WASHINGTON -- The prosecution's principal witness in the trial of a former CIA official wound up his testimony yesterday by insisting that the Reagan administration's covert effort to assist the Nicaraguan rebels in the mid-1980s was an "open secret" long before the operation was publicly disclosed.
Alan D. Fiers Jr., who formerly headed the agency's covert operations in Latin America, made his assertions in a mostly tedious round of questioning in the Iran-contra trial of Clair E. George, the agency's former deputy director in charge of covert operations. Mr. George is charged with lying to a grand jury and misleading Congress.
Mr. Fiers' statements, elicited by Mr. George's lawyer, appeared helpful to the defendant because they suggested that Mr. George had no motive to lie to lawmakers about the affair, since crucial details were already known on Capitol Hill.
"If you could imagine Oliver North as a luminescent paint brush, if you turned out all the lights in Washington, you would be stunned at how many people had luminescent paint on them from brushing up against him," said Mr. Fiers, referring to the former National Security Council aide who set up the operation secretly supplying arms to the contras.
"It was an open secret around town," said Mr. Fiers, who added that after the affair unraveled in late 1986 several government officials who had knowledge of the operation were reluctant to admit it. "A lot of people became very forgetful."
Head prosecutor Craig A. Gillen quickly asked, "Was there any official confirmation from the administration to Congress that Oliver North was involved in contra resupply?"
"No, there was not," he answered.
Mr. Fiers' appearance provided the first moment of high drama as he confronted Mr. George, his former superior and close associate, in federal court over an issue that neither was likely to have thought would be dissected by outsiders and certainly never in the context of a criminal trial.
Mr. Fiers, who agreed to testify against his former colleague as part of a plea agreement, is the prosecution's most crucial witness.