by | Feb 22, 2018 | Gayle Lynds | 2 comments

DCI Casey & President Reagan in the White House

By Gayle Lynds….  Do you want to know who you are?  Thomas Jefferson had some good advice:  “Act!  Action will delineate and define you.”

That was certainly true of CIA legend William J. (“Bill”) Casey (1913–1987), who on paper could sound boring — tax attorney, businessman, government official, and author.  Still, Ronald Reagan appointed him Director of Central Intelligence in 1981, and for the next few years Casey oversaw all of the U.S. intelligence community. 

Secrets go along with the responsibilities of leadership.  Governments and armies can’t operate in an intelligence vacuum.  As Sun Tzu wrote, “Choosing not to use spies should be considered a primitive act.”  And it wasn’t long before Casey, whose background also included the OSS during World War II, became known as the wild-man impresario of espionage.

Director of Special Intelligence Casey, OSS, London

There’s always tension in the CIA between those who believe risks must be taken, and those who are opposed.

Casey was concerned that his people understood he approved of intelligent risk-taking.  He needed to find a way to get them off their butts.  At the time, one of the CIA’s Middle East stations had been trying to figure out how to put an eavesdropping device in the office of one of the country’s senior officials.  The official was very important, and his conversations would provide vital hard intelligence.

But instead of acting, the officers in the station argued….

“It’s too risky.”

“Bull.  It’s not.” 

“We can do it!”

You may have heard of the board game Bureaucracy.  The way Bureaucracy works is, if you move, you lose.

Vice President George H.W. Bush and Director Casey consult

Casey was fed up.  He reportedly said — and I’ll clean up his language — “I’ll do it myself, dammit.”

It was completely against tradecraft practice to gamble using a covert officer to plant a bug, and using the director of Central Intelligence was a very serious violation.

Still, Casey had his people arrange a visit to the Middle East and to the country in question.  Then he got on a plane.  While in country he paid a courtesy visit to the government official.  There are two different versions of what Casey did next.

According to one account, he took a gift book to the official, and the listening device was built into the binding.  (I like the idea the fellow was a reader.) 
The other version is that Casey sat down on the sofa and, when the official’s back was turned, he jammed down into the cushion a thin, miniaturized, long-stemmed microphone and transmitting device shaped like a large needle.  And it worked very well for a substantial amount of time.

I like to think of it this way: Casey single-handedly gave new meaning to the old cliché “pain in the butt.”

All humans are complex, and Casey was no different.  He oversaw the rebuilding of the CIA and strengthened other agencies.  He increased funding and global anti-Soviet activities.  As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”  And that was something Casey did, over and over even as furor, controversy, and charges repeatedly swirled around him, including serious accusations of the role he played in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Do you have a favorite spy story?  Please tell!

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  1. S. Lee Manning

    What a great story. It illustrates perfectly the tension between caution and action in the world of espionage – and how a great director took matters into his own hands.

  2. Karna Bodman

    Terrific reflection on the terrific patriot and "spy-master" Bill Casey. I knew him when I served in the Reagan White House — he was a very thoughtful and intriguing man. But one funny recollection: in meetings in the Situation Room, Casey would often speak in low tones, even "mumbling" at times so it was hard to understand everything he said. Then the staff quipped that Casey was the only head of the CIA who didn't need a "scrambler" on his phone! Great piece, Gayle, about a great man!