William J. Casey

William J. Casey (1913-1987) former CIA director, Casey is most known for his involvement in the Iran-contra affair.

William J. Casey was director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1981 to 1987. Basically a throwback to an earlier era of the Cold War, Casey attempted to revitalize the CIA from the torpor it had been in since the early 1970s. He played a murky role in the Iran-contra affair, President Ronald Reagan's greatest foreign policy debacle.

William Joseph Casey had a colorful background that easily made him the most interesting person in the Reagan cabinet. He was born on 13 March 1913 in Elmhurst, New York, in a middle-class Irish-Catholic family. He received degrees at Fordham University in 1934 and Saint John's University Law School in 1937. Rather than practice law, Casey went to work for a company that published digests of federal regulatory and tax matters. He proved to have a natural talent for sifting through reams of information to distill what was important. In 1950 Casey left the company to found a competing business, which eventually made him rich. His specialty was writing, virtually overnight, how-to guides on accounting and tax questions. Casey is credited with coining the term "tax shelter."

Commissioned a lieutenant in the navy in 1943, Casey ended up in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA's forerunner. He successfully ran a network of agents who parachuted into Germany to radio back information about bombing targets.

After the war Casey elected not to remain in intelligence work, despite considering it the most exciting thing he had ever done. He returned to New York and for most of the next twenty years devoted himself to making money. He was a venture capitalist, investing in a variety of start-up businesses. Again he was successful, but he also earned a reputation for his fast and loose methods. He was frequently sued, something he regarded merely as an occupational hazard.

By the mid-1960s Casey was ready to enter politics. He tried his hand at elective politics, losing a 1966 race for Congress. An early and heavy contributor to Richard M. Nixon's successful 1968 campaign for president, he was finally rewarded in 1971 when Nixon nominated him to become chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It was an unlikely appointment, and many regarded Casey as the fox sent to guard the henhouse. But Casey quickly surprised his critics, as he aggressively enforced the securities laws. His role in cajoling a reluctant Justice Department into accepting SEC documents as part of a ploy to keep them out of the hands of congressional investigators almost brought a Watergate special prosecutor down on him. Casey, however, had cleverly managed to follow the letter of the law while evading its spirit.

Bored with the SEC, Casey served briefly as under secretary of state for economic affairs. It was a do-nothing job, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was both uninterested in economics and distrustful of Casey because of his independent ties to Nixon. In 1974 Casey moved on to head the Export-Import Bank for twenty months.

Casey resurfaced in politics in 1980 when he was brought on to take over Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign after the Iowa caucuses in which rival George Bush won an upset victory. Reagan's campaign was in trouble. Casey's job was to keep the campaign afloat. Never really interested in political strategy, Casey maintained overall responsibility while giving considerable leeway to subordinates. He is credited with luring James A. Baker, later secretary of state under Bush, from the defeated Bush campaign. Casey ran a private intelligence operation that monitored whether the incumbent Jimmy Carter administration was planning a last-ditch effort to free American hostages held in Tehran by the Iranian government.

Casey was rewarded for his work with the CIA directorship, a post he had coveted since the 1960s. Casey was a romantic. His approach to intelligence gathering hearkened back to his OSS days when issues were clearly black and white and everyone knew what the stakes were.

Casey took over a CIA that had been bludgeoned since the end of Nixon's first term. The mid-1970s revelations of CIA misdeeds, going back to the 1950s, had demoralized the agency. Covert operations had been discredited. Many intelligence officers were let go. Casey's predecessor, Stansfield Turner, had placed greater emphasis on passive intelligence gathering and analysis. The agency became, as one historian put it, more bureaucratic and less enthusiastic. By 1980 conservatives worried that the agency was both operationally ineffective and too sanguine about Soviet intentions. Reagan's transition team had written a scathing report about the CIA, mentioning twelve areas where it felt the agency had clearly failed to do its job.


Covert Aid

Casey took over determined to reverse the drift and end the agency's malaise. He had no doubts about the agency's purpose. Reagan, moreover, as prepared to let the CIA involve itself in more aggressively conceived operations. The CIA soon funneled vast amounts of aid to the anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan, making it the largest covert operation undertaken since the Vietnam War. Indicative of the new public mood, Congress tripled Casey's original request for funds for the Afghan rebels. Congress was less forthcoming about CIA involvement in Central America, fearing that Casey's taste for covert operations was a little too much. In 1982 it passed the first of the so-called Boland amendments forbidding the CIA from supplying the contras, the rebels fighting the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, with lethal aid. Casey's attempts to weasel around the prohibition compelled Congress to pass an even tougher version the next year.


Iran-Contra Affair

This atmosphere helped create the Iran-contra scandal, revealed in November 1986. It was a murky fiasco. While it is still not clear just what happened, it is known that in July 1985 Reagan ordered an operation to see whether the United States could sell arms to Iran in return for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Iranian-controlled Shiite-Muslim extremists. There was also the hope of building bridges to Iran's moderates. The plan violated U.S. policy barring arms sales to Iran's Khomeini regime. Secretary of State George P. Schultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger got wind of it and dismissed it as absurd. But Reagan and his national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, were intrigued, and the plan went forward. Operationally, the scheme was confined to the National Security Council, with McFarlane's assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, assuming responsibility. Because Congress had overseen its covert operations, the CIA at first was not officially involved. Casey later testified that the CIA had only a support role and that he did not know all the details.

As the plan evolved, the United States, using Israeli go-betweens, would sell weapons to Iran, through other middlemen, in an effort to mend ties with Iran "moderates" presumably in position to take over after the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's death. They would attempt to secure the release of the American hostages. The actual weapons would come from Israeli stocks, which would be replenished by the United States. Some of the profits from the sales would then be diverted to the contras, thus circumventing the Boland amendment. The various middlemen would supposedly help maintain the fiction that the United States had not traded arms for hostages or violated its own arms embargo against Iran.

Between August 1985 and October 1986 there were seven arms shipments, some made with Israeli aircraft, others with CIA planes. On 6 December 1985 the CIA was formally apprised of the operation by John M. Poindexter, the new national security adviser. The swaps were not bringing about release of sufficient numbers of hostages, and Reagan ordered them halted. In January 1986, however, Israeli officials met with North and urged their resumption on the grounds that the Iranian moderates needed the weapons to demonstrate their credibility in defending Iran in its war against Iraq. Reagan ordered the swaps to resume, this time with official CIA support. Schultz and Weinberger were to be kept in the dark. Casey was not to tell Congress anything. Two more shipments arrived in Tehran in May 1986, but no hostages were released. McFarlane and North then made a secret trip to Tehran that month, but made no progress. Relations between the various parties were deteriorating, but the shipment continued until October. The results were poor — seven shipments for three hostages.

On 4 November 1986 a Beirut magazine first reported the arms-for-hostages deals, their information coming from the Iranians. The result was the most embarrassing setback for the Reagan presidency. Poindexter resigned, North was fired. Together with McFarlane, they later stood trial and were convicted of violating various laws in connection with the sales. North's conviction was later overturned on appeal, the court ruling that the prosecution used material presented during a congressional hearing into the affair, material for which North had been granted immunity from prosecution.

After several investigations, details still remain unclear. Casey is believed to have had a role independent of the CIA's, but no one knows exactly what that was. His testimony to Congress on 11 December 1986 about the whole affair was flatly labeled incredible. The next day he collapsed and needed emergency surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor. One writer claims to have interpreted Casey's bedside comments to indicate that he did indeed have a much larger role than he had testified. Casey resigned from the CIA on 29 January 1987 and died on 6 May 1987. He was survived by his wife, Sophia, and a daughter.