Veil is primarily an account of the covert operations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency between 1981 and 1987 during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Its focus is on the origin and development of policy-making related to these operations rather than on the actual execution of covert activities. Inevitably, Reagan’s appointee as the Director of the CIA, William J. Casey, emerges as the dominant figure in this volume. Woodward’s study attempts to answer two basic questions: To what extent was the CIA transformed under Casey’s leadership, and how far was Casey directly responsible for the Iran-Contra affair?
Much of Veil’s appeal is derived from the author’s access to informed insiders in the CIA and other government agencies: Woodward claims to have interviewed more than 250 persons who were directly involved with collecting or evaluating intelligence data. With few exceptions, they agreed to speak with Woodward only on the condition that their names not be given. One of the exceptions was William Casey; Woodward states that he had more than forty-eight substantive discussions with Casey between 1983 and the latter’s death in 1987. Why Casey should have been willing to talk at such length with Woodward remains unclear. One possibility, which Woodward acknowledges, is that Casey sought to use the interviews to shape Woodward’s interpretation of the CIA’s recent history.
The book’s title, Veil, is derived from the code name of one of the CIA’s covert operations against the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi. It, and the subtitle, are intended to draw attention to the important shift in CIA activities under Casey’s leadership. During World War II, Casey worked for the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, with direct responsibility for covert operations on the European continent. Because of the scandals during the 1970’s, the CIA had de-emphasized covert operations and restored greater importance to its original function: gathering intelligence. From the very beginning, however, Casey took a special interest in covert operations, and CIA involvement increased dramatically while he headed the agency.
Woodward suggests that in order to understand the changes which Casey introduced in the CIA, it is important to appreciate that he was one of the forceful right-wing ideologues who helped elect Reagan. Casey was not a career CIA officer but a wealthy businessman who was offered a position in the Reagan Administration because he had been Reagan’s campaign manager. Casey wanted to be Secretary of State and shape the nation’s foreign policy. Even after he became CIA director, he did not abandon that desire. Woodward implies that Casey’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal in part stemmed from his efforts to make foreign policy rather than restricting himself to providing information to those persons who were constitutionally authorized to do so.
Casey’s behavior toward Israel is one example of his tendency to conduct his own foreign policy with little regard for the government’s official position. While the Reagan Administration was attempting to avoid showing favoritism toward Israel in order to stay on good terms with Arab governments, Casey secretly took steps to strengthen substantially Israel militarily. This help included granting Israel access to American satellite reconnaissance photos, which were of great importance to the Israeli military in planning its June, 1981, bombing raid which destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Afterward, the White House expressed its displeasure by imposing sanctions on Israel and establishing new restrictions on Israeli access to satellite photos.
Veil conveys the impression that Casey was an impetuous person who did not consider himself bound by the rules that applied to others. Apart from his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, this aspect of his character is best illustrated by an incident which occurred early in his tenure as CIA director. A Middle Eastern CIA station was considering planting an eavesdropping device in the office of a senior government official of that country. When the local agents hesitated, Casey proceeded to plant the bug himself during a courtesy visit to the official. The direct involvement of a high-level official in an operation of this type was a flagrant violation of the organization’s rules.
Casey always believed that he knew exactly where Reagan stood on issues and was perceived by other government officials as having the ear of the president, but the evidence presented by Woodward...