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, 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.

Woodward’s publication of this “interview” is a literary misjudgment of heroic proportion. Casey’s nineteen words suggest his craniotomy had removed some important tissue. “Okay…better…no,” he said, when asked how he was feeling. Only the left side of his mouth smiled. “Oh,” was his answer to one question. “I’m gone,” he said at another point. The “interview” ended when Woodward realized that Casey had nodded off. I can see how all this made some sort of sense to Woodward, steeped in the story as he was, and that he hated to lose anything so inherently dramatic as a final conversation with a dying spymaster. But the plain fact is this garble doesn’t add up to anything, and the only remark of Casey’s that deserves to be taken at face value is his sad admission, “I’m gone.” Woodward never should have published this flimsy story as the climax of his book.

But the rest of Woodward’s book seems to be of sturdier stuff. There are a great many statements of fact in Veil, and a great many officials identified by name. They have now had ample opportunity to call Woodward a liar, but few have troubled themselves to do so. Woodward has published hard-to-credit stories in the past which turned out to be true, like the one about Kissinger and Nixon going down on their knees to pray during the Watergate crisis. Kissinger confirmed it. This time, Alexander Haig, campaigning in New Hampshire, confirmed a story at first given the back of the White House hand—Woodward’s report that Reagan had been barely up to an hour’s “work” a day at a time when the White House insisted he was fully recovered from the gunshot wound that nearly killed him in March 1981. Bobby Inman has said that conversations he is alleged to have had with Casey before he resigned did in fact take place.

For all the air of sensation that surrounded its publication, however, Woodward’s central account of Casey’s covert activities for the most part only adds new details to stories that have already had their day in the press. His story requires close reading. It suggests more than it claims. Woodward sticks to the order in which things happened and makes no large claims for the facts he relates. His book is truly what his colleague on The Washington Post Chalmers Roberts once called “the first rough draft” of history. A claim that Casey said “let’s do it” is not the same as reporting that Casey in fact did it, or that it was done because Casey said so, or even that it was done at all.

Woodward is writing about matters that were intended to remain secret, and although diligence helped him to learn a great deal, that great deal is still very far from all. Only Casey is identified of Woodward’s 250 sources. The rest are nameless. Scholars and historians will inevitably find this fact troubling, but it is not hard to guess who some of Woodward’s sources must have been, because so much of the book turns on what a couple of dozen men thought, said, and memoed to one another. There are many detailed accounts of conversations in which only two persons were present—for example, the private meeting between Casey and the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar. Walking in Bandar’s garden after lunch in early 1985, Casey, Woodward tells us, gave Bandar a card with a number written on it—a bank account in Switzerland. Three million dollars for a counterterrorist operation in Lebanon was to be deposited in that account. “As soon as I transfer this,” Bandar said, “I’ll close out the account and burn the paper.”

“Don’t worry,” Casey assured him. “We’ll close the account at once.”

Who told Woodward of this meeting—Bandar? Casey? Some third party who heard it from one of the principals? A member of the staff of the intelligence oversight committees? There are more possibilities than at first might appear, but for the moment we have got only Woodward’s word for it.

Woodward strongly suggests, but does not actually say, that this money was used to mount an attempt to assassinate Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a Shi’ite Muslim leader implicated in terrorist operations targeted on Americans. On March 8, 1985, a car bomb was detonated near Fadlallah’s apartment; he escaped but eighty others died. An earlier version of this story, published in The Washington Post on May 12, 1985, claimed that the Lebanese intelligence service actually carried out the bombing as part of a campaign organized by the CIA, although the agency had balked at plans for a car bombing. In the earlier story Woodward also claimed that Shultz and then National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane “were chief proponents of the covert plan.”*

Woodward’s new version of the story adds new details without exactly contradicting the earlier version: Shultz still backs the counterterrorist plan, the Lebanese are still involved, CIA officers still balk at a car bomb. But now Casey calls in the Saudis and meets with Bandar, in effect circumventing his own agency. An Englishman runs the operation. The Saudis betray some of the agents involved to Fadlallah in order to deflect suspicion from themselves. In the end, the Saudis bribe Fadlallah with $2 million to quit targeting Americans, and Casey is amazed how easy it was.

This story is a typical Woodward set piece—detailed, suggestive, and fragmentary. The easy part was guessing that the US had a part in the attempt on Fadlallah’s life—administration officials had been promising a new eye-for-an-eye policy on terrorism, and Fadlallah was a prime suspect. The hard part, as always, was pinning the specific deed on specific American officials. Woodward has made a good stab at it, but his case would never stand up in a court of law.

Still, my guess is that Woodward’s specific claims about this and other cases are solid. The larger question is whether he got the drift right, and here I am not so sure. One slant is immediately apparent: Woodward has talked to a lot of high agency officials who don’t like covert operations, especially ones involving the use of local agents wearing camouflage fatigues. They’re noisily public, squander people patiently recruited by the FI (foreign intelligence) types, and above all undermine the quiet, bipartisan support of Congress. Presidents like Reagan and Nixon, on the other hand, love covert operations, which are cheaper than war and more satisfying than fussy State Department white papers. It’s an old argument, going back to the early 1950s when the officials who specialized in running spies and the covert operators were dragooned into a single directorate. If anyone in the agency thinks Casey was handling things just right, and the contra operation came anywhere near succeeding—and it would be amazing if there weren’t—Woodward hasn’t found him. The old boy network has struck again.

But it seems to me there is a second, subtler, and more important omission in Woodward’s account of Casey’s career at the CIA. Casey is often described as “an old friend” of Ronald Reagan, but you won’t find much evidence of it in Veil. Casey was sure he knew what Reagan wanted, but the White House staff was divided. Casey had a hard time keeping a pipeline open. One of Reagan’s speech-writers, Anthony Dolan, kept Casey informed, and William Clark, the national security adviser, was an even better source until he resigned. “Casey could get his say,” Woodward reports; “he could even get a private meeting with Reagan in the White House residence. Casey played this card about twice a year.” Twice a year? That hardly sounds like terms of intimacy.

In his opening pages Woodward charted the decline of Admiral Stansfield Turner’s credit in the Carter White House by the coin of “access”: three meetings with the President a week trailed off to one a week, then one every other week. In Washington, twice a month is the last stop before Siberia. Casey, we are told, had to send Reagan a letter to find out if the President planned to keep him through a second Reagan term. Do these two men even know each other? But eventually Casey, trying to insure Woodward will get the point, suggests another explanation for his allegedly distant relations with Reagan. In early May 1985 he invited Woodward to share his plane back to Washington from New York. Casey railed about Reagan’s failure to wring support for the contras out of Congress. “The President is uninterested,” he told Woodward. “He still has his instincts, but he will not even focus on the objectives, let alone the way to get there.” Then Woodward paraphrases what we are to take to be Casey’s words: “Casey continued to be struck by the overall passivity of the President…. He never called the meetings or set the daily agenda. He never once had told Casey, ‘Let’s do this’ or ‘Get me that.”‘ This is very interesting, if true. Casey’s widow Sophia thinks it is not. Woodward couldn’t have heard all that stuff from Casey, she told reporters; he never thought the President was passive and disinterested.

Faithful to his notes, Woodward has written the version of events Casey probably would have given to the committee investigating the Iran-contra affair, if he had lived. It was Casey who wanted to revive the activist CIA, Casey who found a way to go after the terrorists in Lebanon, Casey who wanted to draw the line in Nicaragua, Casey who suggested McFarlane “explore funding alternatives [for the contras] with the Saudis, Israelis and others,” Casey who was virtually Oliver North’s case officer in organizing the sale of arms to Iran. Admiral Poindexter elected to take a fall in the Senate hearings, insisting he neither asked nor told the President anything about the diversion of funds to the contras. It could even be true. It appears that Casey gave Woodward roughly the same story: the secret war was his idea. That could be true, too. Reagan is by all accounts amiable, indolent, and careless of detail. Maybe he was having an afternoon nap while his loyal aides were scrounging funds for the contras. It begins to look as though the absent-minded president story will never be knocked down for sure; too much evidence went into the burn bags. But I don’t believe it for a minute.

The Iran-contra affair has been an agonizing ordeal for the CIA, the second in a dozen years. The central issue has been the same in both cases—the danger that an activist president, armed with a pliant CIA, might slip the leash of the Constitution. “We have a chance to establish our own foreign policy,” Casey said in the fall of 1985, according to Woodward. “We’re on the cutting edge. We are the action agency of the government.” This was entirely true, and rightly alarming to the Congress, which had already slapped down such pretensions once during the investigations of the mid-1970s. When Casey took over as director of central intelligence he found a still-chastened CIA, leery of new adventures. But presidents and DCIs will have their way, and the oversight committees can’t protect the agency unless they know what’s happening. They’re supposed to know, but find it hard to insist on being told. Members of the President’s own party don’t want to undercut their man, and the rest of the committee members bend over backward to prove they’re worthy of trust with the secrets in the grown-up world of war and peace. Inevitably, Congressional vigilance flags. The immediate result is an implied grant of executive latitude that allows the White House its head. The ultimate result is the sort of hot water presidentially appointed security officials get into when they start to make use of the excitingly secret power that comes when they can speak in the president’s name. And would they have done so entirely on their own?

Casey was the last of the OSS veterans to run the CIA, and a good thing too. One more from his mold might finish the agency for good. His friends will protest; they loved the activism and disdain for red tape that Casey picked up during the glory days of the OSS during World War II. But it’s hard to argue with the wreckage Casey left behind. Casey’s big mistake was thinking that the cold war was like the war against Hitler—one we had to win. The Russians were too tough to tackle head on, but he hoped to turn the tide in the peripheral arenas of the world. The Congress tried to impose restraint where the battle was hottest, in Central America, insisting that the CIA must spend no funds to overthrow the Sandinistas. With a straight face and fingers crossed behind his back, Casey swore to comply. Woodward refused to swallow this whopper and Veil cites chapter and verse of the truth behind the lie. This is no ordinary journalist’s scoop; Woodward fully deserves his reputation for tenacity. But there are some things no amount of legwork can pin down, and Casey died insisting on the tallest tale of all—that Reagan didn’t know.

This Issue

November 19, 1987