Questions about CIA Director William J. Casey's health and his involvement in the Iranian arms sales scandal have refocused attention on his record as head of the U.S. intelligence community for the past six years.
Despite his successes in improving intelligence analysis, Casey's management of the community and of clandestine operations have repeatedly sparked controversy. Overall, the Casey legacy suggests that a number of reforms are desirable to keep the intelligence community on a more even course and better insulated from the political process.
When Ronald Reagan named his 1980 campaign manager to head the Central Intelligence Agency, the conventional wisdom was that Casey would not stay for long--that he would return to his successful business ventures after helping the President organize a new Administration. Instead, Casey has survived a number of political storms.
Neither the favored choice of the CIA "old boys" nor of Congress, Casey triggered controversy from the outset by appointing Max Hugel, a former political associate with no intelligence experience, to head the CIA's clandestine operations directorate. Hugel was soon forced to resign as a result of disclosures about questionable business dealings. Later in his first year on the job, a probe of Casey's own financial past resulted in the Senate Intelligence Committee's hardly resounding assessment that he was "not unfit to serve."
As the first director of central intelligence to be a member of the Cabinet, Casey has had unprecedented access to the President and influence on policy. Yet his abominable relations with Congress have been lamented by even the most loyal Republicans on Capitol Hill and have led to repeated calls for his dismissal. Despite this tension, Casey has earned the grudging respect of many intelligence professionals by being an effective advocate of their programs and for granting considerable latitude to non-political subordinates.
In addition to being the President's principal foreign-intelligence adviser and heading the CIA, the director is also supposed to coordinate the intelligence activities of several government agencies and departments. The Casey team was convinced that the Carter Administration's effort to strengthen the director's overall authority should be reversed because it facilitated what was characterized as dominance of intelligence activities by "liberals" at CIA. Casey adopted a more relaxed "chairman of the board" style, allowing agency heads considerable autonomy. This approach gives the Defense Department components more clout in resource and policy deliberations because of their larger representation on the National Foreign Intelligence Board. But it has also reduced the coherence of the overall intelligence program and invites imprudent duplication.
Despite this looser management style, Casey has overseen several initiatives to overhaul the national intelligence estimates process. During Casey's tenure, the number and timeliness of these estimates have increased considerably and they have been more focused on issues confronting policy-makers. With the notable exceptions of assessments concerning Central America and terrorism, the analytic process has been largely unfettered by political pressure.
Like a number of his predecessors, Casey has been preoccupied with clandestine operations and human espionage activities. The Reagan intelligence team alleged that the latter capabilities had been neglected since the end of the Vietnam War in the rush to expand satellite and other technical collection systems. In addition, the new Administration was convinced that the "quiet option" of covert action had wrongly fallen into disrepute and should be revitalized as an effective tool for handling a broad array of difficult foreign-policy problems. Indeed, the Reagan Administration has swung the pendulum to the other extreme, employing covert action as a substitute for, rather than a tertiary element of, U.S. foreign policy in several instances. The controversy generated by the greatly expanded use of covert action has hampered the prudent rebuilding of the intelligence community's capabilities that has taken place over the past decade with the bipartisan support of Congress. It has also raised questions about the integrity of the community's analysis concerning regions where covert actions appear to be under way.