William Casey

updated 12/28/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/28/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

He was a man who lived among secrets, and his exit from the world was so uncannily timed that there were those who could not believe he had gone. Part of that was a consequence of his job. As Ronald Reagan's CIA director, he wielded great power from the shadows—a sophisticated, bookish, well-traveled man in the employ of a friend who was none of these. A creature of paradox, he was shy and devoted to his family, an amateur historian who mumbled when he talked. Simultaneously he was a veteran spy, a shrewd political tactician and a blood enemy of the Communist conspiracy he saw threatening his world. Subordinates called him brilliant; Oliver North called him his mentor; congressional investigators called him a central figure behind the covert organization that secretly provided arms to Iran, then funneled the profits to the contras in Nicaragua. Yet what he knew may never be known. Less than 24 hours before he was to testify before a congressional hearing on the Iran-contra scandal, William Casey was taken ill.

He stood down from his station last January, a month after he was struck by the brain tumor that would lead to his death in May. His illness put him beyond the reach of all questions, yet for reasons no one can explain, he has left behind an uncharacteristic legacy of self-revelation. Writer Bob Woodward, author of the best-selling CIA exposé Veil, says that his book was based in part on nearly four years of interviews with the enigma who was Reagan's point man and confidant. Woodward portrays a Casey who spoke frankly of his willingness to work outside the law—in one instance he even conspired in a bomb plot that took the lives of 80 Lebanese civilians—in the interest of defending the free world as he saw it.

Though Casey had made millions as a lawyer and investor, one Company always had first call on his loyalty. As a young Navy lieutenant, he had become a hero of the WW II OSS, the CIA's precursor. He trained agents in London and dropped them behind Nazi lines. His daughter, Berna-dette, still treasures a letter her father sent her, regretting "the oceans placed between us by forces you never knew, which the generation before mine failed to control...."

The scholar in Casey never forgot that lesson of history—and the spymaster bent mind and soul to ensure that the U.S. would not repeat that mistake. Thirty-six years after the war against Hitler ended, he used all the resources of his power and his talent in an effort to contain the Soviet Union and any nation he perceived as its ally. The CIA was his natural milieu, and it was there, nearly out of reach of democracy's customary restraints—the Congress, the press, perhaps even the President—that he attempted to work his will on the world.

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