The other night, from cares exempt,
I slept -- and what d'you think I dreamt?
I dreamt that somehow I had come
To dwell in Topsey-Turveydom! . . .
Where right is wrong and wrong is right --
Where white is black and black is white.
-- W.S. Gilbert
Bob Woodward's chilling book on William J. Casey's CIA seems controversial because of how, when and in what form it was published, not because of the truthfulness of his charges and their implications. That's not so surprising. Increasingly in this one-dimensional television age, serious issues are treated trivially, and isolated incidents attract sensational comment without perspective or substance.
This is particularly so in the case of "VEIL: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987." Attention so far focuses not on what Casey did as director of central intelligence in the Reagan years but on whether he nodded at, or spoke a few words to, Woodward while in Georgetown University Hospital. Heated discussion revolves around what Woodward and The Washington Post knew and when they knew it, not on the implications of the specific, detailed accounts of an intelligence agency operating beyond political accountability, if not literally out of control.
To judge from the reaction, many of those commenting, including President Reagan, seem to have read only the headlines, then added to the din of nondenial denials and no-comments. Most of the furor totally misses the point.
The point is not whether Casey nodded or mumbled an affirmative response to Woodward about his knowledge of diversion of U.S.-Iranian arms sales profits to Nicaraguan contras -- unless you believe that Woodward is a liar. I do not, and the notion is strongly disputed by Woodward's career record of repeated, accurate disclosures. The public has been told authoritatively, in the sworn testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, that "Casey knew."
The point is the cumulative portrait of a Central Intelligence Agency director, operating in a climate of official secrecy and distrust for virtually all public institutions, embarking on worldwide actions that made the Iran-contra affair inevitable and perhaps only a small part of a larger pattern.
If Woodward's account is accurate, the now-famous scheme of North & Co.'s secret "enterprise" to provide an "off-the-shelf, full-service," unaccountable covert action capacity worldwide was already operational. Assassinations were among services it could provide.
To implement such overall secret operational capacity, according to Woodward's depiction, Casey worked diligently and effectively to find a way around Congress. He bypassed rules and laws, made end runs around congressional intelligence oversight committees, got friendly members of Congress to obtain secret agency funding through their committees and obtained assistance for operations from Saudi and Israeli intelligence services. He "privatizes" U.S. intelligence operations and U.S. foreign policy with a vengeance.
It's all possible because of what Woodward portrays as the passive but permissive style of Ronald Reagan in the White House.
As Woodward writes, Casey had little trouble figuring out what Reagan wanted: no commitment of U.S. combat troops but virtually all of the covert support possible to back up the dictates of the so-called "Reagan Doctrine." That means fighting communism around the world by supporting anticommunist resistance forces everywhere. Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia are all part of the same secret battleground.
It also means operating beyond boundaries of public accountability. If that means lying, bending or breaking the law, so be it. The cause is what counts. The end justifies the means.
This brings to mind words of Harry S Truman, who created the CIA 40 years ago and, after leaving office, expressed this concern about it:
"This quiet intelligence arm of the president has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue . . . . We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historical position, and I feel that we need to correct it."
Woodward's book raises similar concerns. If it's true, a public accounting is not only in order but essential.