Bob Woodward, an investigative reporter who needs no title and no introduction, is being vilified high and low for having done his job. In his latest book, "VEIL: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987," out last week, he penetrates the inner sanctum of former director William Casey's CIA, and some folks aren't very happy about it.
Mr. Woodward devoted three years of intensive work probing the depths of the sordid world of espionage only to hear an embattled president and the grieving widow of the intelligence chief publicly label him a liar, and to have some of his colleagues take potshots at him.
The controversy, in a matter of a few days, has overwhelmed the book's real importance.
The public and the news media have fastened onto Bob Woodward's visit to Bill Casey in the hospital, making it the focal point of scrutiny of the entire three-year project. Unfortunately, Mr. Woodward bears some of the responsibility for this distortion. While the final meeting provided a dramatic flourish to the book's ending, it has also made him fair game for critics. To have included this four-minute interlude may have been irresistible -- the controversy aroused is a publisher's dream -- but it has served to distract from what should be a more primary concern.
The decision of the editors of The Post not to run this visit as a news story when it occurred was wise. The visit was a blip on the screen, a nonstory.
It would be far more profitable to speculate on why Bill Casey, confidante of the president and engaging in roguish intelligence operations when the White House was calling for lie detector tests, opened his door to the country's best known investigative reporter.
One has to believe that this bizarre decision to participate in a continuing relationship with a journalist of this stamp resulted from Bill Casey's determination that Bob Woodward would be his ticket to history.
On the question of whether readers of The Post were "cheated" because the needs of the book publisher may have taken priority, The Post's editors seem convinced their readers got a fair shake. Indeed, if the opening story in The Post accurately mirrors the book's contents, the newspaper got the best of what Mr. Woodward had to say. The most sensational of his revelations had already appeared in the paper.
Mr. Woodward's concentrating on the Casey years at the CIA led to stories The Post would not otherwise have had. There were, however, some interesting marginal cases. As the scheduled book publication date neared, some of the items that did not appear in The Post were getting explosive. The following has not been publicized, but Mr. Woodward advised the publishers that if the book was not out by late September, he would have to publish certain segments in The Post. This became academic when Simon & Schuster catapulted the tome into bookstores in record time.
The controversy generated by this book, too often centering on Mr. Woodward himself rather than the book's substance, suggests that Mr. Woodward, with a brilliant career still in its ascendancy, may now be bigger than the institution he represents, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Henry Kissinger at the Department of State.
This important journalist's great sin may be that he has become too famous too soon. His salvation may lie in the new generation of readers who look blank at the mention of Vietnam, Watergate and Joe McCarthy.
A few weeks ago, a bright and chirpy journalism student, looking as though the day before she'd pecked her way out of an eggshell, interviewed me for her school paper. She ended the half-hour session abruptly: "I've taken enough of your time. Just one more question. Who is this Woodward and Bernstein you kept referring to?"