Nathan's Reviews > Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987

Veil by Bob Woodward
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's review
Sep 17, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: cia, history
Recommended for: "Resistance fighters" in need of funding.
Read in June, 2004

Bob Woodward's "Veil" is a history of the CIA's involvement in secret wars, particularly in Central America, under the direction of William J. Casey. The revelations are startling, and coming after CIA admissions exposed during the Church inquiries of the late 70's, the book's account of potentially illegal activities on the part of the agency are entirely believable if not astonishingly brazen. Although many critics claim Woodward had to have invented or fabricated some of his interviews in the book, the most important interviewee is confirmed by the CIA's own documents. According to CIA memos, former DCI William Casey met with Woodward upwards of 43 times, including several times at Casey's private residence just before his death. Probably not as revealing as it could have been, and it doesn't completely prove that Bill Clinton, while governor, helped the CIA deal drugs for Republican administrations, but it does make a strong, solid case that the CIA learned nothing from the expose days of the Church hearings and that the institution itself remained, in the 80's, largely out of control. (Another investigative reporter, Gary Webb, has also claimed CIA involvement in drug trafficking, with help from Bill Clinton and an Arkansas airport, to help illegally fund the Contras for Reagan. The claim is substantiated by the CIA's own internal investigation at the hands of the Inspector General. This is not paranoid conspiracy stuff, but history.) Particularly interesting is Woodward's legitimate access to Casey, a man who supervised many of these actions. Casey was supposed to testify before Congress about illegal abuses of power by the CIA in the wake of the Iran-Contra hearings. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for Reagan administration officials) Casey died suddenly... the morning of the day he was supposed to testify. Such coincidences stretch credulity, and Veil only starts to reveal how much the CIA truly has to hide.


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message 1: by James (new) - added it

James Hello Nathan,

I am not finished with the book yet, but I got the impression that yes " it does make a strong, solid case that the CIA learned nothing from the expose days of the Church hearings and that the institution itself remained, in the 80's, largely out of control," but that furthermore, the CIA not only remained out of control (helping the US continue egregious and aggressive policies around the globe, unknowingly planting seeds for future CIA wars and US more aggression - it got even more rogue, dysfunctional, and counterproductive than it had been before the hearings and reforms.

Do you think it is fair to say that was Woodward's impression?

Thanks for the review.

message 2: by Nathan (last edited Mar 02, 2008 01:49PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nathan I do think that is basically Woodward's impression, yes, and it is kind of a hard position to argue against. If you're interested in this, there are many other good books about CIA that I could suggest to you that explore similar lines of reasoning, and also books that offer counter-arguments.

I'm fascinated by CIA and think that a sophisticated, competent intelligence and analysis organization is essential to not just our security, but maybe even world security. (Real information has prevented more wars than it has started, etc.) But CIA has been out of control for some time, and my impression of the Church / Pike hearings is that they only taught CIA to be better at covering their butts, or proved to them that they'd get little more than public embarrassment and a slap on the wrist no matter what they got up to. The operational wing of CIA continues to overshadow their intelligence gathering / analysis wing, and in my (admittedly amateur) opinion, they are indeed more rogue, dysfunctional, counterproductive, etc.


message 3: by James (new) - added it

James Thanks for the quick response Nathan.

I'd like to hear about some of the other "good books" on the CIA.

This is actually my first book on the CIA, though I am a news junkie and am becoming increasingly immersed in matters of US foreign policy. I spent a semester in DC last year in college and I may have left DC but DC has not left me.

To your point that about the position "Real information has prevented more wars than it has started," I would avow: The lack of "real information" paired with the politicizing of intelligence has led us into unnecessary wars most certainly - whereas good unpoliticized intelligence usually shows policy makers they really do not have to go to war, and even in many cases, shouldn't.

I am brand new to GoodReads, it's a pretty interesting intellectual forum. DO you want to be a fellow reader of mine?


Nathan Sure, James. Send me a friend thingie.

Sorry it took me a day to reply to this...

If you're interested in reading about CIA, here's a couple of titles I'd suggest, with some thoughts of mine on them.

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner - This is a long book, and the title of it may be based on a misquotation of Dwight Eisenhower. It's also long on bias. Read this one knowing that this guy hates CIA and enjoys pointing out its failures. That said, bias against CIA is like shooting fish in a barrel, and bias aside, this is a fairly authoritative look at The Company. Great references, which will guide you into other things to read about. The one complaint I had about it is that it kind of skipped on the Nosenko-Golitsin affair, which, in my opinion, is the perfect microcosmic example of all that's wrong with CIA (different wings and divisions fighting against each other, an entire agency paralyzed by confusion over one defector). I'll come back to that later, though.

Burn Before Reading by Admiral Stansfield Turner - Stansfield Turner was Jimmy Carter's DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) and to this day most former CIA people hate his guts. Sadly that endears him to me. In Burn Before Reading, Turner relates the entire history of CIA using as a template the study of the relationship between presidents and their DCIs. Richard Helms, one of the most legendary CIA directors, a man so given to secrecy and silence that one biography of him is called "The Man Who Kept the Secrets", felt compelled to write his own biography just before his death partially as a response to Turner's book, by Helms' own admission. It's no wonder why, because by the end of Turner's book, he's overtly recommending that we dismantle CIA and start over.

A Look Over my Shoulder by Richard Helms - A lot of books critical of CIA are pretty critical of Helms, and he features prominently in a lot of conspiracy theories. Many people firmly believe that he organized the assassination of JFK. Myself, I don't believe this, but a look at his career makes it obvious why many do. I don't know whether I believe his book to be The Word when it comes to the company, and true to his legend, there is nothing in it that can't be found in other sources. However, Helms was there from the early days in OSS right through the fall of Nixon, and it was only his refusal to have CIA help cover up Watergate that ended his career in The Company. For that alone, I thought it was worth giving him a fair shot, since so many other CIA books cast him as a very naughty sort of fellow. And his book is a wonderful read, and even kind of funny at times. Its also pretty honest about (most) CIA failures. However, unlike Turner, he thinks CIA should be preserved, if reorganized. (I get the sense that Helms was never convinced the operational or covert ops wing of the Agency did nearly as much solid work as the intelligence collection and analysis wing, and that the covert wing unfairly got all the presidential & congressional attention and money.)

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll - This book is probably the best book I've ever read about CIA. It isn't a history of the agency and deals exclusively with the involvement of The Company in building the army of Afghan rebels to fight the Soviets, people we funded and trained, who would later fight against us as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It is a better document about what led to 9/11 than the 9/11 Commission Report could ever hope to be. And yes, it proves that CIA learned very little from the Church & Pike hearings, both of which predate all the action in this book.

Molehunt by David Wise - In the early 1960's, the CIA (or some in CIA) became convinced that The Company had been penetrated by a high placed Soviet mole. This was largely due to the paralytic confusion wrought on The Company by two defectors who seemed to contradict each other. One claimed to have information about Lee Harvey Oswald's stay in Russia, and so was immediately taken seriously when he defected shortly after the assassination of JFK. What followed was nearly twenty-five years of confusion and paralysis in The Company's Soviet Russia division, and an almost Keystone Cops-like unfolding of events that would have been hilarious had it not been so bizarre. Helms, in his book, says this bit of CIA history remains the bit he's most confused and frustrated by, even in 2003 just before his death. That's saying a lot coming from a guy who was around during the Bay of Pigs and the plots against Castro. The molehunt that resulted from the strange defections of Golitsin and Nosenko resulted in accusations that the British Prime Minister was a KGB agent, and that Russia faked its own collapse to lull the West into a sense of complacency. One man was taken and put in solitary confinement for three years because everyone was convinced he was a sent agent, and then, despite being proved a liar, he was later cleared, given a CIA salary, and allowed to lecture CIA recruits. Tangled up in all of it is the truth about Lee Oswald's stay in Russia, CIA, FBI & KGB knowledge of Oswald prior to the assassination, and the several intelligence services of several countries being completely intellectually crippled by two drunken KGB defectors with highly active imaginations. Most fascinating of all, you'll get to read about James Jesus Angleton, quite possibly one of the strangest people ever to wield inordinate power over an American institution.

Spy Wars by Pete Bagley - Spy Wars is like a giant PS to the above book by David Wise, and makes it clear that each side in the "is he / isn't he?" debate over Nosenko had justifiable reasons for their cases. It also makes it clear how difficult intelligence work can be.

Brothers by David Talbot - This book is essentially about RFK's conviction that his brother's death was somehow the result of blowback from CIA covert operations against Castro. It's not a perfectly researched history of The Company, and it is deeply partisan to the Kennedys, but it does illustrate very well the numerous legally questionable activities CIA was up to in the 60s, particularly in Miami (a breach of its charter, which states it can't operate domestically). I don't know if I thought it proved much, so much as it did demonstrate how naughty CIA were in the 60s.

In my opinion, one of the main problems with CIA is that its operational wing and its intelligence wing never seem to work in the same direction, and the operational wing seems to get all the money and all the attention. It should be the other way around, assuming the operational wing shouldn't be disbanded completely, which maybe it should be. All of these books reflect that internal problem with The Company in some way.

Anyway, hope this helps.


Nathan Oh, let me add two more books, of a more conspiratorial nature, if you're into that sort of thing. It isn't "CIA killed JFK" stuff, but more believable stuff about how dirty covert intelligence work can be.

Dark Alliance by Gary Webb - Webb's life was ruined by this book, and he eventually killed himself. Of course, it was one of those suicides where one shoots oneself in the head... twice. So make of that what you will. The book started as a series of articles Webb wrote for a newspaper about CIA's use of drug money to finance some of their covert operations. His reporting eventually resulted in CIA's inspector general acknowledging in a report that CIA had more or less "accidentally" assisted drug runners in raising money to get around Congress. It's one of those books that if even half of it is true, its bad enough, and CIA's response to it seemed to imply that Webb was onto something. Of course, his career was ruined, and apparently, so was his life, as a result of this reporting.

Widows by William Corson - This book is really dry. However, it is well researched and admits its own faults when the authors make clear, over and over, that they're just presenting a series of possibilities to explain some really weird episodes in US intelligence history. What's revealed, though, is kind of shocking. I have a review on this website of this book that says pretty accurately what's interesting about it. But suffice to say, there are a lot of strange suicides in CIA history, a whole lot, and some pretty oddly creative ways of committing suicide, too. (Like, stealing a bunch of classified documents, beating yourself up, putting diving weights on yourself, going out on a boat, shooting yourself behind the right ear even though you're left handed, flinging yourself off the boat, all without leaving a trace of brain matter. CIA calls it a suicide. Great stuff.) It's not a book like Veil, where you read it and think, "Man, CIA are pretty naughty." It's more like a book you read, then think, "No wonder spies are completely effing nuts."


message 6: by James (new) - added it

James Nathan,

You certainly seem to be well-read on the subject of the CIA. Thanks so much for the book suggestions and detailed descriptions of each book!

I still have a few hundred pages to go in Veil and so will likely move onto a political history or economic book with a different focus after this, most likely, "All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror" or "The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity." Have you read either of these or do you know anything in particular about these authors?

Once my taste swings towards covert political action again, which it is likely to do if Woodward does his job, I plan to go back and check out Ghost Wars (I did read Charlie Wilson's War years ago, but I was basically disinterested with politics and foreign policy at that time and thus looked at it as an interesting spy tale. I'm sure I'd have a different take on it now. Did you read it?). If Ghost's the best book you've read on the CIA I presume its a worthwhile read. That in mind, what kind of ranking would you give Veil?

Anyways, are you mostly a nonfiction guy or do you dabble in fiction as well (I didn't look through your books really yet)?


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