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Casey’s Case

Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981–1987

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

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, was the extent and nature of Casey’s failure. In Woodward’s account, the “secret war” seems to be virtually a replay, on the wrong stage, of the hit-and-run war in France that immediately preceded the Allied invasion in June 1944. Six weeks of shooting and sabotage made a small but real contribution to the landing. The cost was high, but the effort didn’t have to be sustained. Success meant planting explosives in the right place and blowing something up—not in order to destroy an expensive piece of hardware or real estate, but to deny it to the enemy at the moment when he needed it most. As a young man Casey had helped to manage the Jedburgh teams dispatched from Great Britain, and thereafter his notion of a “secret war” meant brave men with cork-blackened faces blowing up power lines in enemy territory. Or so it appears in Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981–1987.

This was a bit of good luck for the Sandinistas. Things might have worked out differently if Casey’s early experience had been with Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. There politics, not derring-do, prevailed. Success depended on clandestine control of the population, and the ability to maintain a shadow government despite years of relentless pressure from rival Yugoslav groups and the German armies of occupation. There was plenty of shooting but shooting and sabotage weren’t the point. It was political organization that mattered, the popular support that allowed Tito’s men to survive when the Germans were after them. In such a struggle one unarmed man can be worth more than a company with heavy weapons.

As related by Woodward, the story of what happened to the CIA in the six years Casey ran it is very much a Washington story. The narrative sticks closely to Casey’s appointment calendar; we hear in considerable detail of what Casey wanted and what his colleagues did to help or hinder him. An occasional side trip is made to visit the House and Senate Intelligence Oversight committees. We get the odd glimpse of George Shultz at State, Caspar Weinberger at Defense, and a dismal succession of briefcase carriers who served varying terms as Reagan’s national security adviser. There are a great many interesting stories in this book—that Admiral Bobby Inman resigned as Casey’s deputy, for example, because he raised objections to Casey’s contra operations that Casey ignored, treating him as an “outsider.” The claims about Soviet sponsorship of international terrorism in Claire Sterling’s book The Terror Network, which so impressed Secretary of State Haig, were apparently based in part on “an old, small-scale CIA covert propaganda operation.” The study of intelligence must proceed as intelligence does itself, with such “cases,” and several that Woodward reports have already been confirmed; they make Veil a very useful book.

But Casey dominates, and the evolution of his two obsessions—terrorism in the Middle East (which meant Qaddhafi), and the Soviet presence in Central America (which meant Nicawawa)—provide the structure of Woodward’s book. What was actually going on in Nicaragua Woodward makes no attempt to say, but the picture we get of the war the CIA apparently chose to run seems almost too dumb to credit.

Starting from scratch with adequate, not extravagant, funding, the CIA put together a mercenary army based on former national guardsmen, gave it some rudimentary training, supplied it with camouflage fatigues of the sort survivalists buy through mail-order catalogs, and dispatched it heavily laden into those parts of Nicaragua hard to reach by taxi. There it was expected to shoot people and blow things up. The late Major General Edwin Lansdale, who ran covert operations against the Cubans for a time in the early 1960s, used to call this “boom and bang.” It didn’t work then either.

When the progress of the contras was inevitably slow, Casey pressed for a switch to dramatic actions closer to the cities. One result was an “air raid” on the Managua airport by a Cessna aircraft carrying two five-hundred-pound bombs. The plane crashed into the main terminal, made a mess, and killed an airport worker. This happened only a few minutes before Senators William Cohen of Maine and Gary Hart of Colorado were scheduled to arrive on a fact-finding mission. Shaken by their narrow squeak, and shocked that the dead pilot’s papers tied him to the CIA, the senators asked the CIA’s chief of station in Managua, and later Casey himself in Washington, what in God’s name this crazy operation was intended to prove. Both men of the CIA seemed to think Cohen and Hart were angry only about their own close call.

The airport raid, like the mining of Nicaraguan harbors soon after, was apparently Casey’s idea of stepping up the war—“boom and bang” in the classic mold. The CIA’s only attempt to address the political aspect of the war, in Woodward’s version, was the now notorious guerrilla warfare manual that recommended public execution of “carefully selected” Nicaraguan government officials. How careful could the selection be from a CIA list of suggested targets that ended with “etcetera”?

The United States has bungled operations of this sort in precisely the same way on four or five different occasions. The remarkable thing is that Casey, who considered himself a hardheaded businessman, never grasped, or at least never hinted to Woodward that he had grasped, the hopeless futility of his war, a matter of back-country ambush and random urban terrorism. A little more shooting, a little more money, and a lot less nit-picking from Congress would do the trick. The Sandinistas would fold, the Russians would see we meant business, and the West would be saved.

Woodward seems to have listened to this nonsense on dozens of occasions without protest, which I take to be a sign of the reporter’s iron stomach. It’s not easy to get a director of central intelligence to sit down for an interview; use the occasion for a lecture and neither of you will learn anything. Asking questions and listening to the answers is the reporter’s art. But Casey’s grousing makes painful reading. His war killed people to no purpose; it squandered the nation’s political energy in a fruitless repetition of old arguments; and it put the CIA through a wringer it had barely survived the first time around in the mid-1970s. But Casey seems to have died as he lived, convinced it was Congress—not the futility of trying to solve complex social and political problems through hired violence—that kept the Sandinistas in power.

That at any rate is Woodward’s version of Casey’s last adventure. Did it really happen that way? The intelligence business is notoriously one of managed appearance. Casey may have been a novice, but many of Woodward’s other informants were intelligence officers long practiced in the art of misleading reporters. Was Woodward one of them? Did he make some of it up? The basic question of veracity was immediately raised on publication day by Woodward’s account of his final hospital interview with the dying Casey at an unnamed hour on an unnamed day last winter. This interview appeared at the end of Woodward’s book, in the space normally reserved for summing up final conclusions. It was short—only nineteen words from Casey. The DCI had just had a lump of his brain surgically removed. Woodward asked if Casey knew about the diversion of funds from the sale of US arms to Iran for use by the contras. “He stared, and finally nodded yes.”

Political controversies sometimes turn on loonily precise points of fact such as this one. Woodward’s answer appeared not long after the Congress had completed weeks of public hearings devoted largely to this very question. In every public statement Casey had always insisted he did not know about the diversion—important because he was thought to be close to President Reagan, and it was assumed that if Casey knew, then Reagan must have known, a claim the President has vigorously denied. Now comes Woodward to say that Casey did know and had “told” him so.

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