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Veil: the secret wars of the CIA, 1981-1987.

Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987.

Bob Woodward. Simon and Schuster, $21.95. This book, which was expected to delight conspiracy theorists on the left, had a debut that delighted conspiracy theorists on the right. Poor, ailing Bill Casey was the victim of a scheming investigative reporter who slipped into his hospital room against his family's wishes.

A covert operation! Domestic to boot! Was Ben Bradlee informed? Or did some cowboy assistant managing editor, secretly running a "back channel' book project from a townhouse in Georgetown, start an unauthorized investigation that could potentially topple the entire Graham administration?

Anyone tempted to feel personal or professional sympathy for Casey will have changed his mind after finishing Veil. Someday historians will debate who did the most damage to the Reagan presidency: James Watt, Michael Deaver, Don Regan, Oliver North, and John Poindexter will all be candidates but Casey will ultimately be picked. Watt and Deaver merely made the president appear foolish. Regan and Casey pushed the country into foolish policy, a worse offense, and the net foolishness of Casey's actions exceeded that of Regan's, several of which were attempts to cover Casey's tracks. North, Poindexter, and others from the Iran scandal will ultimately land on the B list of Reagan rogues, as they were responding to a climate created by others, principally Regan and Casey.

Most of the sexy material from Veil is familiar to readers. How the inconclusive deathbed interview went from an event the Post wasn't even sure it should report to a mega-headline is a fascinating example of how you really can "make' news--especially if there is a dramatic personal confrontation to hang the headline on.

I found the book more rewarding for its little touches than its grand disclosures. At this point everybody knows that Bob Woodward is a superb reporter and a humdrum writer. But he's a much better thinker and analyst than he generally gets credit for. People have come to expect every page of Woodward's copy to be "shocking,' so they often miss his subtle points. Veil reflects a sophisticated understanding of the way Washington institutions operate, the difference between big-deal B.S. and small but significant gestures. Consider this passage:

"About six weeks after the Post ran the story on the Nicaragua covert operation, I went to see [Barry] Goldwater [then chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence], hoping to find out whether the CIA had informed him fully about the operation. Senate officals are attended to as racing cars are by pit crews . . . [but] in Goldwater's office not a pencil was out of place. The only singular feature was the stack of ham radio equipment on a table behind his desk.

""When Ben,' Goldwater said, referring to Bradlee, "called me on the Central American thing, there weren't ten words out of his mouth and I knew he knew about the whole thing. So what I did was say, "Ah, uh, uh, I don't recall anything about that. Why don't you call Bill Casey.' I played dumb with Ben.''

"He had misled us but not lied. It seemed too subtle a distinction.' Later in the section we learn that Goldwater actually wanted the facts of the operation out but didn't want to be blamed for leaking them.

What a marvelous vignette of institutional Washington: the pseudochummy contacts between players who would seem to be enemies; the little office details that tell you Goldwater is eccentric; the ritual blame-shifting; and, above all, the pretending not to know what's going on.

Even if you've already read the excerpts and reviews, seen the "Nightline' episodes, and bought the lunchboxes and the Woodward and Casey action figures (Realistic! Comes with its own shredder and five miniature documents!), Veil is still rewarding reading.
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Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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