While he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William J. Casey circumvented normal CIA channels and personally arranged for the Saudi Arabian intelligence service to undertake three covert operations, including a Middle East assassination attempt that went awry, killing 80 innocent people when a car bomb exploded in a Beirut suburb March 8, 1985, according to a book by Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward.

According to the book, the other operations that Casey arranged through Saudi King Fahd and his ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, were actions to help Chad oppose invasion by Libya and to frustrate the electoral ambitions in Italy of the communist party in the May 1985 elections.

The Saudis put up $15 million to finance these three "off-the-books" covert actions, according to Woodward's book.

The assassination attempt was aimed at Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the leader of the Shiite Moslem faction known as the "Party of God," or Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Fadlallah was believed by U.S. and Saudi intelligence to be connected with three bombings of American facilities in Beirut, Woodward writes in the book, "VEIL: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987." Veil was the code name at that time for the covert action "compartment" in the Reagan administration.

When the assassination attempt went awry, the Saudis -- with Casey's blessing -- persuaded Fadlallah to stop the car bombings of American and other Western targets in Beirut by bribing him with $2 million in food, university scholarships for his followers and other goods, according to the book. Casey was "astounded" that "such a comparatively small amount of money could solve so giant a problem," Woodward reports.

Casey's secret arrangement with the Saudis to go after Fadlallah grew out of his desire to create a preemptive antiterrorist capability for the United States. At first Casey sought to do this inside the CIA, but his deputy at the time, career CIA employe John N. McMahon, opposed the idea on grounds that it brought the agency too close to assassination, which President Reagan by executive order had expressly banned, Woodward reports. (The CIA had come under intense congressional criticism in the mid-1970s for engaging in controversial covert activities including several assassination plots.)

Woodward's 511-page book will be published next week. Two of six excerpts from it will appear in Sunday's Washington Post, one on the front page and one in The Washington Post Magazine; the remaining four excerpts will begin on the front page Monday through Thursday. Woodward is The Post's assistant managing editor for investigations.

According to Woodward, Casey took the CIA directorship in 1981 only after he was passed over for secretary of state and secretary of defense in the new administration, but quickly realized that he could accomplish his foreign policy goals in his role of director of central intelligence with overall responsibility for all U.S. intelligence agencies.

Casey is portrayed as having been motivated by a desire to "win" back at least one country under Soviet domination. He soon became frustrated with the inertia and resistance that he found at the CIA, which Casey saw as demoralized and still reeling from the earlier congressional investigations, the book reports.

The Casey that emerges from the book is a complex figure. Part buccaneer, part loyal friend, part student of history, part ardent anticommunist, Casey was a "common man with uncommon wealth" and someone who "showed a hundred different faces to a hundred different worlds," Woodward writes.

Woodward's book does not resolve many of the questions about Casey's role in the Iran-contra affair, nor add new information on Reagan's involvement; it includes many revelations that help establish a context for the story of secret endeavors that unfolded this summer before the Iran-contra congressional investigating committees and after Casey died of cancer and pneumonia last May 6.

The three covert actions undertaken by the Saudis at Casey's behest, including the assassination attempt against Fadlallah and the subsequent successful effort to bribe him, appear to exemplify the "off-the-shelf, self-sustaining, stand-alone" capability to conduct unaccountable secret operations that Casey discussed with Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, according to the former National Security Council aide's congressional testimony this summer.

In 1985, Woodward and staff writer Charles R. Babcock wrote an article in The Post that described the attempt to assassinate Fadlallah as a "runaway mission" that grew out of a CIA operation to train Lebanese units to conduct "preemptive strikes" against terrorists. At that time, the writers did not know about the Saudi role.

Although Casey had a reputation for being secretive, Woodward discloses that he had more than four dozen interviews and conversations with Casey from 1983 to 1987. Woodward writes that he never understood why Casey talked with him, and at one point quotes Casey as saying, "Everyone always says more than they are supposed to."

Their last conversation took place in Casey's room in the Georgetown University Hospital here, several weeks after Casey had undergone surgery for the brain tumor that led to his death. Woodward asked Casey whether he had known of the diversion of profits from U.S. arms sales to Iran to aid the Nicaraguan contras.

Casey nodded affirmatively.

Woodward then asked Casey "Why?"

"I believed," the gravely ill Casey replied. Then he fell asleep.

The book also describes how the administration became obsessed with terrorism and threats of violence from the first months of Reagan's presidency when Reagan was wounded in a March 1981 assassination attempt by John W. Hinckley Jr.

That attempt on Reagan's life had a greater impact on official attitudes than is generally understood, according to Woodward's account, because Reagan came closer to death, and had a more difficult time recuperating, than the public realized at the time.

While the picture presented to the public by the president and his aides was one of a remarkable recovery, officials at the White House worried that Reagan might not be physically able to retake command.

Woodward portrays Casey as aggressively pushing the CIA into ever-expanding secret and paramilitary worldwide operations, often in the face of strong internal agency dissent and with the clear intent to circumvent congressional oversight even if it meant "cooking the books" and distorting intelligence information. The House and Senate select intelligence committees long suspected Casey of some of these activities; Woodward's book raises many questions about the effectiveness of congressional oversight.

The book also raises new questions about what other secret activities were occurring while Casey ran the CIA and what else might still be operational. Woodward writes that he was only able to learn a fraction of the story of Casey's secret activities.

Among the other disclosures in the book:Casey personally planted an electronic "bug" in a foreign leader's office, according to several CIA officials. Although one senior official described the incident as "apocryphal," Woodward writes that he asked Casey about it and that "he glowered dramatically when I mentioned the name of the country and the official and said that that should never, never be repeated or published." The Reagan administration misled Congress about the justification for its support of the Nicaraguan contras who were fighting the government of Nicaragua. Initially, the administration program was designed to interdict arms shipments from the Sandinistas to leftist rebels in El Salvador. But the support continued after the arms shipments ceased and the true purpose of the program emerged: to overthrow the Sandinistas.

Later, at a time when the administration secretly maintained that its covert support of the contras was intended only to interdict the export of arms from Nicaragua, the CIA had a military plan "to split Nicaragua in half" with invading forces moving north and south and linking up after traversing 200 miles of Nicaraguan territory. Casey's first deputy director of central intelligence, Adm. Bobby R. Inman, an intelligence professional with broad support on Capitol Hill, quit his job early in 1982 because Casey cut him out of the contra operation and refused to answer his questions about it. Casey also hid details of the contra operation from Inman's successor, CIA career officer McMahon, who retired from the agency in 1986.

After he was elected president of Lebanon in 1982, Bashir Gemayel "secretly asked the CIA to provide him covert security and intelligence assistance," and Reagan approved an intelligence "finding" authorizing such support. Woodward states that Gemayel, who was assassinated before taking office, "had been recruited by the CIA when he came to the U.S. in the early 1970s to work for a Washington law firm" and remained for many years on the CIA payroll. CIA records show that "at one point $100,000 had been passed" to the government of Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica, the small Caribbean island that played a key role in the October 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. Charles joined Reagan in the White House briefing room on the morning after the invasion, staunchly defending the operation after the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, which she headed, requested U.S. intervention in Grenada. Woodward reports that Charles denied to him that she knew of any such payment. Casey was deeply influenced by a book on terrorism, written by journalist Claire Sterling, which argued that the Soviet Union was behind much of the terrorist activity in the world. Sterling's thesis was discredited by the CIA's internal, secret reports, but the fact that the government had concluded that "the Soviets were not the hidden hand behind international terrorism" was never made public, according to the book. One of the biggest CIA facilities outside the United States is located in Cairo, and the CIA had "the Egyptian government wired electronically and had agents from top to bottom." Woodward writes that Anwar Sadat, the slain Egyptian leader, worked closely with the CIA and at times treated the director of central intelligence "like a case officer." In 1983, the CIA was running about 12 "security and intelligence assistance operations," ranging in cost from $300,000 to more than a $1 million annually, to perserve the governments of such leaders as deposed Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos and former Sudan president Jaafar Nimeri. Casey greatly expanded the CIA's covert budget for propaganda operations, providing money secretly to foreign newspapers, think tanks and institutions as well as funding "to keep a few European writers in readiness." He was instrumental in arranging for $25,000 to be secretly funneled through a private U.S. foundation to help the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua, a project that was canceled after Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), then vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, learned about it and protested strongly. Three months of intelligence reports in the fall of 1981 citing Libyan threats to assassinate Reagan and other senior U.S. officials created a frenzied atmosphere in the CIA and at the White House, leading the president to order that military contingency plans be developed. The CIA later determined that many of the reports came from sources "whose credibility is open to question" and that the reports "may have been generated because informants are aware that we are seeking this information." The embarrassing revelations of 1985 -- "the year of the spy" -- were all preceded by warnings the government could not or did not heed. In the late 1970s intelligence officers on the staff of Adm. Isaac C. Kidd, then commander of the Atlantic Fleet, wrote a report concluding that Soviet reactions to U.S. fleet exercises showed they were reading the U.S. Navy's classified message traffic, but nothing was done until the John Walker spy ring was discovered in 1985. A secret Navy report in 1982 concluded that the Soviets' discovery of a tap on an underwater communications cable had to have been the result of information provided by a human source, but this was ignored until the spying of Ronald W. Pelton at the National Security Agency was discovered in 1985. Similarly, the book reports, the CIA station chief in Moscow cabled Washington in 1984 about alarming Soviet successes against agency operations in the Soviet Union, events that were only understood when the betrayals of former CIA agent Edward Lee Howard, who fled to Moscow, were discovered in 1985. Congress also had counterintelligence problems, according to the book. Two bugs were discovered in the office of then-Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) when he was chairman of the intelligence committee. U.S. security personnel did twice-weekly sweeps of Goldwater's office but were unable to determine who had planted the devices.

The book also describes how Casey became increasingly anxious to go beyond normal channels to carry out operations, often by turning to "friendly" Saudi and Israeli intelligence services.

"We have a chance to establish our own foreign policy," Casey is said to have remarked privately to another official, in a comment that echoes public criticisms made later about him by congressional investigators. "We're on the cutting edge. We are the action agency of the government."

"As much as anybody's, even the president's, Casey's convictions, fierce loyalties and obsessions were behind the contra operation, the Iran initiative and the range of other secret undertakings and clandestine relations," Woodward writes. "His view of the law -- minimum compliance and minimum disclosure -- had permeated the Reagan foreign policy enterprises. His ambition had been to prove that his country could do 'these things,' as he once told me. He meant covert actions conducted in true, permanent secrecy. It was part nostalgia. It was also part demonstration of willfulness."

Woodward's book describes numerous incidents in which members of Congress knew -- or suspected -- many details of secret operations but did nothing about them, either because they thought their hands were tied by pledges of secrecy or lack of interest, or will.

It also describes high-level maneuverings and hard-ball bargaining sessions between administration officials and the press, especially The Washington Post. The incidents describe soul-searching on both sides over the conflicts between "national security" and the responsibility of publishing in the public interest.

Woodward's book leaves many questions unanswered. One has to do with Casey himself. Woodward writes: "We talked at his house, at his office, on plane rides, in corners at parties, or on the phone. At times he spoke freely and outlined his views. At other times he declined. Overall, I was able to obtain his perspective on the major intelligence topics discussed in this book . . . . He rarely was willing to be identified by name or as a source for my newspaper writing. He also knew I was gathering information for this book on his CIA, and on a number of occasions he stipulated that information was not to appear in the next day's newspaper but was for the book."

Why would Casey, who viewed the press as an adversary, if not enemy, do that? Woodward doesn't know, but speculates. Perhaps it was Casey's way of "playing defense" or of "shaping the story." Perhaps he was prompted by considerations of personal curiosity.

In a "Note to Readers," Woodward acknowledges that his account of Casey's tenure might not square with the way Casey saw it.

"Casey thought of himself as a historian," Woodward writes. "In fairness to him, I am sure that if he had lived to write his own account, this is not the way he would tell it. He would disagree vehemently with me, as he often did while he was alive. I, nonetheless, am certain he would recognize all or nearly all of what is assembled here."