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Casey and Woodward: Who Used Whom? : VEIL : The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987 by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 544 pp.)

October 11, 1987|Doyle McManus | McManus, a correspondent in The Times' Washington bureau, is writing a book about President Reagan and the Iran-contra scandal. and

To clear up the most popular controversy first: It appears that Bob Woodward really did finagle his way into the hospital room of CIA director William J. Casey last January, as the spymaster lay recovering from brain surgery. Casey's widow insists that Woodward could not have gained entry to the room; but the CIA, which had a team of security agents guarding Casey round-the-clock, refuses to confirm her claim. "The Agency would be happy to knock down Woodward's story if they could," a White House official notes. "But they aren't going to come out and dispute Mrs. Casey."

And what did Woodward, the Washington Post's top investigative reporter, gain for his audacity? A 19-word interview whose sole meaningful moments were a sick man's nod and a cryptic mumble: "I believed . . . I believed."

"Then he was asleep," Woodward writes, "and I didn't get to ask another question."

Casey's "deathbed confession," as it has since been hyperbolically dubbed, is an almost trivial epilogue to this massive book about the late CIA director and his love affair with covert action. But trivial as it is, the episode is also typical of Woodward's style: an unsurpassed zeal in digging for news coupled, alas, with a strange resistance to analyzing what he's found. The result is a grand epic of anecdotes, deathbed and otherwise; a series of important revelations about covert operations, some authorized, some not; but, in the end, not enough narrative and analytical glue to make the 544-page whole exceed the sum of its parts.

Still, what anecdotes and stories these are! Fifteen years after he unraveled Watergate as little more than a police-beat reporter, Woodward has lost none of his edge as one of the finest journalistic investigators of our time. Among other bits of genuine news, "VEIL" reveals that Casey secretly enlisted Saudi Arabia to finance the assassination squad that bombed a Beirut apartment house in 1985, killing 80 people (but missing its target, Shia Muslim leader Mohammed Fadlallah); that the United States government paid Lebanese Christian leader Bashir Gemayel as a CIA "asset" for much of his controversial (and bloody) career; and that the National Security Agency has increased interceptions of communications among U.S. allies, a cool-eyed practice that helped capture the Palestinian hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro (through a telephone indiscretion of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak).

There are other operations, which Woodward didn't discover but to which he adds new detail: for example, the CIA's role in encouraging a madcap rebel bombing raid on Nicaragua's main civilian airport, destroying part of the terminal and missing two U.S. senators by hours. The Agency has neither confirmed nor denied any of these tales, but other U.S. officials acknowledge that they have found none that are seriously mistaken.

And Woodward's portrait of Casey himself is the best in print so far--though the man finally remains an enigma even to the reporter who pursued him to his hospital bed.

This Casey is brilliant, pugnacious and wily, jealous of his special relationship with his President and attentive to any attempt to reduce his power.

Casey publicly proclaimed his devotion to loosening the restraints on covert action imposed during the 1970s, and his contempt for the Senate and House committees that tried to oversee the Agency was legendary.

But Woodward shows that Casey was as passionate about intelligence analysis as he was for cloak-and-dagger operations; "I am the chief analyst," he proclaims.

Casey quickly recognized, as do all intelligence professionals, that control over information often means control over policy.

His original ambitions had been to be Ronald Reagan's secretary of state or defense; but Woodward tells us he eventually decided that the CIA--his CIA--was the only agency on the "cutting edge" of foreign policy.

How are we to assess the extraordinary reign of William Casey, from his massive expansion of the intelligence budget to the renaissance of covert action and the final debacle of Iran, the contras and other "off-the-books" adventures?

Here, alas, Woodward stops short. "VEIL" has no significant new information about the Iran-contra affair; in fact, it is missing some key episodes of CIA misbehavior that have recently come to light (one is the use of Agency helicopters to ferry weapons, illegally, to the contras ) .

The book brushes quickly past the question of Casey's role in the diversion of profits to the contras from the Administration's secret arms sales to Iran, and it offers no new clues to the relationship between Casey and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.

Those gaps are forgivable; after three years of reporting, Woodward found himself in the unhappy position last year of being "O.B.E.'d," as intelligence analysts say--"Overtaken by Events."

Less understandable, however, is Woodward's reticence to offer judgments on Casey and his CIA.

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