Ace Reporter Bob Woodward Lifts the Veil on the Secrets of CIA Chief William Casey

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Not for nothing has his name become synonymous with tenacious reporting: Bob Woodward knows what it means to slog, to slave, to bury oneself so deeply in a story that its principals begin to invade his dreams. From the Watergate books—All the President's Men and The Final Days—to Wired, his raw biography of John Belushi, Woodward and reporting teammates such as Carl Bernstein have operated on the assumption that there is no secret that can't be plumbed by dint of sheer doggedness. Going back to a source 20 times, wearing down those who resist, offering himself as a confidant, an ally, a sparring partner: Woodward has the game down so well that his books are now brand-name blockbusters. At 44, he is a one-man literary industry—the Irving Wallace of the exposé.

Witness the clamorous debut of his fifth book, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987. Published last week by Simon and Schuster with a first printing of 600,000, the story of the late CIA director, William Casey, and his covert operations was an immediate and controversial success—and one whose revelations placed the author once again at the center of a fierce debate: Was it proper for a reporter to disclose details of American covert operations that threatened the sources and methods of U.S. intelligence? Casey's widow, Sophia, added to the furor, publicly assailing Woodward and branding as a lie his claim that he had slipped into her husband's hospital room for a crucial sickbed interview.

It would be understandable if a man who had been portrayed onscreen by Robert Redford were to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance—particularly in Woodward's case. An assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, he has unusual freedom at the paper and an open invitation to the home of board chairman Katharine Graham. Largely because of his books, he is worth at least $6 million. But his ego seems not to bloom with attention: He is clearly more comfortable in the role of interviewer than interviewee. Sitting in the large, country-style kitchen of the Georgetown house that he shares with 30-year-old Post reporter Elsa Walsh, he is wearing Sunday mufti—open-collared shirt, socks, but no shoes. His air, however, is oddly formal. Diffident and almost evasive, he doesn't warm to the task of chatting with a stranger.

Still, he admits that reporting on Casey's agency was a formidable task. "I was always interested in the CIA, going back to Watergate," he says. "Ben Bradlee [editor of the Post] always asked, 'Is it under control? Is it out of control?' " Woodward says Casey never avoided confrontation—he was a specialist in meeting it. "The first time I met him, in his office in 1983, was one of the toughest interviews I'd ever done. He knew what he wanted to say, and said no more."

Cryptic characters both, the two eventually established a curious professional relationship. After the initial stiffness wore off, Casey proved to be a mutable man. "Sometimes he was totally relaxed and talkative, other times he was uptight and abrasive," says Woodward. "Sometimes when I rode on his plane with him he would get out the Scotch and be very reflective." Eventually, according to Woodward, Casey gave him at least four dozen substantive interviews over four years. This despite the fact that the CIA director apparently had nothing to gain and often rattled his saber at the press (including Woodward) when sensitive stories emerged that were not to his liking. Woodward responds that "Casey knew about the press. He used to say he considered himself part of the press. Did he trust me? I have no idea, [but] he answered a lot of my questions.... He got his say in this book."

In the book Woodward says he last saw William Casey several months before the director's death last May. To Sophia Casey's claim that he never got past security guards to question her husband in the hospital—and that, in any case, Casey's brain tumor had impaired his speech—Woodward replies, "Someone helped me [get into the room]. Casey was a very sick man, but he could talk. I quote him saying 19 words, a grunt, a smile and a nod. Sophia is a dear lady, devoted to her husband, and I respect her right to say what she thinks she knows."

Some three months after Woodward's last dramatic encounter with the CIA director, Casey died. "I found it terribly sad," Woodward says. "I had affection for him."

Indeed, those who know Woodward best find him anything but ruthless. Twice-divorced himself, he has taken in a succession of friends in the throes of marital breakups, notably including Gary Hart; he nursed Bernstein through a crippling writer's block, and he seems unstintingly considerate of those he cares for. When the advance copy of the Post is delivered to their home each night, Walsh says, the most successful reporter of his generation offers the highest praise he can. "He'll sort of look at the front page," she says, "then go immediately to my story and say it's the best one in the paper."

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