What's the hottest topic of debate now in Washington? Not the Robert Bork confirmation. Not contra aid. Not even arms control.
It's a new book about an old subject, and it has even raised the ire of the President of the United States.
``Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-87,'' by Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, has sparked an inquiry about the legacy of William Casey, the former director of central intelligence, and about the journalistic ethics and methods Mr. Woodward used in examining Casey's record.
Woodward, a leading investigative reporter, is no stranger to controversy. His trail-blazing investigation (along with Carl Bernstein) of the Watergate scandal helped alter the course of the nation's history and launched a generation of would-be investigative journalists in search of scandals.
But ``Veil'' - the title alludes to the code-name of certain covert operations - has raised questions about those standards as never before.
``It's an important book, well written, by a great journalist,'' says Steve Weinberg, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a professional organization. ``But the techniques ought to make mere mortals nervous.''
``Veil'' is an analysis of covert actions of the Central Intelligence Agency. But it is also a probing portrait of Casey, the man spearheading those efforts, based, Woodward says, on ``more than four dozen substantive discussions or interviews'' with the late CIA director.
Washington Post editors, and Woodward himself, have defended the book and the research behind it. Others have gone on the offensive, questioning the ethics - indeed, the credibility - of the author.
Casey's wife and daughter have challenged specific claims in the book, as well as the overall portrait of Casey that emerges. President Reagan says there is ``an awful lot of fiction'' about Casey being spread. ``There are a lot of things he is being charged with right now, and I don't think any of them have a basis in fact,'' the President said during a White House ceremony.
Some of the complaints are over specific factual claims. Mr. Reagan, for example, denies that he ever authorized a CIA campaign to assassinate Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a militant Muslim leader in Lebanon, as the book claims.
But he did say that he authorized covert activities to fight terrorism in Lebanon, in conjunction with the Saudi Arabian government, as the book claims.
Casey's widow, Sophia, has questioned whether Woodward really had a deathbed conversation with Casey, in which he supposedly nodded affirmatively when Woodward asked whether Casey had known about the diversion of funds from covert Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
One informed source, who was a participant in some of the activities described in the book, says the volume contains a number of factual inaccuracies concerning certain meetings, plane flights, and conversations. ``Some of these things just didn't happen,'' he says. ``It's just a very distorted record.''
Others, like Mr. Weinberg, are uneasy about Woodward's technique of reconstructing conversations at which he was not present, based on the recollections of one participant. Woodward employs ``the omniscient voice. No footnotes. [And there is consequently] tremendous difficulty in telling who said what to whom,'' says Weinberg.
Roy Godson, a professor of government at Georgetown University who specializes in intelligence research, says the book is flawed by the nature of the sources it draws upon. Woodward says the book relies upon interviews with 250 people. But Mr. Godson says, ``He certainly didn't talk to enough people,'' and many of those he did talk to had their own axes to grind.
``Information from sources who have particular points of view which are partial and self-serving makes for interesting reading,'' says Godson, ``but poor history.''
``The bottom line,'' says Zbigniew Brzezinski, national-security adviser under President Carter, ``is, what's true in it is not new, and what's new in it is probably not true.''
Woodward's dual role as a Post editor supervising investigative reporters and as a book author has also come under scrutiny. Some are criticizing the book for merely expanding on reports that have already appeared in the Post, while others have chastised Woodward for ``holding back'' stories of major public interest - such as Casey's knowledge of the Iran-contra affair - for inclusion in the book.
Robert Kaiser, the Post's assistant managing editor for national affairs, says the newspaper knew of Woodward's findings in advance and chose not to run stories on some of them. One example: Casey's nod of the head, which, to Woodward, was an acknowledgment of knowledge of the Iran-contra diversion scheme. The Post did not publish the story earlier, its editors say, because it was too ``ambiguous.''
Woodward himself told the Post that the interview was ``not 100 percent conclusive,'' and that Casey was not ``completely lucid'' during the visit.
Does that mean that there are differing standards of journalism for daily newspapers and books? ``Absolutely,'' says Weinberg, who is a book author. Many book publishers are not rigorous about fact-checking and ``take more on faith than even the worst newspaper editor,'' says Weinberg.
``You've got to give [Woodward] the benefit of the doubt,'' he adds. ``But, boy, it sure makes me nervous.''