The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987
639 pages. 32 pages of black-and-white photos. Author's note, A Note to Readers, Cast of Characters, guide to acronyms, chronology, acknowledgments, index.
This book was a New York Times bestseller back in the day, and Woodward's first solo book on a political topic. He's now well-known for using extensive background interviews to reconstruct events as seen by the participants.
Finally decided to take this book off the shelf. I've long had an interest in espionage, both in fiction and history. I even wrote a term paper many years ago about William Colby (Director of Central Intelligence or DCI, 1973-76).
My first surprise is that the title in inaccurate – if you wanted to learn about secret wars, this is the wrong book for you. What this book is actually about is politics in Washington and management of the intelligence community while William Casey was DCI under Reagan.
I also had the misconception, from what I had heard in the media, that this book was essentially the confidential history of the CIA, as dictated secretly from Casey to Woodward. The book is actually based on many sources, including several interviews with Casey, at least some of which were officially sanctioned.
The book starts off almost as a biography of Casey. He was one of Donovan's OSS agents during WWII, had made a fortune in law and business, dabbled in politics and was a key man in Ronald Reagan's first successful presidential election. Accepting the position as head of the CIA reluctantly, he saw his mission as restoring the agency's confidence after the Ford/Carter years, taking an active and practical covert role against Communism, and defending against terrorism.
Complicating Casey's mission is an often adversarial Congress, determined to exercise oversight, often leaking to the media, and (from the White House's perspective) stepping on presidential prerogatives.
This conflict eventually sets up the conditions for what would become the Iran Contra Affair: Casey's drive to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding influence in Central America after the Marxist Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua. Congress's prohibition against funding the anti-Sandinista Contras. The serendipitous bonanza of profits from covertly selling arms to Iran. And then the funneling of that money to the Contras…
One problem with Woodward's investigative technique is that it is weighted in favor of disgruntled sources, resulting in a narrative that overly emphasizes interpersonal conflict and makes everyone look bad. The author also reveals 'classified' information, although it usually turns out in the course of events that the information was compromised by the time of publication.
The next problem with this book is that there's too much detail, too many people, so that while it starts off well, it slows down and becomes a chore to finish the book.
Another problem with the book is that Woodward gives you a narrative without commentary. This means the reader knows what people did, and what their motivations were, but not much guidance on why anything would be right or wrong!
Of course, the book's date of publication means there is nothing here about what happened afterward, who was punished, or why the events are important today. From the post-9/11 viewpoint, the 1980s sensitivity about 'foreign assassinations' seems quaint when assassination of terrorists by missile has become standard practice. He does make a valid point about how an activist DCI could infringe on the role of the Secretary of State.
Read this book if you want to gain a greater understanding of political infighting over intelligence in the Reagan administration. Some of the individuals are still active in politics today (Joe Biden, Patrick Leahy).
Note that the famous controversy over this book is Woodward's claim to have interviewed Casey after his career-ending stroke. The jury seems to be out on that. Woodward's website says that time has vindicated him, but I note that Casey's daughter was recently on a podcast declaring that the 'deathbed confession' never could have happened.
Can you game it? If you're running a modern campaign involving intelligence assets, this book can give you some ideas for ways that government ('random events') can screw over your plans!
Poorly written, overly detailed, lacking in analysis. Not recommended.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .