Woodward's account of the impenetrable Casey and the CIA

Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987, by Bob Woodward. New York: Simon & Schuster. 542 pp. $21.95. Bob Woodward's ``Veil'' is methodical, narrative journalism, cautious to the point of timidity, and essentially no more than a spinoff of his Washington Post intelligence stories.

True, the book is thick with facts on administration dealings with the contras, and the Iranians, and the reaction to Middle East terrorism, to Muammar Qaddafi, and to the Washington Post itself, which CIA director William Casey treated like a hostile power.

Afghanistan and Cambodia, Angola and Ethiopia, Europe and the Soviets, are marginal. So are individuals, aside from some intelligence trivia about Anwar Sadat and especially Qaddafi, that Washington obsession. The vagaries of personality interest Woodward but little.

Except for Casey. He stands center stage, with any remarks critical of him being overlaid by Woodward's Boswell-like repetition of Casey's self-portrait as the CIA's savior, the gutsy activist who restored courage to Langley, making it a worldwide action organization, the true cutting edge of Reagan policy.

There are hints of a quasi-filial relationship (Casey had no sons), in which shared values - patriotism and combativeness, ambition and hard work - played a part, as did mutual benefits. Woodward needed access to Casey, who needed to influence this book, particularly as his illness worsened and the likelihood of any memoirs decreased.

Nevertheless, Casey remains distant, with few clues to his ideology and outlook, background and motivation: Only the present matters for Woodward.

Its impact depends, not on literary skill - there is none, neither tension nor cadence, nor selectivity - but on uneasiness among Americans regarding covert operations, as symbolized by the Iran-contra affair, which offers ``Veil'' a glamour and timeliness it could not attain on its own.

This brings us to the other ``Veil,'' that of media hype, television debate, attacks by the President and retired CIA officials, of excitement encouraged by the author and a publisher with a 600,000 first printing and a huge advance to recoup.

Here we face a critique, ostensibly about methodology, but really about Woodward's credibility. Should you buy this book? Can you trust this book? Can you trust Bob Woodward? A reply depends on answers to three questions:

1.Did Woodward obtain Casey's deathbed ``confession'' of diversion of Iranian arms profits to the contras? Assuming that he did indeed penetrate Casey's sickroom, his brief and inconclusive talk with a man dying after a major brain operation can mean anything or nothing. Woodward has, in fact, retracted somewhat in recent interviews from his original certainty.

That visit may, however, be seen more broadly, as a dramatic, crowd-pleasing metaphor for the entire book, with Casey's admission symbolizing his responsibility for the downward trajectory, the loss of control and restraint, which Woodward cautiously implies afflicted intelligence policy from about mid-1983 onward, and which many mainstream CIA officers (especially John McMahon) battled against.

2.Did Casey and Woodward have ``four dozen or more'' conversations? This number is doubtful. ``Veil'' gives dates for exactly a dozen such discussions (including phone talks), long and short, public and private, between September 1983 and the hospital scene in January 1987. Mrs. Casey has stated that Woodward visited her husband at home but once, and that CIA logs show only six Casey-Woodward interviews at Langley. Casey was, to be sure, a gregarious, unceremonious person, and no doubt he and Woodward often spoke informally. Yet Woodward, a prodigious note-taker, would likely cite this date, if it existed.

There is ample compensation, however, in masses of interviews (Woodward refers to 250) with key senators and congressmen, congressional aides, serving and retired CIA officers, and even an important Arab ambassador; White House bigwigs kept their distance, and this the book reflects. But other insiders, outraged by Casey's grand design and bloodied by incessant brawls with him, talked and talked.

Complaints that the interviews lack attribution are disingenuous. To require attribution would scare off sources, killing the book, which is of course the hope of those who dream of the good old 1950s, when the cold-war consensus shielded the CIA. Footnotes are, in any case, no guarantee of honesty; far more reliable is Woodward's reputation for integrity, on which his influence depends.

3.Has Woodward damaged national security by revealing secrets? These fall in two categories: technical (such as ``Ivy Bells,'' the underwater eavesdropping on Soviet cable traffic) and operational (covert operations of all types). Sensation seekers will be disappointed; there is nothing new. Washington is the focus; operational accounts, let alone revelations of sources and methods, are entirely lacking.

A Navy junior officer - in communications - during the Vietnam war and now an influential Washington insider, Woodward apparently lacks the intellectual certainty needed for appraisal - though he finally offers the judgment that Casey's high-flying tactics did indeed cause trouble. Beyond that, Woodward can't go: The investigative reporter won't draw conclusions from his own findings, and this gives ``Veil'' a flat, abstract quality.

By chronicling the Casey era, Woodward broadens our knowledge, helping us to understand some once-inexplicable episodes and to draw the conclusions that he sidesteps. Perhaps this will benefit some unfriendly intelligence services that don't read the Washington Post closely enough. But so it is with any serious book on American intelligence, defense, or foreign policy. And it will benefit Americans even more to see how the rhetoric of evil empires and American global eminence opened the world to a still impenetrable Bill Casey.

Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.

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