WASHINGTON – Clair George, a widely respected veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service who oversaw all global espionage activities for the agency in the mid-1980s and was later convicted of lying to Congress during investigations into the Iran-Contra scandal, Thursday at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was 81.

He died of cardiac arrest, said his daughter Leslie George.

George was the highest-ranking CIA official to stand trial over the biggest White House scandal since Watergate: a White House-led operation to covertly sell weapons to Iran and divert the profits to right-wing Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras.

George presented himself as someone who never supported the operation. It had been engineered out of the White House by Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, who served on the National Security Council staff. North was then aided by CIA Director William Casey.

Despite his professed reservations, George said he did not push hard enough to stop it outright.

“At no time — which maybe I should have — did I dash into the director’s office and say, ‘Hey, Bill, we have got to stop all this stuff,’ ” George testified before Congress in 1987. He received a presidential pardon on Christmas Eve 1992, shortly after his conviction by a federal jury.

George challenged the traditional image of CIA recruits in the 1950s. He was not a son of privilege and lacked an Ivy League pedigree. By many accounts, he developed a loyal following for his ebullient manner and courage working in volatile regions of the world.

Raised in a Pennsylvania coal town, he did Army counterintelligence work in the Far East before joining the CIA in 1955. Through cunning and mettle, he advanced through the ranks of the clandestine service, working in Cold War proxy zones in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. He was chief of station in Beirut when civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975.

The next year, he volunteered to replace the station chief in Athens, who had been assassinated by a terrorist organization. This gesture, perhaps more than anything, brought him recognition as a dedicated officer willing to make his safety secondary to the needs of the agency.

In the early 1980s, CIA Director Casey brought George into the top management ranks, and he became unwillingly — some said unwittingly — embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair. As deputy director for operations from 1984 until his retirement in 1987, he became a target for investigators looking into the imbroglio.

The Iran-Contra operation began to unravel after an American cargo plane ferrying arms to Nicaraguan rebels was shot down in October 1986 by Sandinista forces. Congress, which had prohibited military aid to the contras, asked George and others at the CIA to explain what had happened.

George said he “categorically” denied the CIA’s involvement. This boomeranged against him as the extent of Iran-Contra scandal began to unfold.