Casey was a piece of work, an old-time Wall Street operator who had gotten rich selling tax-shelter strategies by "by bending the rules to the breaking point," as Tim Weiner put it in Legacy of Ashes, his definitive history of the CIA.
As it was, Casey was to break all the rules as CIA director after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.Casey's first move was to replace agency veterans with political hacks. His second was to approve covert operations in places that arguably did not represent serious threats to the U.S., among them Central America where he installed a pal as the head of the CIA's clandestine service for the region who spoke no Spanish and knew next to nothing about communist-leaning Nicaragua and the countries suddenly under his watch.
He had a massive ego, but no experience in intelligence, and insiders from Gerald Ford to George H.W. Bush, who was CIA director under Ford, were appalled at the choice of a man whose only qualification was that he had raised heaps of cash for the president.
Casey lied to the notably uncurious Reagan from the outset about what the CIA was up to.Exhibit A in this regard was Lebanon, where a succession of Americans were taken hostage in the early 1980s – including CIA station chief Bill Buckley, who was to die in Hezbollah's chains -- by terror groups that the agency knew little or nothing about.
And he lied to Congress, which nevertheless gave him hundreds of millions of dollars to hire 2,000 new covert officers who were almost to a man clueless about their responsibilities and were sent out into the field with little or no direction from on high.
Reagan fired the Marine lieutenant colonel after the illegal sales became public in 1986. In a scene that still makes conservatives all weepy, North defended his conduct before a televised Congressional hearing. Although he was indicted and convicted on several felony counts, including the destruction of documents on his orders by Fawn Hall, his secretary, he never saw the inside of a prison cell and all charges were dismissed because he had been immunized by Congress before spilling his guts.
As Weiner writes, Casey convened a conference of American intelligence bosses from the CIA, State Department and Pentagon as the Iran-Contra scandal was about to break."Feel very good about our community having worked together for six years more effectively than most of our government without any significant failures," Casey's talking points read. "No scandal and a good many solid successes."
The director had a seizure a few weeks later and was unable to do any more damage. When he died in May 1987 at age 74, his own bishop denounced him from the pulpit at his funeral.
Although Casey had doubled the size of the CIA and launched secret operations around the world, his traitorous legacy of lies left it a far weaker organization that has never recovered.