Commentary Magazine


Veil, by Bob Woodward

Inside Out

Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987.
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster. 543 pp. $21.95

Despite the near-total lack of documentation for most of Bob Woodward’s tales in this book about the CIA under the directorship of the late William J. Casey, Veil has been widely praised as an insider’s account of the secret activities of the Reagan administration. But Veil is not an inside story; it is at best an “inside-the-locker-room” story, full of the vulgar language and pseudo-informed gossip that one finds among middle-level bureaucrats pretending to know “what really happened.” Woodward’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it is also hard to believe that interviews with Casey had much to do with the writing of Veil, not simply because of the late CIA Director’s well-known contempt for Woodward and Woodward’s newspaper, the Washington Post, but also because of the startling lack of any informed understanding of international affairs that characterizes this book. Had Casey really spent a lot of time with Woodward, at least some of the events described in Veil would have received a decent analysis.

Veil is in essence an extended attack upon Casey and those few other officials in the American government during the Reagan years who were interested in pursuing an activist foreign policy. To be sure, Woodward is canny enough to avoid a direct assault on Casey and his friends and supporters, preferring instead to place adverse judgments of them in the minds of various other protagonists in this book. But Woodward does have a clear, consistent view of American foreign policy which informs and directs his account: any serious attempt to challenge our enemies is bound to be misguided.

Woodward’s heroes are those who share this view inside Congress and the Agency itself, the “professionals” who fought against efforts by Casey and a handful of his associates to conduct a forceful and determined anti-Soviet foreign policy. As for foreign leaders who allied themselves with the purposes of the Reagan administration, in Woodward’s telling they acted either out of misplaced ideological zeal or because the CIA paid them off. In their number Woodward does not hesitate to include the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; the current President of El Salvador, José Napoleon Duarte; and the current Prime Minister of Dominica, Eugenia Charles—each of whom, he claims, received CIA money and became a CIA “asset.”

Yet in a maneuver typical of his presentation throughout, no sooner does Woodward plant this idea in the mind of the reader than he disingenuously steps away from it. Thus, of Duarte we learn:

He was listed in the files as a CIA asset with a coded cryptonym. CIA assets run from “casual informants” who might not know they are giving information to the CIA, to the full-blown “controlled assets,” who are paid and directed by the CIA. There is a broad gap in between, which is where Duarte fit. He had been a good source of intelligence over many years, but he was a man of independence who was in no sense controlled and may not have known he was giving information to the CIA. . . .

What one concludes from this is that Duarte was in fact not in the “broad gap” at all but was rather a “casual informant”—in other words, one who sometimes spoke to persons who were working for the CIA. Woodward’s use of the term “assets,” one of those little conceits that the CIA itself employs to give its reports enhanced credibility, simply works to thicken the cloud of aspersion around Duarte.

Similarly with the others. Eugenia Charles’s government had received “$100,000 for a secret support operation.” Was the money itself the support operation, or were the funds to have been rerouted to someone else? Woodward does not say, and in any case Mrs. Charles has denied knowledge of the payments. Woodward, however, goes on to savage the Dominican leader—whose major sin, it will be recalled, was to have encouraged the American liberation of Grenada—and he does so, typically, through the eyes and the hidden thoughts of another participant (in this case former Assistant Secretary of State Langhorne Motley).

Sadat receives the same treatment:

Broadly speaking, Sadat was an intelligence asset, not directly in the pay of the CIA, not in any sense under its control, but he had opened himself and his country, in his definition of their mutual self-interest, to the CIA.

First the scarlet brand (“A” for “asset”), then the tricky disclaimer. By such means does Woodward denigrate three courageous leaders who at no small risk to themselves joined with the United States to fight the spread of Soviet influence in their regions.

The habit of insinuating that supporters of the U.S. are intelligence “assets” and then immediately stripping the term of any substantial meaning exemplifies a pattern that runs throughout Veil, permitting the author to make damaging charges and then, where convenient, to deny that he has made them. The larger pattern can be seen at work in the case of our relations with Central America. Thus, for the first part of the book, Woodward repeatedly deprecates the claim made by William Casey that a substantial flow of arms was going from the Sandinista regime of Nicaragua to the Communist guerrillas fighting against the Duarte government in El Salvador; there was, according to Woodward, no intelligence to justify such a claim. Then for the balance of the book Woodward wonders why Casey, the CIA, and the Reagan administration at large failed to stop the arms shipments.

But the fact is—and Woodward’s sources had to have known it—that the intelligence community possessed detailed information about the shipment of weapons from Nicaragua to El Salvador beginning in the final years of the Carter administration. By late 1981 it was known not only that Nicaragua, under Cuban direction, was supplying the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador with weapons, but that the day-to-day conduct of the war in El Salvador was being run from Managua. There was an intense struggle within the administration between CIA professionals—who wanted to keep the bulk of the evidence secret, on the grounds that to reveal it would jeopardize sources and methods—and those who wanted to bring it to the attention of the public and so convince a skeptical nation that the administration’s concerns were solidly grounded in fact and not the result of blind ideological opposition to the Sandinistas and their foreign sponsors.

It is embarrassing that Woodward should be ignorant of this internal debate, in which the abundance and accuracy of the basic information were not challenged by either side. But then he appears no less ignorant of the public record, writing for instance that President Carter in 1980 “had been on the brink of pulling the plug on the U.S. assistance” to Nicaragua but neglecting to add that Carter did in fact pull the plug, suspending American aid in January 1981. It was Woodward’s nemesis, the Reagan administration, which restored the aid shortly after taking office.

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Woodward also chooses his information carefully. He tells of the discovery, in 1980, of a considerable quantity of documents belonging to Shafik Handal, the head of the Salvadoran Communist party. These documents, as Woodward writes, showed frequent travel “to the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, other Soviet-bloc countries and Cuba; agreements had been reached on ammunition and medical supplies to be shipped through Cuba and Nicaragua. . . .” Yet other documents found at the same time, and not mentioned by Woodward, showed how Castro had ordered Handal to form a unified guerrilla movement in Salvador, so that the Cubans could direct all the anti-government forces. And there were still other documents that had belonged to Farid Handal, Shafik’s brother, and which told of travel to the United States where Farid Handal met with American Communists and their sympathizers in Washington, New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles to raise money for the Salvadoran guerrillas and to organize a propaganda campaign inside the United States to combat the government’s efforts to support Duarte.

It would not have been difficult for Woodward to lay his hands on this documentation, for it was declassified and released to the public in February 1981. Yet there is not a word about any of it in Veil—just as, when it comes to Grenada, there is no sign that Woodward has studied the vast documentation on that country under Communist rule that is available to the public in the National Archives. (Indeed, again contrary to documented fact, Woodward denies that Cuban military officers were present in Grenada.)

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Once upon a time, Woodward and his then-colleague, Carl Bernstein, proclaimed they would not publish anything without having at least two good sources for it. That frail reed is now gone; Veil frequently rests upon single sources that are clearly unreliable.

In this connection there is a revealing sequence dealing with Woodward’s efforts to prove that Israel was giving covert financial support to the Nicaraguan contras. After unsuccessfully trying to get someone in a position of authority to confirm the idea, Woodward finally uncovers a single “well-placed Israeli source” who speaks in gnomic terms:

Like the private matters that can take place between two individuals, there are things, shadowy, unreadable, that can and do take place between two nations that remain out of view. It defies interpretation and will not stand illumination. But it was true, though there could be no details. He did not know the details himself.

To which a reader is entitled to respond, if the source did not know any details, how could he say his information was nonetheless true? Woodward, in fact, asks this question, and gets the reply:

There are truths that need no details, he said. For example, Israel sells arms to Honduras . . . the answer could be there. . . .

Well, was the answer there? Responds the gnomic Israeli: “I doubt it. . . .”

Armed with this “information,” the Washington Post reported at the time that Israel was giving money to the contras, a charge categorically denied by the Israeli government and also by the CIA, whose spokesman George Lauder told Woodward explicitly that the CIA had not requested any contra money from the Israelis. Casey himself told Woodward that there had been no official contacts between anyone at the Agency and the Israelis on that subject.

In short, on the basis of a single source that would be laughed out of any serious newsroom, and three denials that the episode in question took place, Woodward writes about it as if he had proved his point beyond a shadow of doubt.

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If preposterous sources are taken seriously—when they can be used to throw dirt on America and its allies—solid information detrimental to our enemies is ignored or written off. This is the case with Woodward’s treatment of the Soviet role in international terrorism, an early cause of former Secretary of State Alexander Haig (for whom I later worked as a special adviser).

Haig in 1981 asked the American intelligence community to produce all available information on the Soviet connection to terror. There were many in the CIA who regarded this request as a threat, since the Agency had for many years stated categorically that there was no such connection. In part this belief was due to a genuine lack of good information (after the massive leakage of secrets in the mid-70′s, many allied services drastically reduced the quantity of sensitive intelligence passed to the United States government), in part to a refusal to accept evidence contrary to conventional wisdom. CIA analysts had resorted to a variety of means of denying the Soviet link, for example by declining to define the PLO (many of whose “fighters” were trained in the Soviet Union itself) as a terrorist organization or to accept the testimony of at least two very high-level defectors, General Jan Sejna of Czechoslovakia and General Ian Pacepa of Rumania, both of whom had provided firsthand knowledge of Soviet support of international terrorism.

Haig, who had himself been the target of a terrorist attack while serving in Europe as the head of NATO, had learned from several chiefs of West European intelligence services of hard evidence concerning the Soviet connection, and he assumed that this information had been passed to the CIA. Instead, the CIA—along with leading officials in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research—did everything possible to discredit the idea, and also launched an all-out assault on Claire Sterling’s book, The Terror Network, which detailed the considerable Soviet involvement. The debate was intense, but Woodward gives us only half of the story; he takes the anti-Haig and anti-Sterling remarks as gospel and dismisses all arguments to the contrary. And he writes, almost incredibly: “As far as the American public was concerned, the Soviets still stood publicly branded by the Secretary of State as active supporters of terrorism. And the record was never corrected.” Rightly so, since not one but two Secretaries of State (first Haig, then Shultz), as well as the United States Congress, have concluded on the basis of a mountain of evidence—including evidence provided by the CIA itself—that the Soviet Union supports international terrorism.

This is not the only occasion in Veil on which the Soviet Union and its allies are treated with kid gloves. Indeed, with all his vaunted sources, and with all his investigative talents, it is a wonder that Bob Woodward has not managed to come up with anything to tell us about KGB activities in the West, aside from a few tidbits about Soviet penetration of the American intelligence community (a revelation that damages American prestige, not that of the Soviet Union).

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In placing the responsibility for international conflict on Americans such as William Casey, Woodward even finds a way to blame the activities of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi on American behavior—in this case on an alleged CIA “disinformation” operation, code-named Veil. (In fact, Veil is not a CIA codeword, so even the title of this book is inaccurate.)

According to Woodward, the American government in 1986 put out false information suggesting that Qaddafi was planning new terrorist actions, and this “disinformation” campaign was in turn partly responsible for subsequent terrorist acts by Libya. Yet the article in the Wall Street Journal to which Woodward points as a major example of this “disinformation” was correct on every central point: the American government did in fact have intelligence about impending Libyan-sponsored terrorism, and did plan a reaction to it more vigorous than our earlier bombing of Tripoli and Bengazi. Moreover, the act of Libyan terrorism to which Veil refers (in Karachi, Pakistan) was in the planning stage well before the Wall Street Journal article appeared.

The notion that Western democracies are somehow responsible for the anti-democratic or terroristic behavior of their enemies, which would cease if only the West pursued a more placatory course in foreign policy, is a mainstay of the systematic distortion of reality to which Woodward has so energetically contributed, both in this book and elsewhere. What is shocking in all this is not so much his view of the world as his loose way with the facts, and with what may legitimately be inferred from the facts. For here after all lies the final test of a journalist’s reliability.

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This brings us to the two widely-reported melodramatic claims that have featured prominently in all the hype surrounding Veil: first, that William Casey arranged with the Saudis to attempt the assassination of Shi’ite leader Sheikh Mohammed Hossein Fadlallah in Lebanon in 1985; second, that Woodward gained access to Casey’s hospital room in the Director’s “final days,” and had a conversation in which Casey confirmed having known about the diversion of funds from the Iran initiative to the contras, and said, in explanation, “I believed.”

It is highly unlikely that Casey and the Saudis wanted Fadlallah eliminated. For one thing, Woodward’s statement that both Casey and Saudi Ambassador Bandar “knew that the chief supporter and symbol of terrorism was the fundamentalist leader Sheikh Fadlallah” is wrong. No serious analyst would label Fadlallah the “chief supporter and symbol of terrorism”; he was one of many such figures, and his importance was primarily political. Moreover, it stretches credibility to suggest that the Saudi royal family would have been willing to act so vigorously against Shi’ites inside Lebanon—where they hardly threatened Saudi interests—when it showed little inclination to deal aggressively with Shi’ite terrorism against the monarchy itself inside Saudi Arabia. So at a minimum Woodward’s ascribed “motive” is unconvincing; and, as usual, there is no evidence to support Woodward’s account of a conversation between two people—Casey and Bandar—one of whom is dead and the other of whom denies it.

The near-miraculous conversation in Georgetown University hospital is even less credible. Casey’s doctors and family have said that he was incapable of coherent speech. Charles Colson, who underwent surgery in Georgetown at the same time, visited Casey in that period and found that verbal communication was impossible. Moreover, when Woodward was asked by Ted Koppel on Nightline to describe something about the hospital room, or whether Casey was on a life-support system, or attached to an intravenous tube, he refused to answer. His grounds were that to do so would jeopardize his sources, but as Koppel justly commented, “I’m not exactly sure I understand why a description of the Director’s condition at that point would point a finger in anyone’s direction.” Finally, it is interesting, to put it mildly, that Woodward’s editors at the Washington Post did not feel that his account of the conversation was newsworthy, and turned it down for publication.

Readers will have to make up their own minds about Woodward’s integrity, but it may help to remember that this is the man who, with Carl Bernstein, reported at length on the activities and even the innermost thoughts of H.R. Haldeman in Washington during a period of time when Haldeman was in California, and that the late John Osborne, who covered the White House with such distinction for the New Republic, called their book The Final Days “the worst job of nationally noted reporting that I’ve observed during 49 years in the business.”

Whether or not Veil succeeds in its intention of discrediting William Casey and what he stood for, it is bound to have a wider effect of which Woodward can hardly be unaware. That a journalist appears to have obtained, and published, some of the most intimate secrets of the American government, whether they are accurate or not, will be sufficient to dissuade many real and potential friends from sharing their knowledge with us. Woodward claims that he has taken care not to disclose details of ongoing operations (as if this were the point), and that anyway the truth must be known, even if it hurts. We can all salute a dedicated truth-seeker, but the author of Veil is not entitled to the label. Had he been interested in the truth, he would have written a book which respects it.

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