WORLD

A super-spy comes clean

Bush’s choice for CIA chief is in jeopardy

MARCI McDONALD July 22 1991
WORLD

A super-spy comes clean

Bush’s choice for CIA chief is in jeopardy

MARCI McDONALD July 22 1991

A super-spy comes clean

WORLD

THE UNITED STATES

Bush’s choice for CIA chief is in jeopardy

He had always been a team player, a clandestine operative whom his bosses could trust to get the job done. And for 20 years, that brisk discretion had made Alan Fiers one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s rising stars. Promoted in 1984 to head the CIA’s Central American task force, he was taken aback to discover that the White House was providing illegal support to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. But when the Iran-contra scandal broke in 1986, Fiers kept his thoughts to himself. “I could have been more forthcoming,” he later told congressional investigators, “but I frankly was not going to be the first person to step up and do that.”

Last week, the tall, balding former super-spy with the tortured conscience broke that long-ago resolve. Under a grant of immunity from further prosecution, Fiers pleaded guilty before a Washington district court judge on two misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress. He admitted that, on orders from his superiors, he had lied to two separate congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair. And he became the first senior CIA official to shatter the conspiracy of silence about the agency’s role in a five-year-old scandal that

continues to haunt the White -

House. For President George Bush, Fiers’s about-face could not have come at a worse time. As his testimony reverberated through Washington, it threatened Bush’s nomination of deputy national security adviser Robert Gates to head the CIA—and even revived unanswered questions about Bush’s own knowledge of the affair. Said one administration official, on condition of anonymity: “People in the White House are kind of holding their breaths.”

At 47, after a 24-year career as a CIA analyst, Gates would be the youngest, although also the most experienced, director in the agency’s 44year history. But four years after he was forced to withdraw his nomination to succeed former CIA director William Casey, who died of brain cancer in 1987, Gates’s lifelong ambition appears to be endangered again by the same questions that dashed his dreams in February, 1987. Despite two years as deputy to Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft,

during which he cultivated his image both with politicians and the media, senators are again voicing the same litany: what did Gates know about the Iranian and contra arms deals, and when did he know it?

Last week, in the light of Fiers’s testimony, those questions took on new urgency. Most damaging was a Fiers confession contained in an 11-page statement that accompanied his 20minute guilty plea. Senior CIA officials, he admitted, had learned that former National Security Council aide Oliver North was using profits from illegal Iranian arms deals to fund the Nicaraguan contras at least four months before

the scandal became public on Nov. 25, 1986. Testifying that day before the Senate select committee on intelligence—the same committee scheduled to review Gates’s nomination— Fiers had told senators that “the first I knew of it was on CNN today.” But in fact, as Fiers admitted last week, North had told him about the diversion that summer. And Fiers, in turn, had reported it to his two immediate superiors, including then-deputy director of operations Clair George, third in the CIA chain of command, who made it clear that the revelation was not news to him. According to Fiers’s statement, George told him: “Now, you are one of a handful of people who know this.” That anecdote has raised the pivotal issue of whether that select handful included George’s own boss, Robert Gates. In 1987, at his first abortive confirmation hearings, Gates insisted that the first he had heard of the illicit diversion was when another official, Charles Allen, spec-

ulated on that possibility in early October, 1986—nearly two months before the scandal broke. Allen’s concerns had mounted over the following weeks after a New York City oil broker named Roy Furmark warned his old friend Casey that two Canadian investors in the Iranian arms scheme—Richmond Hill, Ont., motel owner Walter Ernest Miller and former Toronto accountant Donald Fraser—were threatening to expose the diversion unless they got their money back immediately. But Gates told the Senate committee that he never took those reports from a usually trusted subordinate seriously. “I regarded what little information I had as worrisome,” he testified at the time, “but extraordinarily flimsy.”

Among the senators who took fierce objection to that disclaimer four years ago was New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley, who accused Gates of the same sin that Fiers once confessed to investigators: wilful ignorance. Last week, Bradley said that Fiers’s plea bargain has only strengthened his opposition to Gates’s renomination. “Clearly, it says that people below Mr. Gates and above Mr. Gates knew things,” Bradley said. “There are questions of his integrity, of his candor with Congress over the years, and his judgment.”

As the nomination appeared increasingly imperilled, the White House stepped up pressure on the committee to hasten hearings for a candidate who was so close to Bush that he chose the then vice-president to swear him in as deputy CIA director in 1986. “I just don’t think it’s the American way to bring a good man down by rumor and insinuation,” an exasperated Bush told reporters at his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Me. But Senate intelligence committee chairman David Boren, who had previously endorsed the nomination, announced

that the confirmation hearings, tentatively scheduled to open this week, would be postponed, perhaps until September. The delay bodes ill for Bush, whose own role in the Iran-contra affair has recently come under closer scrutiny. Among the issues that investigators want to explore with Fiers was how deeply Bush’s then-national security adviser, Donald Gregg, was involved in efforts to arm the contras from an El Salvador airbase. During his 1989 confirmation hearings as Bush’s ambassador to South Korea, Gregg, a former senior CIA operations official, provoked laughter when he claimed that his secretary’s notation of a meeting for “contra resupply” must have been a spelling error: clearly, he testified, she meant “copter resupply.” For Bush, the resuscitation of a scandal that he managed to shrug off during the 1988 election campaign coincides with a new round of accusations about his participation in an even murkier controversy. According to contradictory claims by a ragtag parade of self-confessed international arms dealers who have surfaced in news reports, Bush may have played a key role in secret meetings in Europe during the final months of the 1980 election campaign. It was then, they charge, that Republican campaign officials met with representatives of the Iranian government in secret talks over the fate of 52 American hostages held in Tehran.

Rumors about those alleged meetings, which were apparently designed to block any

possibility that President Jimmy Carter might engineer a so-called October surprise by winning the Americans’ release just before the election, surfaced shortly after the hostages’ curiously timed liberation—only minutes after Ronald Reagan had been sworn in as President in January, 1981. But the suspicions took on new credence on April 15 of this year: writing in The New York Times, Gary Sick, an acknowledged expert on Iran who served on Carter’s National Security Council, chronicled how his investigations for a book had convinced him

that there were seeds of truth in the charges.

Sick’s article sparked demands for a full government inquiry. Last week, two months after authorizing congressional officials to begin an informal investigation, House Speaker Thomas Foley said that he was moving towards calling for a formal hearing. The controversy has provoked irate denials from Bush. But one of the witnesses likely to appear before such a panel is a mysterious former Israeli intelligence official named Ari Ben-Menashe, who has accused both Bush and Gates of taking part in a series of sinister plots over the past decade. Among his charges: that both Bush and Gates attended a key meeting with Iranian officials in Paris in October, 1980, aimed at delaying the hostages’ release.

For conspiracy theorists, last week’s developments proved heady fare. But nowhere was there more elation than among the 34-man team of special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh: Fiers’s unexpected co-operation has breathed new life into their 41/2-year-old investigation of the Iran-contra affair. Since Walsh’s appointment in December, 1986, he has secured convictions or guilty pleas from eight of the affair’s key participants. But three of the convictions, including that of former national security adviser John Poindexter, are now under appeal. And his most celebrated victory, against North in May, 1989, on three counts of destroying documents, accepting an illegal gratuity and obstructing Congress, was overturned last year by a three-judge appeals panel.

In fact, after the Supreme Court declined to review the North case in May, some leading congressional Republicans pressured Walsh to wrap up an inquiry that has already cost taxpayers more than $29 million. And after a succession of obstinately unco-operative witnesses, Walsh issued a statement that he was in the midst of preparing his final report. But Fiers’s promised co-operation has clearly opened up new opportunities for investigation. Said one Walsh aide: “It is a real breakthrough, the first one we’ve gotten really.”

Ironically, that breakthrough came thanks to the man who has been Walsh’s fiercest critic: Oliver North. Despite his public criticism of the special prosecutor, North has repeatedly testified to a grand jury convened by Walsh over the past six months. And sources close to Walsh’s office have indicated that it was his testimony that finally forced Fiers to come clean about his—and the CIA’s—role in the scandal that refuses to die. For it

For Fiers, it ought to be no surprise to discover that North turned out to be his nemesis. In 1987, he told congressional investigators that he had learned to be wary of the marine colonel whom he had seen “play fast and loose with the facts.” But he also acknowledged that “there was a lot of fact in what he said, too.” Last week, as Fiers admitted that he, too, had played fast and loose with the facts, he may not have been the only man in Washington whom those words would come back to haunt.

MARCI McDONALD in Washington