weeks later.
* Finally, the indictment said, Mr. George lied to the grand jury this April when asked about his October 1986 testimony to Congress.
In partly declassified 1987 testimony he gave to lawmakers investigating the Iran-contra affair, Mr. George apologized "for any indication that I was misleading" Congress in October 1986.
"My intent, which may or may not excuse me, was, above all . . . almost to the point of megalomania, to make the point that the Central Intelligence Agency was not involved" in illegal conduct in the Iran-contra affair, Mr. George said.
Top CIA officials have a history of misleading Congress in testimony about secret operations, the public record shows. But none has ever been indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
Mr. George said that the indictment "merely makes me a pawn in the continuous drama of political exploitation."
"My conscience in this situation, as in my 33 years of CIA service, is clear. In the end, I and my service to my country will be vindicated," he said in a statement he read in front of his house in Bethesda. He declined to answer questions.
He faces up to 50 years in prison and fines of up to $2.5 million if convicted on all the charges against him.
"It has become difficult and dangerous" for CIA officials to testify to Congress, said David Whipple, a CIA officer from 1950 to 1985 and a close friend of Mr. George's.
"The whole question of lying to Congress -- you could call it a lie, but for us, that's keeping cover," said Mr. Whipple, who heads the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
"In earlier years, that was not viewed as lying, as it is now. To give less than the full truth was not viewed as seriously as it is today. Congress has made this the supreme issue, the supreme evil -- lying to Congress."