A Sympathetic But Not Sycophantic Look At William Casey

November 11, 1990|By Daniel Schorr | Daniel Schorr,Los Angeles Times

Casey: From the OSS to the CIA.

Joseph E. Persico.

Viking.

510 pages. $24.95.

Prince Metternich, hearing of the death of the Russian ambassador at a crucial stage in the Congress of Vienna, is supposed to have asked, "What do you suppose his motives were?" That anecdote came to mind when former CIA Director William J. Casey died May 5, 1987, just as the congressional Iran-Contra hearings were getting under way.

Never mind the long illness and physician-certified surgery for a brain tumor. For the manipulative puppet master of the Reagan administration to die at such a time, taking so many unresolved mysteries to the grave, seemed almost too great a coincidence. But if Casey no longer was available for mumbled evasions and bald lies, his bold and calculating spirit lives on in two books that bear the mark of his manipulative skills.

One was Bob Woodward's "Veil -- The Secret Wars of the CIA From 1985 to 1987." Itself an excellent account, it nevertheless reflected the CIA director's artfulness in opening up to the Washington Post editor about earlier covert operations while concealing the Iran and Nicaraguan operations in which he was then engaged.

The new biography, Joseph E. Persico's "Casey: From the OSS to the CIA," had the benefit of virtually unlimited access to Casey's files, family and friends. It is not surprising that, in part, it represents a put-down and rebuttal of Mr. Woodward, who enraged the Casey family with his account of a purported visit to the spymaster's hospital room.

Suggesting that Casey gave interviews to Mr. Woodward because he "thought he had the candlepower to brainwash Woodward," Mr. Persico casts doubt on the authenticity of the hospital visit and disputes Mr. Woodward's inference that Casey confessed knowing about the diversion of Iranian arms profits. Without subscribing to Mr. Woodward's account of a deathbed confession, I remain, therefore, unconvinced by Mr. Persico's conclusion that he did not know, resting, as the conclusion does, on the files of an inveterate dissembler, and, even then, offering no source notes.

Can an "authoritative" account be wrong? It can, indeed. For example, Mr. Persico relates that, early in 1981, Casey, seeking to become "a key player in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy," flew to Tel Aviv, Israel, and made a deal with the Israeli intelligence chief to provide information that would assist Israel in bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor in return for calling off opposition by "the Jewish lobby in the United States" to the sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. The reactor was bombed, Mr. Persico writes, and "the Jewish lobby took a listless pro forma stand against the AWACS sale."

In fact, the pro-Israeli lobby fought the AWACS deal tooth and nail and lost by two votes in the Senate. Richard V. Allen, who was national security adviser at the time, told me that Casey had no role in promoting the AWACS deal and, furthermore, if the CIA chief had advance indication of the bombing of the reactor, he neglected to advise him or then-President Reagan.

It must be said for Mr. Persico's "authoritative" account that, despite the wealth of Casey memos and pro-Casey sources, it succeeds in painting a fascinating warts-and-all picture, sympathetic but not sycophantic. From it emerges an often contradictory venture capitalist, brilliant but unscrupulous (the inventor of the "tax shelter"), constantly skirting the edge of the law, undermining the respectability for which he strove. His thinking stuck somewhere in World War II, he sought to emulate his idol, Col. William Donovan, whom he served in the Office of Strategic Services.

While expanding the CIA, Mr. Casey drove away seasoned professionals such as Adm. Bobby Inman and John McMahon and gathered adventurers like Max Hugel, Duane Clarridge (who sold him on the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors), Oliver North and Richard Secord of Iran-Contra fame.

Mr. Persico says that Casey "bears heavy responsibility" for but was not the mastermind of the Iran-Contra operation. Yet, it would appear from his own evidence that if there was a single "mastermind," Casey was it. He suggested the "loophole" that would permit the National Security Council staff to do what intelligence agencies were forbidden to do without reporting to Congress. He suggested the "crack in the law" permitting the CIA to buy arms from the Pentagon and sell them to Iran. He encouraged Mr. Reagan to continue arms sales to Iran when the president was ready to give up. ("I suspect he would be willing to run the risk and take the heat in the future if this will lead to jTC spring[ing] the hostages.") He insisted on keeping the Iranian wheeler-dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, as an intermediary after CIA professionals had branded him as a fraud.

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