Casey at the Bat
By John Barry
How many Newsweek hires, I wonder, have been checked out personally by the director of the CIA ? Katherine Graham’s suspicions led me to my first meeting with Bill Casey.
The precise sequence of my hiring in 1985 as Newsweek’s defense correspondent I’ve never understood. Back then, Mrs. Graham had restless ambitions looking for an outlet. She couldn’t tinker with the Washington Post: after Watergate, editor Ben Bradlee was untouchable. So she turned her formidable energies to Newsweek, disposing of successive editors before the team of Rick Smith and Maynard Parker brought stability.
I’ve never known how Rick made his bones with Mrs G. [Editor’s note: see “Revolving Door” under Rich Thomas, contributor]. Maynard, who’d become Hong Kong bureau chief (and I think Asia editor) in the wake of fine work in Vietnam, did many years later confirm to me that --- on a visit to Hong Kong by Mrs. G --- he had organized both a Rolls-Royce to transport her and a 24-hour on-call roster of (almost) every conceivable personal service, including a pedicurist. [Mrs. Graham actually called for a pedicurist on a Sunday evening and the technician was there in 5 minutes.]
The Duchess: Anyway, Mrs. G decided one day in 1985 that Newsweek needed a new defense correspondent. One, she decreed, who would focus on policy rather than “nuts and bolts”. Somehow, she got to hear of me. I know Mort Kondracke, then Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief ---- and a friend from the 1968 presidential campaign --- suggested me to Maynard. But Mrs. G did what any duchess would do. She asked her friends. (As a Brit, I always found it simplest to treat Mrs. G as a transatlantic version of the Duchess of Devonshire in England. In my last conversation with her, I told Mrs. G that. She looked rather pleased.)
Two of her friends commended to her this strange Englishman roaming Washington interrogating former officials for a history of NATO nuclear policy he was working on. Robert McNamara [a former Defense Secretary] and Paul Nitze [a former Navy Secretary] were the pair commending me, so she listened.
Flying High: The upshot was that I was sent a ticket to fly to New York to meet Rick Smith and Maynard Parker. A couple of weeks after that, I was offered and accepted the job. Then Newsweek corporate took over. It’s hard now to recall just how wealthy Newsweek was back
then. My wife and I were flown back across the Atlantic and hotelled in Washington for ten days --- thank you, dear Thelma MacMahon [bureau office manager]--- while we hunted for accommodation with a realtor Newsweek had hired for us. A house duly rented, Newsweek shipped our furniture from the UK. And, we were asked, would we like Newsweek to buy our house in England, so we could afford to buy a new place in D.C. ?
Those, indeed, were the days.
A week or so after I’d settled at my desk, the phone rang. “The director of the CIA would like to meet you. . . ."
Close Kin: At the Langley visitors’ gate [CIA headquarters in Virginia], the friendly young man volunteered that he’d loved his years in England. “Air Force ?” I guessed. Yes, Lakenheath airbase, and he’d loved everything about England except that strange spread we used. “Can’t recall its name. You have it at breakfast.”
“Marmite ?” I suggested.
“That’s it,” he said. “Tastes like axle grease. But of course my wife loves it.”
“She’s a Brit, then ?”
“Oh sure, met her when I was over there.” He stamped my pass; and I entered the CIA compound with an early lesson in just how enmeshed our two nations are.
Third Degree: Journalistic cliché is that Casey was a gnome-like figure, given to mumbling and drooling. That’s not the Casey I recall. He didn’t get up as I was ushered into his office, merely stretched across his desk to shake my hand. Gestured me into the hard chair opposite him. This, clearly, wasn’t going to be a social chat.
“Kay Graham has asked me to find out if you’re a British spy,” he said. A pause. “It’s nothing personal. She thinks most British journalists are spies.”
“But she’s just hired me,” I said. “How could she possibly think I might be a spy ?”
“Well, I gather she thinks you’re a very good reporter. She just wants to know if you’re also a spy.”
Checked Out: First serve-and-return over, we looked at each other. Casey looked rather small in his high-backed swivel-chair. But he radiated brains and alertness. He neither mumbled nor drooled. This was, trust me, not a fool.
“So, interrogate me ,” I said. Casey shook his head, tapped a folder on his desk. “No, we’ve looked into you. We know your family background. Kay’s question was prudent. But we’ve asked our friends the British. They say you don’t work for them.”
Despite myself, I became engaged in this bizarre exchange: “But, if I did work for the Brits, wouldn’t that be precisely what they would say ?”
Casey shook his head. “No, we tell each other the truth most of the time. Certainly on questions like this.” He paused: “Have you ever worked for Six ?”
Old Spies: I realized Casey was looking for more than denial [“Six” was shorthand for MI6, the British Secret Service]. “I think those days are over in Washington,” I said. “We can all think of a couple of Brit journalists here in the 40s and 50s who were what the Soviets would call ‘agents of influence’, though in their cases influence for England. But those days have gone. The Brits have so many other channels into Washington these days. They don’t need journalists.”
Casey said: “You’re thinking of…?” I named the two journalists, one long retired and one dead. Casey nodded. I had passed some second-level test.
“So why am I here ?” I asked. Casey looked at me for a long moment. “Because I told Kay I’d check you out. I needed to see you,” he said.
War Story: I recall a pause. Given this weird entrée to the director of the CIA, I wanted to build on it. “Can I ask you something ?” I said. Casey nodded. It happened there was something I did want to know. Nothing to do with the CIA or modern espionage. Casey had written a scholarly essay on generalship in the American Civil War, which I’d read years before.
“Can I ask you about ….. ?” I said. I honestly don’t recall what my question was: Lee’s catastrophic failure at Gettysburg, I think. All I really recall is that Casey, reverting to Civil War historian, talked --- spurred on by a couple of my follow-up questions --- for half an hour, waving away an aide who tried to halt him.
Meeting finally over, we shook hands. “We sometimes brief reporters,” Casey said. “They have to be American citizens to come into the Agency.” He paused. “I will make an exception for Newsweek.” I thanked him. Bill Casey died not much more than a year later. But, such is bureaucratic memory, I was for several years known at the Agency as “the Casey exception”.
John Barry joined Newsweek as national security correspondent in 1985 and left in 2011.