Casey and Woodward: Who Used Whom? : VEIL : The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987 by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 544 pp.)

To clear up the most popular controversy first: It appears that Bob Woodward really did finagle his way into the hospital room of CIA director William J. Casey last January, as the spymaster lay recovering from brain surgery. Casey's widow insists that Woodward could not have gained entry to the room; but the CIA, which had a team of security agents guarding Casey round-the-clock, refuses to confirm her claim. "The Agency would be happy to knock down Woodward's story if they could," a White House official notes. "But they aren't going to come out and dispute Mrs. Casey."

And what did Woodward, the Washington Post's top investigative reporter, gain for his audacity? A 19-word interview whose sole meaningful moments were a sick man's nod and a cryptic mumble: "I believed . . . I believed."

"Then he was asleep," Woodward writes, "and I didn't get to ask another question."

Casey's "deathbed confession," as it has since been hyperbolically dubbed, is an almost trivial epilogue to this massive book about the late CIA director and his love affair with covert action. But trivial as it is, the episode is also typical of Woodward's style: an unsurpassed zeal in digging for news coupled, alas, with a strange resistance to analyzing what he's found. The result is a grand epic of anecdotes, deathbed and otherwise; a series of important revelations about covert operations, some authorized, some not; but, in the end, not enough narrative and analytical glue to make the 544-page whole exceed the sum of its parts.

Still, what anecdotes and stories these are! Fifteen years after he unraveled Watergate as little more than a police-beat reporter, Woodward has lost none of his edge as one of the finest journalistic investigators of our time. Among other bits of genuine news, "VEIL" reveals that Casey secretly enlisted Saudi Arabia to finance the assassination squad that bombed a Beirut apartment house in 1985, killing 80 people (but missing its target, Shia Muslim leader Mohammed Fadlallah); that the United States government paid Lebanese Christian leader Bashir Gemayel as a CIA "asset" for much of his controversial (and bloody) career; and that the National Security Agency has increased interceptions of communications among U.S. allies, a cool-eyed practice that helped capture the Palestinian hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro (through a telephone indiscretion of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak).

There are other operations, which Woodward didn't discover but to which he adds new detail: for example, the CIA's role in encouraging a madcap rebel bombing raid on Nicaragua's main civilian airport, destroying part of the terminal and missing two U.S. senators by hours. The Agency has neither confirmed nor denied any of these tales, but other U.S. officials acknowledge that they have found none that are seriously mistaken.

And Woodward's portrait of Casey himself is the best in print so far--though the man finally remains an enigma even to the reporter who pursued him to his hospital bed.

This Casey is brilliant, pugnacious and wily, jealous of his special relationship with his President and attentive to any attempt to reduce his power.

Casey publicly proclaimed his devotion to loosening the restraints on covert action imposed during the 1970s, and his contempt for the Senate and House committees that tried to oversee the Agency was legendary.

But Woodward shows that Casey was as passionate about intelligence analysis as he was for cloak-and-dagger operations; "I am the chief analyst," he proclaims.

Casey quickly recognized, as do all intelligence professionals, that control over information often means control over policy.

His original ambitions had been to be Ronald Reagan's secretary of state or defense; but Woodward tells us he eventually decided that the CIA--his CIA--was the only agency on the "cutting edge" of foreign policy.

How are we to assess the extraordinary reign of William Casey, from his massive expansion of the intelligence budget to the renaissance of covert action and the final debacle of Iran, the contras and other "off-the-books" adventures?

Here, alas, Woodward stops short. "VEIL" has no significant new information about the Iran-contra affair; in fact, it is missing some key episodes of CIA misbehavior that have recently come to light (one is the use of Agency helicopters to ferry weapons, illegally, to the contras ) .

The book brushes quickly past the question of Casey's role in the diversion of profits to the contras from the Administration's secret arms sales to Iran, and it offers no new clues to the relationship between Casey and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.

Those gaps are forgivable; after three years of reporting, Woodward found himself in the unhappy position last year of being "O.B.E.'d," as intelligence analysts say--"Overtaken by Events."

Less understandable, however, is Woodward's reticence to offer judgments on Casey and his CIA.

Halfway through the book, a character asks of the CIA: "It's really out of control, isn't it?" The character is Woodward's editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, and neither he nor the reader gets a direct and considered answer.

"I don't know," Woodward told Bradlee then.

Later, as he approaches Casey's bed, he describes himself as thinking: "Now that the game was about over, I could not escape making a judgment. I had scrupulously avoided that for the three and one-half years I had known (Casey). It was easier and safer for me that way."

Finally, Woodward offers only one real judgment: The bombing of Fadlallah's apartment house was wrong. "He and the White House had broken the rules, probably the law. It was Casey who had blood on his hands."

This is strong and unsparing stuff, but it is also a fairly easy call, given what Woodward has discovered. Of thornier, more enduring questions--Is assassination ever justifiable? Is bribery? Has the CIA gone out of control?--Woodward offers little discussion, although these are fundamental questions that the CIA, the Administration and Congress have been arguing over for the past six years.

Just as he did with Carl Bernstein a decade ago in their two Watergate books, "All the President's Men" and "The Final Days," Woodward has succeeded brilliantly in cracking state secrets to produce an often-gripping narrative; but sometimes, paradoxically, pure narrative gets in the way of the story in a larger sense.

The problem is that, just as in his earlier books, Woodward has done it all without identifying a source. He has not merely kept sources anonymous, he has refused, most of the time, to offer a clue to the provenance of his anecdotes.

His book is written in omniscient, anonymous "fly-on-the-wall" fashion. Hitherto-secret conversations between Casey and Reagan, orders from one secret agent to another, all are reported in the same confident tone as snippets from public testimony before the Iran-contra committees.

When readers have no hint as to whether an account came from a participant or someone who heard it second-hand, they may feel a bit queasy, as they would if presented, say, with an anonymous letter.

All sources are not equally reliable; it is a journalistic axiom that readers deserve a sense, if not of the identity of the source, at least of the solidity of his knowledge.

The idea, no doubt, was to avoid slowing the story down. Unfortunately, the sacrifice of a sense of control over sources has not really purchased much extra interest in the book. Woodward's prose, while brisk, is rarely eloquent. (Writing newspaper articles for a living has ruined any number of stylists.) But the reader is slowed by a question deeper than Woodward's style, deep in the strange three-year relationship of Woodward and Casey--"a partnership over secrets," as Woodward calls it; namely, Which partner held the controlling interest?

It was no real mystery to either man why Casey wanted to talk. He wanted an early-warning system of what might pop up in the press, and Woodward pops up with more secrets than anyone else. He was "playing defense," trying to "shape the story."

And, as Casey himself admitted, "Everyone talks more than he's supposed to."

In the end, though, the mystery remains unsolved.

In their hospital-room encounter, Casey told Woodward: "It hurts."

"What hurts, sir?" Woodward replied.

"What you don't know," Casey said.

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