After studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and Trinity College, Hartford, Crile worked as a reporter for Washington columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, and as the Pentagon correspondent for Ridder Newspapers. Crile came from a line of pioneering surgeons. His grandfather, Dr. George Washington Crile, was a founder of the Cleveland Clinic. His father, Dr. George Crile, Jr., was a leading figure in the United States in challenging unnecessary surgery, best known for his part in eliminating radical breast surgery. His wife was Susan Lyne, former President of ABC Entertainment and former CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
Crile died at age 61 from pancreatic cancer.
Crile was both a producer and reporter for CBS. His career with the company spanned three decades until his death in 2006. Before joining CBS at the age of 31, Crile was Washington Editor of Harper's Magazine. In addition to Harper's, his articles were published in The Washington Monthly, New Times, The Washington Post Outlook Section and The New York Times.
Crile joined CBS News in 1976 to produce The CIA's Secret Army, his trail-breaking documentary that chronicled the previously untold story of the CIA’s secret wars against Castro after the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Historian Henry Steele Commager wrote that it would go down as one of the most important journalistic reports in U.S. American history.
It was the first of a collection of broadcasts based on Crile's reporting, in which he took viewers into previously closed and inaccessible worlds. Among his notable documentary reports were The Battle for South Africa, which won a Peabody Award and The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. The latter, which aired on January 23, 1982, was the subject of a libel action brought by General William Westmoreland. CBS News and Crile were defended by attorney David Boies.
Before the "Vietnam Deception" controversy Crile was embroiled in a similar controversy following the 1980 CBS Reports program "Gay Power, Gay Politics", which he reported, wrote, and co-produced. The program focused on gay politics in San Francisco following the assassination of openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. It was widely denounced as manipulative and dishonest, a view partially upheld by the National News Council, an industry self-policing body not known for its willingness to criticize the networks.
In 1985, Crile joined 60 Minutes, where he produced scores of reports with Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley and Harry Reasoner and established his credentials as a specialist in coverage of international affairs. He was on the forefront of covering the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and in collaboration with a Russian counterpart Artyom Borovik he became the only US American reporter ever to gain access to the Soviet Union's nuclear empire.
His initial 60 Minutes report, revealing the Soviet nuclear command’s willingness to consider halting the targeting of the USA, played a significant role in helping set up a summit between the US and Soviet nuclear commanders. His numerous reports from inside the deadly secret worlds of Russia and the United States appeared on 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II as well as an hour-long documentary for CNN. The Overseas Press Club twice awarded him the Edward R. Murrow Award for these broadcasts. Crile's reports included such subjects as Three Mile Island, the changing boundaries of death, judicial corruption in Texas. But throughout the years he focused primarily on covering crises in U.S. foreign affairs. Broadcast subjects included reports on:The revolution in Haiti
The battle over the Panama Canal
US Cuban policy
The Afghan War
The Contra war
General Singlaub and the World Anti Communist League
Prince Bandar and the special U.S. Saudi connection
The African National Congress
America’s losing war on drugs
The search for Archbishop Romero’s murderers.
Jonas Savimbi and the US backing of UNITA
The Gulf War
The USS Harlan County incident
The CIA's man in Havana
The killers of Rwanda
The unsung heroes of the US military campaign in El Salvador
The KGB and the world of Soviet Intelligence
Russia and America's nuclear arsenals
After the September 11 attacks, Crile repeatedly drew on his extensive experience and contacts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Near East to provide behind the scenes look into the worlds of Osama bin Laden and militant Islam.
In the late 1980s, Crile began the research and reporting on the Afghan War that led to his 2003 best-selling book, Charlie Wilson's War, which tells the story of how the United States funded the only successful jihad in modern history, the CIA's secret war in Afghanistan that was intended to give the Soviet Union their own Vietnam. The support for such jihad (mujahideen) leaders as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, channelled via Pakistan, arguably led to the creation of a new threat to the U.S. and its allies, which Crile claimed to have foreseen.
Charlie Wilson’s War has been widely and favorably reviewed and is currently in its 10th printing. The book attempted to portray how American government actually works, as opposed to what appears in political science textbooks. It is the basis of the Tom Hanks/Mike Nichols film, Charlie Wilson's War, which was released by Universal Studios in December 2007.