Casey’s Case

Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981–1987

by Bob Woodward
Simon and Schuster, 543 pp., $21.95

Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward; drawing by David Levine

The Russians have only a walk-on part in Bob Woodward’s history of the world according to William Casey. The KGB fabricated a will for Zhou Enlai, we are told; twenty-five spies were reporting to Casey’s CIA from the Soviet bloc by 1984; and one of them reported the death of Konstantin Chernenko to the CIA two days before it was officially announced in the Soviet Union. This is Chernenko’s sole appearance in Woodward’s book. The three other Soviet leaders during Casey’s tenure as director of central intelligence are cited in passing a total of eight times. Even Yuri Andropov, chairman of the KGB and thereby Casey’s principal opponent in the secret war until 1982, makes only a single appearance—as one of the “three dying men” who preceded Gorbachev. There is generally a Soviet angle to Casey’s preoccupations, as reported by Woodward, and the cold war provides a kind of unobtrusive background music of the sort commonly heard in elevators and supermarkets, but the “secret” wars that Casey hoped to prove we could fight and win were all conducted in the odd corners of the world, where the Russians had as much trouble with the local languages as we did.

Nicaragua was where Casey intended to draw the line. Like Reagan, Casey had professed to be outraged by the triumph of Marxist-Leninist regimes in Ethiopia and Angola following the disaster in Vietnam. These successes never seemed to make a large impression on the public mind, but they were bitterly resented in that Washington netherworld where domestic politics and national security overlap. Nixon had warned that irresolution in world affairs would turn the United States into a “pitiful, helpless giant,” and Casey, like Reagan, was convinced that a timid, finger-wagging Congress had brought it to pass.

The amiable Reagan seemed content to give the Russians a good verbal thumping, as he did in 1983 when he called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.” He may well have known about and authorized many secret attacks during the first years of his administration, but no one has established that he did so. Casey wanted to fight, and once he got used to the fact that Reagan wasn’t going to appoint him secretary of state, he determined to resurrect the salty, try-anything intelligence service that Allen Dulles had built during the 1950s with veterans of the World War II OSS, in which Casey had served. Nicaragua—which Casey, with difficulty, pronounced “Nicawawa”—was going to be the test case for a tough new American approach.

That is what Casey told Woodward and what we knew anyway from the Iran-contra hearings and many other inquiries. I would be amazed to discover that anyone reading this review had not correctly deduced that the CIA was running a “secret war” against Nicaragua commencing more or less on Day One of the Reagan administration. The interesting point to emerge, not a surprise,…

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