PRINCETON, N.J., SEPT. 29 -- The deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency said tonight the agency has adopted new procedures to prevent any CIA director from carrying out independent covert actions such as those reportedly undertaken by the late William J. Casey.

Robert M. Gates, the deputy director, did not directly confirm or deny a report by Bob Woodward in The Washington Post and in a new book that Casey had independently called upon the Saudi Arabian intelligence service to attempt the murder in March 1985 of Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the extremist Shiite Moslem Hezbollah group.

But in answer to a question about what the CIA was doing to prevent the recurrence of such an "off-the-books" action, Gates said, "We are tightening up on the procedures for the approval of covert action."

He said the CIA also is making a "more rigorous review" of all proposed covert actions "to evaluate whether it makes sense" and ensure they are consistent with the law.

Gates said members of the CIA's analytical branch, which traditionally has had nothing to do with the agency's operational side, are now included in covert operation reviews.

Casey's independent action is a focal point of the book "VEIL: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987," by Woodward that was published this week.

A senior CIA official said later tonight that the agency's legal counselor, a congressional affairs representative and the CIA executive director, who is not a member of the covert operations division, are part of the review group.

Gates spoke at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public Law and International Affairs on the CIA's role in making American foreign policy.

While avoiding in his speech the question of the agency's controversial conduct in the Iran-contra affair and other covert activities, Gates in a brief question-and-answer period was repeatedly asked about the CIA's conduct under Casey. He told the audience that under new director William H. Webster, the CIA once again is concentrating on its traditional role of gathering and providing information to Congress and the administration.

"You have a lot of new procedures and new approaches intended to try and make the covert action process more accountable and more strictly confined to those channels that are appropriate and that have been set forth by regulation and law," Gates told one questioner.

Gates also seemed to indirectly criticize Casey, whom critics charge politicized intelligence to support Reagan administration policy objectives.

"To attempt to slant intelligence not only transgresses the deepest ethical and cultural principle of CIA, we all know it would also be foolish," Gates said.

Quoting Webster, Gates added, "We intend to tell it as it is, avoiding bias as much as we can or the politicization of our product."

Gates said he thought the CIA's sharing of intelligence with Congress had become one of the surest guarantees for maintaining the CIA's independence and objectivity.

The deputy director noted that both the White House and Congress also were taking steps on their own to prevent a repetition of events such as the Iran-contra affair.

He noted that the National Security Council, whose staff conducted covert Iran-contra operations, has now been barred from operational activities and that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has instituted new, tighter oversight procedures.

"The end result is to strengthen the congressional hand in policy debates and to heighten greatly the tensions between CIA and the rest of the executive branch," Gates said. "CIA today is in a remarkable position, poised nearly equidistant between the executive and legislative branches . . . . Such a central legislative role with respect to an intelligence service is unique in our history and in the world."

However, Gates warned his audience that despite the new procedures, he could not assure it that when "push comes to shove in Washington" some official might not still be able to order and carry out a covert action on its own once again.

Asked to explain why the agency had become so involved in policymaking, Gates said it probably stemmed from the fact that the Reagan administration has been an "activist" one, and "the CIA's role was to support that activism." The CIA's role, he said, is "largely a function of the administration itself," and "the CIA's role was to support that {Reagan administration} activism."

"I think it's fair to say that the kind of thing that happened earlier would have been inconceivable with Frank Carlucci as national security adviser and William Webster as director of central intelligence," Gates added.

At the end of his book, Post assistant managing editor Woodward also said he interviewed Casey while the CIA chief was hospitalized and that Casey seemed to acknowledge he was aware of the diversion of funds from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran to the Nicaragua contras.

Casey's widow, Sophia, has denied Woodward ever saw her husband in the hospital before he died last May.

Asked about the dispute, Gates said, "whether Mr. Casey knew, I don't know. I can't do better than that." But Gates said Casey's wife and daughter had kept watch over him "virtually all the time," and that several CIA security officers were on duty day and night "one at the door and another in view of the door."

"Those are the facts," he said without commenting further.

An informed source said that Casey was "lucid . . . clear . . . but couldn't talk that well" in the final weeks before his death.