VEIL: The Secret Wars Of the CIA, 1981-1987 By Bob Woodward Simon and Schuster. 544 pp. $19.95

THERE THEY were, the director of central intelligence and the investigative editor of a major Washington newspaper, naked to the waist, the rest of their bodies swathed in fluffy towels, huddled in the corner of a Turkish bath with clouds of steam billowing about them, as they considered measures to counter Iranian terrorism.

It was an arresting tableau, particularly if one knew that this scene from a 1986 NBC Sunday Night Movie, Under Siege, was coauthored by The Washington Post's assistant managing editor/investigative, Bob Woodward, and all the more if one realized that at the very time he was composing such stuff Woodward was quietly meeting all over town with CIA Director William J. Casey for a major book on the intelligence agency.

Those who knew Woodward's project may be forgiven if they wondered whether the quintessential outsider who had once met his well-placed but apostate source in a dingy parking garage had now become the quintessential insider, conferring with one of the capital's most potent pooh-bahs in the cozy lairs of the Washington establishment. And some of them must surely have wondered if Woodward's impressive access to the high and mighty would ultimately dull the fine edge of skepticism that had informed his earlier work.

It has often been remarked that Woodward and his sidekick Carl Bernstein succeeded on the Watergate story precisely because they were not part of the Washington "system." They weren't White House reporters, diplomatic correspondents or columnists in three-piece suits and three-piece minds who treated the White House with deference bordering on awe. They were police reporters covering a crime.

But that was 15 years ago. Woodward has come a long way since, rising inexorably within his own newspaper and within the Washington system, cultivating relations with the city's political, military and diplomatic elite, earning millions of dollars on a string of best-sellers, becoming perhaps the nation's most celebrated journalist. Wouldn't all this take a toll on his investigative zeal?

It is a pleasure to report that it has not. Although Woodward, by his own testimony, met with the late Mr. Casey some four dozen times -- at the director's house, at his office, on plane rides, at parties, if not in Turkish baths -- he has not lost his perspective. For that reason, among others, Veil is a revealing and important book.

Nonetheless, Woodward's feat raises some intriguing questions about that most prized of all journalistic commodities: access. I once heard a former Washington bureau chief of The New York Times confess that his nightmare was a call from New York 45 minutes before deadline: the Akron Beacon-Journal has a story that Henry Kissinger is meeting with Fidel Castro in a Guatemalan hill resort to carve up the Southern Hemisphere. Match it! Only four men -- the president, the director of central intelligence, the secretary of defense and the secretary of state -- could confirm this report. Any Times bureau chief worth his salt must be able to reach one of those men on 45 minutes' notice. But if he has plied his trade aggressively and skeptically he may have irritated enough of those gentlemen to preserve the Beacon-Journal's exclusive.

Moreover, when a high-ranking official, particularly one who was normally as hostile to the press as this CIA director, decides to bestow unprecedented access on a reporter known for his independence, a question immediately arises: What does the official hope to gain from this? That he stands to gain something is understood; any such transaction is a two-way street. The reporter realizes that he is being used, while he uses the official right back. But the reporter would prefer to know -- and his readers have a right to know -- the nature of his utility.

BOB WOODWARD professes not to understand why Casey granted him this extraordinary access, bordering on collaboration. He notes that Casey was an amateur historian, that he had a healthy ego, that he was intensely aware of his own mortality and eager to gain credit for his central role in the Reagan administration's assertive foreign policy. But none of this seems fully to explain why Casey should let Woodward into his tent at the very moment that Casey was plotting with Oliver North to sell arms to the Ayatollah Khomeini and use the proceeds to circumvent the will of Congress on aid to the Nicaraguan contras.

Could Casey's cultivation of Woodward have been part of a CIA disinformation scheme designed to mislead the press and public about the evolution of the administration's covert operations in the Middle East and Latin America (not to mention elsewhere in the world)? After all, this administration is not above such deception. The very title of the book -- Veil -- is a code word for a disinformation program adopted by the president, with Casey's enthusiastic support, to dissuade Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi from engaging in terrorism, and during that episode The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among others, bought the line, peddled by administration spokesmen, that a new confrontation with Libya was looming. Surely Woodward -- who long has been thought to have good sources in the intelligence community -- must have been alive to the dangers inherent in his relationship with Casey (he concedes that the director's cooperation in the book project may have been his way of "playing defense," or "shaping the story"). I see no evidence that he allowed himself to be unduly manipulated. But Casey's motives remain a murky issue at the heart of this book.

And what did Woodward glean from Casey? For those seeking spectacular revelations about CIA skullduggery, particularly in the Iran-contra affair, the book will prove disappointing.

Iran-contra was both a boon and a handicap to this project, a boon because it has focused intense new interest on Casey and his agency; a handicap because Woodward had set out to write a very different book -- the story of Casey's effort to redeem the CIA from the doldrums of the '70s -- and the scandal raised expectations that he would unearth major new evidence, perhaps even the answer to the ultimate question, known in some circles as WWPK -- what and when did the president know? But Woodward has little of prime importance to add to the scandal itself, and nothing significant on the president's role. In fact, despite some hurried insertions of material from the hearing in its concluding chapters, Veil is not even a particularly coherent account of Iran-contra. The ultimate book on this unhappy episode remains to be written.

But the most important contribution of Veil is less the surfacing of secrets than the portrait it draws of the director as he remakes not only his agency but much of American foreign policy. Casey emerges in these pages as an American original, a feisty, profane, pugnacious, dogmatic old man, determined to bull his way past the Congress, the press, the secretary of state, the "bean-counters" in his own agency, and any other obstacles to his brand of big-stick jingoism.

Woodward does come through with some hard news. His most chilling revelation concerns Casey's role in the attempted assassination of Sheikh Fadlallah, leader of the Hezbollah (Party of God), a militant Shiite movement, who had been connected to three bombings of American facilities in Beirut. In a May 12, 1985 story, Woodward and his colleague, Charles Babcock, revealed that the CIA had trained and supported units composed of Lebanese and other foreigners to strike against suspected terrorists in the Middle East. They also revealed that one of these units had hired people to detonate a massive car bomb outside the Beirut residence of Fadlallah on March 8 of that year. Eighty persons were killed and 200 wounded, but Fadlallah escaped injury. At the time, Woodward and Babcock said that the bombing was a "runaway mission," performed "without CIA authorization."

Now Woodward reveals that Casey himself plotted the assassination in a meeting with the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, in early 1985. "He had to go," Woodward writes laconically. "The two men were in agreement."

This would appear to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of President Ford's Executive Order 11905, which explicitly prohibits American officials from planning or carrying out the assassinations of foreign leaders (although some would contend that this prohibition was never intended to apply to terrorists themselves responsible for the deaths of Americans). But, legalities aside, considering that the bombing cost the lives of 80 people, most of them innocent of any terrorism, Woodward writes bluntly that Casey had "blood on his hands" in this affair.

There are other disclosures -- ranging from the discovery of two listening devices on the desk of Barry Goldwater, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to a "spectacular intelligence coup" in early 1986 when the CIA intercepted 338 messages from Gadhafi's intelligence headquarters.

THERE IS a superb line in this book, as Casey and several aides board a small "special mission" aircraft for a secret two-day trip to Central America. "He was off with his boys to plan war," Woodward writes, catching just the boyish belligerence of the man.

Unfortunately, there is not much of this eloquence in Veil. The book reads as if it had been assembled, not written; as if Woodward had simply put his word processor on automatic pilot and let it grind out the facts.

Nonetheless, if he is not much of a writer, Woodward remains one of the best reporters of his generation, a man who knows how to play the subtle access game as well as anyone, and who emerges not only with his integrity intact, but with one hell of a story.

J. Anthony Lukas is the author of "Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families."