WASHINGTON -- In a revealing account of life behind the scenes at the CIA during the Iran-contra affair, a former intelligence officer said yesterday that he felt like a "cat being thrown in a clothes dryer," caught up in a swirl of deceit, confusion and bureaucratic intrigue.
In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Alan D. Fiers Jr., former head of the CIA's Central America task force, said he realized the awkward nature of his role when he took part in an elaborately staged meeting in which then-CIA Director William J. Casey tried to establish a facade of ignorance for himself and top aides about Oliver L. North's secret efforts to arm Nicaraguan contra rebels after Congress barred the agency from any role in supplying military aid to the contras.
Mr. Fiers testified that Mr. Casey summoned several senior agency executives, together with Mr. North, to CIA headquarters in October 1984 to discuss the activities of Mr. North, then a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and a National Security Council aide who was just beginning his role as the Ronald
Reagan administration's covert intermediary to the rebels.
Mr. Fiers testified that Mr. Casey asked Mr. North: "Ollie, Alan tells me you're operating in Central America. Is that true?" As Mr. Fiers recalled it yesterday, Mr. North answered, "No, sir."
"Good," said Mr. Casey, "I want you to understand that you're not to operate in Central America." Mr. Fiers, who by then knew that Mr. North had started to set up a secret arms pipeline to the contras, said, "I was somewhat left incredulous."
After the meeting, Mr. Fiers said, he talked privately with Clair E. George, his superior, who headed the agency's covert operations worldwide.
As Mr. Fiers recounted the conversation, Mr. George told him, "Sometime in the dark of night, Bill Casey has said, 'I'll take care of Central America, just leave it to me. And what you saw going on there was a charade.' And I looked at Clair, and these were my words, and please excuse the profanity, 'Jesus Christ, Clair, if that's true, this will be worse than Watergate if it ever comes out in the open.' "
It was at that point that Mr. Fiers, his voice cracking, recalled a conversation with his father. "Dad," Mr. Fiers said in his testimony yesterday, "I don't think I'll come out of this with my career intact, but I'm going to do it."
Mr. Fiers described tensions among Reagan administration officials who sometimes hid their knowledge of the affair from each other, and he provided fresh details about efforts to keep the agency's knowledge of the affair secret from Congress.
And although Mr. Fiers said he did not know how much Mr. Casey knew of the affair or whether he was its mastermind, as Mr. North has suggested, his account painted Mr. Casey as playing a central role.
Mr. Fiers was called before the committee primarily to testify about Robert M. Gates, the nominee for director of the agency. While he said Mr. Gates had some knowledge of the affair, he did not implicate him directly in any wrongdoing.
Once one of the agency's most promising operations officers and an expert on the Middle East, Mr. Fiers received a reprimand for his role in the Iran-contra affair and left the agency in late 1987.
Two months ago, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress about his knowledge of the affair, and he testified yesterday under a limited grant of immunity from prosecution.
He described how, under the tutelage of Mr. Casey, he acted as the "buffer" between the CIA and Mr. North's secret arms operation, as intelligence officials tried to walk a tightrope between congressional restrictions on the CIA's activities in Central America and constant demands from the White House to getmore deeply involved.
"I took cautions to keep CIA, all the people that worked for me, on the right side of the line, not to cross over the Boland Amendment," Mr. Fiers said, referring to the congressional ban on military aid to the rebels.
He added, "I took it upon myself to be the buffer between my people and, to a degree, the agency leadership."
In mid-1986, when Mr. Fiers said that Mr. North told him one the affair's deepest secrets, that money from secret arms sales to Iran was being diverted to contras, the former CIA official said he was startled. "I was somewhat taken aback by it," Mr. Fiers said. "I found it astounding."
Mr. Fiers said he directly went to his immediate superior, Jay K. Gruner, the head of the agency's Latin America division.
Mr. Fiers said Mr. Gruner advised him to alert higher officials at the agency. But Mr. Gruner, in a deposition to the intelligence committee, has said that Mr. Fiers discussed the issue only as a hypothetical political problem, without specifically mentioning the diversion.
But Mr. Fiers said his his memory of the 5-year-old conversation remains vivid.
"The way I recall it is the way I stated it," he said. "And the reason I recall it so well is, it lay on my heart like a shot for five years.
"Each time I testified, each time the committees did something, each time I read about Iran-contra, that just burned in me, because I knew it was there."