Did A Dead Man Tell No Tales?

A furor erupts over the disclosures in a book about Bill Casey's CIA

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Not since Charles Foster Kane's immortal "Rosebud" has a deathbed utterance caused such a stir. CIA Director William Casey, partly paralyzed and gravely ill following brain surgery, was in Washington's Georgetown University Hospital last winter when an unexpected visitor entered his room. It was Washington Post Reporter Bob Woodward, who had interviewed Casey off and on for four years and had somehow slipped through CIA security for one last encounter. So Woodward says in his new book, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987 (Simon & Schuster; $21.95), relating that the interview lasted just four minutes and Casey managed only 19 words. But before drifting off to sleep, he seemed to clear up one of the chief mysteries in the Iran-contra scandal.

+ "You knew, didn't you?" Woodward asked, inquiring whether Casey was aware that funds from the sale of arms to Iran were being diverted to the Nicaraguan contras. "His head jerked up hard," Woodward writes. "He stared, and finally nodded yes."

"Why?" Woodward asked. Casey's faint reply: "I believed."

It was the perfect ending for Woodward's dramatic spy saga. Too perfect, in the view of some. Casey's widow Sophia flatly denied that Woodward had seen her late husband in the hospital. Ronald Reagan branded Woodward's account an "awful lot of fiction." Others questioned whether, even if true, Casey's dying nod and the tantalizingly ambiguous "I believed" were enough to close the books on the CIA director's involvement in the Iran-contra affair. Though Lieut. Colonel Oliver North testified in July that Casey had embraced the diversion as the "ultimate covert operation" and many suspect he was the mastermind behind it, Casey had never publicly admitted knowledge of the operation.

The controversy over Casey's deathbed interview was just one of several that swirled last week around Woodward's book. In chronicling Casey's six-year tenure as the nation's chief intelligence officer, which ended with his resignation and death earlier this year, Woodward provides new details about a cloak of covert CIA operations. Among the most startling: Casey had arranged with Saudi Arabia to assassinate Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, leader of the militant Lebanese Shi'ite faction known as Hizballah. The 1985 car bombing, supposedly financed by the Saudis, killed 80 people in a Beirut suburb but left Fadlallah unharmed. These and other disclosures drew a barrage of denials, as well as cries from the intelligence community that telling such provocative tales, true or false, harms U.S. spying capabilities. Woodward's account also raised fresh questions about Congress's ability to control a "rogue" CIA director bent on circumventing the law.

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