CIA reaction to Iran-contra prosecution illustrates the cult of secrecy

September 07, 1991|By Elaine Sciolino | Elaine Sciolino,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The indictment yesterday of one of the CIA's most accomplished spymasters does more than press the Iran-contra inquiry forward. It poses the sharpest challenge yet to the culture of the agency that Clair E. George personified -- a culture of secrecy that for decades has successfully resisted the efforts of Congress and the executive branch to penetrate and change it.

When Senate hearings in the 1970s revealed startling evidence of wrongdoing in the agency, that led to the creation of the congressional oversight process.

Inside the agency, there was a shake-up. But only Richard M. Helms, who had been director of central intelligence, was ever publicly charged. And Mr. Helms was punished only with a $2,000 fine for withholding information from Congress and a two-year suspended jail sentence.

Never before in the history of U.S. intelligence have so many current and former intelligence officials found themselves under investigation and possible prosecution and prison sentences as in the inquiry of Lawrence E. Walsh, the Iran-contra special prosecutor.

So many CIA veterans were called before the grand jury that in mid-August a group of retired officers created a legal defense fund to pay the bills of colleagues who have hired private lawyers to defend them.

The fund has already raised more than $40,000, and on Thursday, the agency informed its employees that they would be permitted to contribute to it.

Both Richard Kerr, the acting director of central intelligence, and the agency's legal advisers have recommended that the rules prohibiting employees from accepting such funds be changed.

The success of the fund illustrates the depth of animosity felt within the intelligence community toward both Mr. Walsh and Alan D. Fiers, a former intelligence official whose testimony before the special prosecutor resulted in yesterday's indictment.

But some think the reason for the fund's existence -- the need to pay fees for outside counsel -- represents something else, a new ethos of every-agent-for-himself.

"In the old days, you'd never go out and get a lawyer simply to go and answer questions, because to do so was an admission that you needed one," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of counter-terrorism for the agency who worked for Mr. George.

Mr. Walsh is seen by many former and current officials as a runaway prosecutor with a vendetta against the agency.

Fiers is blamed for breaking the CIA code of silence when he agreed in July to cooperate with the special prosecutor and, in return, was allowed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress.

One retired CIA official who is himself under scrutiny by the special prosecutor said that he and his colleagues were "shocked" by the Fiers testimony, adding that if he was indicted, he would sooner die than cooperate with the prosecution.

The ferocity of the reaction shows how lasting is the tension between a spy's oath to keep secrets and the duty to tell the government the truth.

According to yesterday's indictment, Mr. George decided that preserving the secrecy of the Iran-contra operation was more important than sharing with Congress his knowledge of the illegal covert operation.

"Without question, George treated Congress with contempt," said David Holliday, who until earlier this year was a senior staff member on

the Senate Intelligence Committee. "He was never able to rid himself of the belief that only those who need to know should know."

tTC But Mr. George's supporters remain convinced that Mr. Walsh's mission is misguided and that the only way to preserve the integrity of U.S. intelligence is to reveal as little as possible to outsiders, even the Congress.

"I don't think people like George should be indicted," said Ray Cline, a former deputy director of intelligence. "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. You don't have to tell all of your sources and methods to Congress, and you try to conceal as best as you can."

At his own sentencing proceeding in 1977, Mr. Helms articulated the tension.

"I found myself in a position of conflict," he said. "I had sworn my oath to protect certain secrets. I didn't want to lie. I didn't want to mislead the Senate. I was simply trying to find my way through a very difficult situation in which I found myself."

So important was the cult of secrecy that, as they left the courtroom, Edward Bennett Williams, Mr. Helms' lawyer, told reporters that his client would "wear this conviction like a badge of honor."

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