<i> Thomas Powers, author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA," is writing a book about strategic weapons</i>

No man ever had a freer hand in running the Central Intelligence Agency than William J. Casey, who died in May just as the questions began to get really sticky, and none ever left the agency in worse shape. Lt. Col. Oliver L. North is even money to come out of the Iran- contra affair with halo tarnished but intact, and even President Reagan may squeak by with scout’s honor he didn’t know and won’t do it again--but the good soldiers who worked for Casey in the CIA have been surprised inside the chicken coop, trying to explain a mouthful of feathers, and fate has left them friendless to take the rap.

It’s pretty clear that somebody at the highest level of the U.S. government has been breaking the law by giving military aid to the contras over the last few years. The etiquette of public debate requires everyone to wonder aloud who it might possibly be.

But the real question is who’s going to take the fall for carrying out a policy that cannot be usefully distinguished from the President’s. North’s week of testimony demolished the “renegade Marine colonel” theory, frail to begin with. A Marine colonel might run wild in the White House for 15 minutes, not 15 months. North can be taken at his word when he says his bosses approved everything he did, because he couldn’t have done anything without approval.


With the “renegade Marine colonel” out of the police lineup, attention turns to the “renegade central-intelligence director”--Casey, an old friend if not quite a crony of the President, and the only figure in the drama with sufficient stature to serve as a plausible fall guy. It is a tribute to Casey’s alertness that he sensed what was coming last fall and wanted to deny everything from the beginning. Cautious colleagues advised against outright fabrication, but Casey continued to stopper the bottle until a seizure, later diagnosed as a brain tumor, removed him from the stage on the very eve of an appearance under oath that presented him with a painful choice between an approximation of the truth, however rough, and serious lying.

It’s interesting to speculate where the investigating committee would have put Casey in the schedule of witnesses--probably at the end, as a way of suggesting where Casey’s writ ceased, the President’s began. It’s possible that a live Casey might have produced a more cautious North, but the CIA director still would have faced a formidable list of difficult questions.

It was CIA assets, after all, that delivered arms to the contras in violation of the Boland Amendment; CIA expertise that suggested banking arrangements; CIA communications that transmitted illegal discussions of contra aid; CIA field officers who handled the clandestine diplomacy that allowed the contras to operate in third countries, and the CIA’s director who alone had the authority to orchestrate these efforts. This was an agency program from start to finish; its fingerprints are unmistakeable from choice of ally to the pilots of the planes. Some nostalgic, derring-do streak in Casey had resurrected the CIA of the glory days in the 1950s--when Allen Dulles seemingly had foreign governments changed between puffs on his pipe. It didn’t require North to point the finger at Casey, just a bare recital of the facts.

How Casey might have answered these questions is almost irrelevant. Only one question would have really mattered: Who authorized you to do these things, Mr. Casey?

Then, truly, the whole country--most particularly the President--would have held its breath for the answer. Not much room for waffling on that one. Casey might have shown himself a Roman: no apology, no explanation, no attempt to disown the blame. Or, of course, he might have said: Who do you think authorized it? Whose policy were we trying to carry out? Who runs the government? Who was the sun in the CIA’s universe?

William Casey--banker, political operative, veteran spy-runner of the only popular U.S. war in 50 years--had many opportunities to warn Reagan against the temptations of covert action, the siren song that has lured more than one President onto the rocks when Congress, the press and the public balked at frank and open measures. On several dozen occasions since the CIA’s birth in 1947, U.S. Presidents have used the agency to trouble, embarrass, frighten, undermine and, from time to time, destroy their enemies. It is difficult to do these things at all, and even harder to do them to good purpose. Given time and elastic definitions, we might come up with an example or two of untrammeled “success.” But on the whole, covert action has a bad name for good reason. Every major U.S. foreign-policy disaster of the postwar years includes a covert failure, generally an attempt to do something either foolish or impossible. But the melancholy history of covert operations gone sour seems to have escaped Casey. He set out to pump up the clandestine arm of the CIA and succeeded, but the often-reported rise in CIA “morale” has left a spotty record--a brief flirtation with counterterrorism in Lebanon and nearly eight years of clandestine attempts to make life miserable for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.


A budgetary anomaly exposed the outlines of Casey’s secret war--for which he cannot be blamed--but the operational history is not inspiring. The mining of Nicaraguan harbors and a training manual that recommended assassination gave early proof of how much further Reagan and Casey were willing to go than Congress. The result was a series of periodic, midsized flaps whenever White House enthusiasm collided with congressional skepticism.

Casey’s error was the standard one of covert warriors: a belief that determined secret action, amply watered with money, can achieve large political ends even when public support for those ends is tepid. In short, the CIA can do big things secretly--like overthrow the Sandinistas--that Congress just doesn’t care enough about to try openly. Americans have not been the only victims of this forlorn hope; the uglier episodes in recent French and British history all come from the attempt to hold on to colonies with secret means long after ordinary citizens were willing to let them go. Intelligence professionals mostly understand this clearly enough; it is politicians who insist the problem is a naive public, and the solution more money and more secrecy.

But Casey went further than any of his predecessors in the attempt to slip past the naysayers. There is no question the CIA provided the infrastructure for this program and it appears that North was in effect working for Casey, rather than the other way around. The only open question is whether Casey would have admitted, had he lived, that he was working for Reagan, and had kept him informed as a matter of course. Congressional investigators would doubtless like to pin down the details of this matter, and they still may, but their real reason for hammering away at it, day after day and witness after witness, is to insure that the message sinks in: Executive privilege does not give Presidents the right to run a private foreign policy, with funds cajoled from aged millionaires of conservative bent, or extorted from foreign friends.

The inherent drama of the confrontation makes wonderful daytime TV, but tends to distract attention from just what a close-run thing it was. Casey and his colleagues, tired of fighting Congress for every dollar of contra money, came that close to corrupting the financing of foreign policy in the United States.

A little further down the slippery slope described with such enthusiasm by North, and every recipient of U.S. military and economic aid, from Israel to South Korea, would have faced the question that routinely used to accompany the letting of paving contracts in many U.S. cities: You get a billion dollars, we get 50 million back, what do you say? What could they say? They’d say what the king of Saudi Arabia and the Sultan of Brunei said: Of course. Who do we make the check out to?

The CIA didn’t dream any of this up, but the agency handled all the heavy lifting, and has been abandoned to take the rap. Nobody else is available. North has been forgiven by the television cameras, Casey is dead and President Reagan is still whistling in amazement at all the stuff that went on during his afternoon nap. Optimists may call this another squeaker for American democracy. Pessimists will have retired to the corner bar.