BY MATTHEW HERBERT
“Busy, busy, busy.” That’s what the adherents of Kurt Vonnegut’s made-up religion Bokonism say to themselves when they face an instance of life’s hidden complexity. Unseen powers are constantly doing things behind our backs, the Bokonist believes. These unbidden acts shift the plot line of our lives, often creating scenes too disorienting to understand. Example: A test reveals that some of your cells have been quietly breaking the speed limit on mitosis, blooming into a cancerous assault on your continued existence. “Busy, busy, busy,” you observe. It’s a way of taking things in stride.
Most students of history already know that the United States busily kept up the strategy of containment even after our last soldiers left Vietnam in 1975. Although we went quiet for a few years, our national security establishment came surging back during the Reagan presidency. Bob Woodward’s extraordinary book Veil: The CIA’s Secret Wars 1981-1987 reveals just how busy our covert warriors kept themselves under the Gipper.
No man makes history on his own. But Veil is a remarkable record of just how small a clique of elite powerbrokers can directly influence history under the right circumstances. The record of the CIA’s secret wars in the 1980s is largely a biography of the last eight years of William Casey’s life. Casey was appointed to run the CIA in 1981 and died in office in 1987. While he served, Casey planned and prosecuted unconventional wars in Libya and several countries in Central America. His cloak-and-dagger campaigns took forms just short of unconventional war in Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, the USSR, and several countries in South America.
Veil provides a meticulous documentation of Casey’s covert initiatives, but it is also much more. It paints a vivid picture of how Casey and his close cohorts did three remarkable things that left their imprint on national security thinking.
First, Veil shows how Casey raised the CIA’s status from an agency of drab, academic workadays to a club of mandarins who actually shaped policy. Much of this transformation was due to Casey’s overt efforts to lobby politicians to see particular threats his way, but some of his success was disarmingly institutional, almost invisible. Under Casey, the Presidential Daily Brief was designed to help set a long-term strategic agenda for the executive branch, not just highlight the going threats to national security. In this effort, Casey found his ideal audience in President Reagan, anti-communist ideologue who did no deep thinking. Reagan proved an empty vessel into which Casey poured his worldview.
Second, Casey almost singlehandedly returned the CIA to the buccaneering ways pioneered by its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services, during World War Two. Chastized by the findings of the Church Committee in 1975, the CIA of the late 1970s placed significant restrictions on covert activities, emphasizing the analysis of foreign intelligence from Langley over the collecting of it in Moscow, Tehran and other hostile points on the globe. Casey changed this bookish organizational culture, cajoling and directing his spies to become more active and take more risks. In many ways, the history of Washington’s most dramatic foreign policy failures in the 1980s–drawing out the bloody insurgency in Nicaragua, needling Qadafi to the point where he ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103, sending the Marines to Lebanon without a mission, blindly supporting global jihadists in Afghanistan, and, of course, the Iran-Contra Affair–were the consequences of Casey’s success in emboldening his agency to do more.
Casey couldn’t have made the case for renewed CIA muscularity without strong political backers, and he had the strongest backer of all in the person of the president. Casey’s third major success as DCI was his promotion, through Reagan, of a Manichean worldview that dominated Washington’s national security decision-making throughout the 1980s and re-emerged under Bush Junior. The world was a dangerous, complicated place, yes, but Casey convinced Reagan that the dangers boiled down to a simple formula. In an internal memo, Casey expressed it thus:
The world was, he said, “plagued and beleaguered by subversion and a witch’s brew of destabilization, terrorism and insurgency . . . ” It was primarily fueled by Soviet arms, Cuban manpower and Libyan money . . . “
This reduction of the world’s roiling tableau of threats to a simple formula prefigured George W. Bush’s idea that the world presented an “axis of evil.” Political leaders oversimplify by nature; you can’t get constituents behind a policy that’s too complicated to understand. But Casey committed a cardinal sin of intelligence, I believe, by making, first Reagan’s and then W’s job too easy. The world of potential enemies is a busy, busy, place, and no one should claim to know where it is all going or even that there is a meaningful story behind it at all. It’s chaos out there.