As a young naval lieutenant handicapped by poor eyesight, stagnating in the Office of Naval Procurement dealing with the construction of landing craft during World War II, Casey used his connections with Washington law firms to get an invitation in late September 1943 to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where he was introduced to William Donovan. Casey, then age 29, and Donovan, age 60, were both the sons of Irish immigrants, devout Roman Catholics, and Wall Street lawyers and shared the same first and
second given names. Casey joined Donovan’s OSS secretariat, a group of other young well-connected lawyers, but within a couple of months he had acquired a posting to London to run David Bruce’s secretariat. Soon after the D-Day landings, on D+19, Casey was at Bruce’s side as he stepped ashore in France on an inspection tour.
Casey acted as Donovan’s eyes and ears, visiting OSS units and writing reports. One such report was the result of a study undertaken by an OSS committee, for which Casey had acted as secretary, into America’s postwar intelligence requirements. Casey drafted the document and then hand-delivered it to Donovan in Washington for presentation to the president. Later to be dismissed as essentially a plea for OSS’s job security, the paper concentrated on the Soviet Union and the need to collect, collate, and distribute intelligence—a crucial function of government that had been wholly neglected by the administration prior to Pearl Harbor.
Upon his return to London, enhanced by a growing reputation as a blunt, impatient, and very sharp staff operator with a direct line to Donovan, Casey prompted a new study, running to eight pages and completed on 12 October, on OSS’s role in running agents into Germany. Donovan then appointed Casey as the new chief of OSS Secret Intelligence in Europe, and by March 1945 Casey’s first team, a pair of Belgian Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents, was ready to be dropped into Kufstein in the Austrian Tyrol from Dijon in Operation DOCTOR. There followed more than a hundred missions which, according to his own after-action report dated 24 July 1945, divided up as 29 failures, 11 unknown, and 62 successes, with a casualty rate of 5 percent—which compared very favorably to SOE’s experiences in France or the attrition suffered by Bomber Command, which was considered a standard benchmark for high-risk operations.
At the end of the war in Europe, Casey intended to go to the Far East, but his plans were dashed when the atomic bomb brought about the Japanese surrender. Casey, already a civilian, returned to the United States and resigned from the OSS in August 1945, thus narrowly avoiding having to share Donovan’s humiliation the following month when President Harry S. Truman signed the executive order to close the organization. Casey returned to his law practice in Washington, D.C., and prospered, relying heavily on the many contacts he had developed during the war. Casey’s networking brought him plenty of business and ultimately brought him tremendous support behind the scenes as he took over the director of central intelligence’s (DCI) desk at Langley on 28 January 1981 as President Ronald Reagan’s nominee, having received unanimous approval from Congress. One of his first actions upon his arrival was to place an autographed portrait of Donovan on the wall, leaving no doubt about how he wanted to run the Central Intelligence Agency, which, having had no less than five DCIs in the prior eight years, he believed lacked only strong leadership and a renewed sense of confidence.
During his first two years, Casey called on 23 station chiefs, cramming in 11 during one particularly hectic fortnight. Even in terms of political influence, the contrast with his predecessor, Adm. Stansfield Turner, could hardly have been more marked. Casey not only had instant and continuous access to the Oval Office but was also a member of Reagan’s cabinet. Unlike his predecessor, Casey became immensely popular with his troops, beguiling his station chiefs on his frequent whirlwind tours by calling informal staff meetings to introduce himself and whispering in his host’s ear, “How am I doing?” The easy Irish charm rarely failed to work its magic.
While Casey came to the DCI’s job with an agenda, his first task was to redirect the CIA onto what he considered to be the key strategic targets. On 24 February 1981, within four weeks of taking over, he proposed a new covert action program to interdict the flow of weapons from Cuba and Nicaragua to the guerrillas in El Salvador.
President Reagan approved the new intelligence finding on 9 March and thus set in motion a plan to confront the Soviets around the globe. As far as Central America was concerned, Casey on 6 April produced a national intelligence estimate entitled Cuban Policy in Latin America, which acted to explain the new approach to policy makers and assert that the Sandinistas had expanded their ambitions and were now receiving aid from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
However, the real catalyst was Casey’s visit to Panama in midJuly, when he realized that the Sandinistas had stepped up their subversion in the region. Some 70 Nicaraguan pilots had been dispatched to Bulgaria to undergo conversion courses on various models of MiG fighters, and it was known that Cuba had been equipped with two squadrons of the impressive MiG-23 interceptor. Although banned by Congress from using federal funds to finance the Nicaraguan Contras, Casey found a way of circumventing the restrictions and channeling money to them from funds paid by the Iranian government for embargoed weapons. This became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, but Casey succumbed to a brain tumor in January 1987 before he could be held to account by Congress.