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The Resurgence of Covert Operations under Reagan

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the appointment of William Casey as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, covert actions were once again in vogue--or, as a Newsweek cover phrased it, "The CIA Is Back in Business."[34]

Casey had been an Office of Special Services (OSS) officer during World War II and harbored great enthusiasm for covert activities. Indeed, during 1980 to 1984, Reagan's first term, covert operations increased fivefold over 1979.[35] Reagan both continued and greatly expanded the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and selected new battlefields ranging from Libya to Nicaragua. According to John Prados, a writer on intelligence affairs, more than 50 covert operations were reportedly in progress by 1984, about half of them in Central and South America.[36]

One of the more unsavory actions was the aligning of the CIA with Bashir Gemayel, a murderous warlord, former head of Lebanon's rightist Phalangist party, and Lebanese president-elect until his assassination. At the urging of Casey, President Reagan signed a top-secret authorization of $10 million in covert aid to Gemayel's militia.

Under Casey there were serious breakdowns in planning covert operations, evaluating risks, and complying with congressional oversight regulations. In advocating covert operations against Nicaragua during 1983-84, Casey repeatedly displayed disdain for Congress. As director of the CIA, he stopped various kinds of reporting that had been routine under the Carter administration. After the international controversy over the mining of Nicaraguan harbors, it was revealed that the House Intelligence Committee had learned of the CIA's direction of the mining only when two congressmen's persistent questioning elicited Casey's admission. And Casey had been equally reticent with the committee's Senate counterpart, which extracted a single 27-word sentence during a March 8, 1984, briefing of more than two hours' duration and 84 pages of text. This statement merely said that mines had been placed in Nicaraguan harbors by U.S.- backed groups. In effect, the CIA cover story was given to the oversight committee.

Casey's policies did nothing to improve relations between the executive and legislative branches. In fact, during the confirmation hearings of John McMahon as deputy director of the CIA, heightened distrust of Casey encouraged Sen. Patrick Moynihan to ask McMahon, "If you ever learned that wrong information is being given to this committee--that the committee is being misinformed or misled--would you consider it a matter of personal honor and professional responsibility to tell this committee that was happening?"[37]

Dissatisfaction with the Reagan administration's performance was so great that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded in its 1984 report that "there was a need for explicit, written procedures to ensure Executive Branch compliance with the requirements for reporting covert action activities."[38] This statement probably had more to do with perceptions about Casey's actions than with any concern about policies enacted on the part of the Reagan administration. But such a distinction was naive. In reality, under Reagan the CIA was fairly tightly controlled. John Ranelagh, a British investigative reporter, comments:

Following through the one-amongst-equals philosophy of decision making in the administration, the agency most interested in or affected by a covert operation chaired the operational oversight group . . . . In Nicaragua, for example, the agency became in effect an executive arm for a decision by the National Security Council and overseen by the State Department.[39]