CASEY

From the OSS to the CIA

By Joseph E. Persico

Viking. 601 pp. $24.95

THE HEAVY blue Oldsmobile with its thick, bulletproof windows negotiated a wide curve onto the George Washington Parkway and then accelerated westward. In the back seat a tall, rumpled man with the code name "Baron" pored through a pile of papers that overflowed his lap. Behind him rose the sun of an early January morning. Ahead was the darkest place in the American government.

A few days after he was sworn in as the nation's 13th director of central intelligence, William J. Casey made his arrival at the canopied front entrance of his new headquarters in Langley. He walked past the bronze statue of Nathan Hale, took a private elevator up to his seventh floor office and stepped out to the first of what would become a national nightmare of bad judgments, scandals and, quite likely, criminal activities.

There to greet him was Max Hugel, a rich computer salesman and Reagan fund-raiser who was short on experience, vocabulary and business ethics but long on lavender leisure suits and heavy gold chains. To Casey, however, he was just the man to head up the CIA's most sensitive and critical organization, the directorate of operations, responsible for worldwide espionage and covert activities. Eventually appointed, he lasted two months before embarrassing audio tapes of telephone conversations, conducted years earlier and suggesting insider trading, turned up at The Washington Post and Hugel was forced to clean out his desk.

Casey: From the OSS to the CIA by Joseph E. Persico is the first biography of William Casey to be authorized by the family of the late CIA director. It is also the first close look at the Casey years since VEIL: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987 by The Post's Bob Woodward. According to Persico, he was granted exclusive access by Sophia Casey, the former director's widow, to more than 300,000 pages of Casey's personal papers.

Unfortunately, however, few of those papers relate to Casey's period at the CIA which is the major focus of the book, or to the Iran-contra scandal which, the author says, "is a principal objective of this book." Instead the author relies mainly on the comments of a number of people who knew or worked with him during those years, as well as public documents such as the various investigations into the affair. But despite the unique access to both people and papers the portrait of the man who emerges from Persico's book is only slightly less devastating than the one that emerged from Bob Woodward's VEIL and which was severely attacked by the Casey family.

Unlike Woodward's VEIL, Persico's Casey, written as a standard biography, has no startling revelations. Although the author talked to Casey off and on over the years, by the time he worked out the arrangements to write the book, Casey had already been dead for six months. Also there are a number of minor mistakes. For example the National Security Agency does not "take high resolution photographs" and The Washington Post and several other news organizations were threatened with prosecution for revealing "communications intelligence" information, not simply "communications" details. Nevertheless, the book seems to touch all the bases and provides a fascinating look at the slow rise and deadly fall of a tragic and enigmatic American figure. ALTHOUGH no one could have predicted exactly when or where it would happen, the combustible materials thrown together in the days following the 1980 Reagan election made a disastrous explosion all but inevitable. Ronald Reagan, a man unburdened by deep thought, needed a place for the person who directed his campaign, preferably a low visibility position since Casey's mumbling, awkward style did not lend itself to such high profile jobs as secretary of defense or state, the latter being the one job Casey coveted. The solution was the CIA. After all, Casey had experience, sort of -- he had run spies into Germany for a few years during the war, half a lifetime earlier.

The idea of placing the president's chief political operator in one of the most sensitive, traditionally apolitical positions in the U.S. government seemed to bother no one in the administration. In fact, Persico quotes retired Vice Adm. Bobby Inman, then Casey's deputy, saying his boss spent far more time on the phone with the president talking politics than intelligence. "I was surprised how often Casey was on the phone with the President," Inman said. "What astonished me was that it never had anything to do with intelligence. It was always Reagan calling Casey or Casey calling the President on politics . . . "Had the Illinois state chairman been taken care of?" To Inman, Casey became "a free-lance buccaneer."

But Casey was more than a consummate politician, he was also a conservative ideologue where the issues, according to Persico, "were not black and white; they were red and white." These issues, say Persico, were: "first, the world was a hostile place; secondly, the Soviet Union was virtually the root of all evil; and thirdly, whatever that is good in the world happens when America is strong, resolute, and purposeful -- the bad occurs when America is weak."

If one-time actor Ronald Reagan often viewed world events as though they were taking place on a Hollywood sound stage, Casey frequently saw the world through the eyes of his hero and former commander, Gen. William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, the bold risk-taking founder of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor of the CIA. Casey saw himself as Gen. Donovan and his OSS was the rag-tag army of contra soldiers fighting the evils of world communism in Nicaragua before it reached the U.S. shores.

To Casey, however, the enemy was not limited to jungle guerrillas. It also took the form of senators and congressmen who were forever prying, leaking and frustrating his secret operations. Said one member of the House Intelligence Committee, "He treats us like mushrooms -- he keeps us in the dark and feeds us manure."

Casey feared leaks from Congress, yet regularly blabbed to a well-known reporter. He was rabidly anti-communist, yet thought nothing about subverting his own nation's democratic process. He publicly argued against negotiating with terrorists while secretly facilitating an arms for hostages deal.

On Jan. 29, 1987, six years from that day the heavy Oldsmobile took him to his first day as America's top spy, William Casey lay on a stiff hospital bed near death from brain cancer and surrounded by bitter scandal. At his side was his wife Sophia and his deputy Robert Gates who had brought a typed letter of resignation for him to sign. "That's the end of my career," he heard his boss say. Gates, overcome with emotion, said, "It was never supposed to happen this way."

James Bamford, author of "The Puzzle Palace," an examination of the National Security Agency, is the Washington investigative producer for ABC News.