SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — No man ever had a freer hand in running the Central Intelligence Agency than William J. Casey, who died in May just as the questions began to get really sticky, and none ever left the agency in worse shape. Lt. Col. Oliver L. North is even money to come out of the Iran- contra affair with halo tarnished but intact, and even President Reagan may squeak by with scout's honor he didn't know and won't do it again--but the good soldiers who worked for Casey in the CIA have been surprised inside the chicken coop, trying to explain a mouthful of feathers, and fate has left them friendless to take the rap.
It's pretty clear that somebody at the highest level of the U.S. government has been breaking the law by giving military aid to the contras over the last few years. The etiquette of public debate requires everyone to wonder aloud who it might possibly be.
But the real question is who's going to take the fall for carrying out a policy that cannot be usefully distinguished from the President's. North's week of testimony demolished the "renegade Marine colonel" theory, frail to begin with. A Marine colonel might run wild in the White House for 15 minutes, not 15 months. North can be taken at his word when he says his bosses approved everything he did, because he couldn't have done anything without approval.
With the "renegade Marine colonel" out of the police lineup, attention turns to the "renegade central-intelligence director"--Casey, an old friend if not quite a crony of the President, and the only figure in the drama with sufficient stature to serve as a plausible fall guy. It is a tribute to Casey's alertness that he sensed what was coming last fall and wanted to deny everything from the beginning. Cautious colleagues advised against outright fabrication, but Casey continued to stopper the bottle until a seizure, later diagnosed as a brain tumor, removed him from the stage on the very eve of an appearance under oath that presented him with a painful choice between an approximation of the truth, however rough, and serious lying.
It's interesting to speculate where the investigating committee would have put Casey in the schedule of witnesses--probably at the end, as a way of suggesting where Casey's writ ceased, the President's began. It's possible that a live Casey might have produced a more cautious North, but the CIA director still would have faced a formidable list of difficult questions.
It was CIA assets, after all, that delivered arms to the contras in violation of the Boland Amendment; CIA expertise that suggested banking arrangements; CIA communications that transmitted illegal discussions of contra aid; CIA field officers who handled the clandestine diplomacy that allowed the contras to operate in third countries, and the CIA's director who alone had the authority to orchestrate these efforts. This was an agency program from start to finish; its fingerprints are unmistakeable from choice of ally to the pilots of the planes. Some nostalgic, derring-do streak in Casey had resurrected the CIA of the glory days in the 1950s--when Allen Dulles seemingly had foreign governments changed between puffs on his pipe. It didn't require North to point the finger at Casey, just a bare recital of the facts.
How Casey might have answered these questions is almost irrelevant. Only one question would have really mattered: Who authorized you to do these things, Mr. Casey?
Then, truly, the whole country--most particularly the President--would have held its breath for the answer. Not much room for waffling on that one. Casey might have shown himself a Roman: no apology, no explanation, no attempt to disown the blame. Or, of course, he might have said: Who do you think authorized it? Whose policy were we trying to carry out? Who runs the government? Who was the sun in the CIA's universe?