1981: Biden and Reagan’s CIA Director, William Casey

In public, Joe Biden railed against William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s CIA director. Behind the scenes, the relationship was more complicated.

(Original Caption) President Reagan accompanied by CIA Director William Casey, waves to employees of the Central Intelligence Agency after signing a bill prohibiting exposure of the identities of CIA agents.
President Ronald Reagan, accompanied by CIA Director William Casey, waves to CIA employees after signing a bill prohibiting exposure of the identities of CIA agents on June 23, 1982. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

When President Ronald Reagan named a veteran U.S. spy and covert operator, William Casey, to be his CIA director, Joe Biden waged a one-senator campaign to show that Casey was unfit to serve in the post. During the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Casey’s nomination, Biden grilled Casey in what some fellow lawmakers described as a virtual “filibuster” to delay sending his nomination to the floor. Biden believed that Casey was not being direct in answering questions about covert CIA activity inside the U.S. and would not convincingly commit to following oversight laws passed in the aftermath of the Nixon presidency. Biden was concerned about Casey’s request that Congress repeal some restrictions on domestic surveillance that had been imposed following the Watergate scandal. Biden sought assurances that Casey would respect an executive order from President Jimmy Carter that placed sweeping restrictions on CIA operations and strengthened prohibitions on the agency conducting assassinations. Biden was the lone senator on the Intelligence Committee to vote against a report that concluded that “no basis has been found for concluding that Mr. Casey is unfit to hold office as Director of Central Intelligence.”

Within months of Casey’s confirmation, Biden’s concerns about Casey proved prescient.

On the day of Casey’s confirmation vote, Biden explained his reservations, lamenting that the Senate had not sufficiently probed Casey’s position on congressional oversight, Carter-era restrictions on CIA operations, and “such significant matters as the protection of the civil liberties of American citizens in respect to covert intelligence activities.” Biden asserted that his problems with Casey, a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s precursor, were not personal but institutional. “My problem with Mr. Casey is that he is understandably very circumspect,” Biden said. “It is very difficult to get direct answers from him.” In the end, Biden said that after numerous personal conversations with Casey, he decided to vote in favor of his nomination. “He has had a very distinguished career,” Biden said. “In my opinion, he is the brightest among the bright men that have been recommended by the president of the United States for a Cabinet-level position.” Casey was confirmed in a 95-0 vote by the Senate.

Within months of Casey’s confirmation, Biden’s concerns about Casey proved prescient. The Associated Press obtained an internal Reagan administration document “debating an order that would let the CIA use break-ins, physical surveillance and secret infiltration to collect foreign intelligence from Americans and U.S. corporations who are neither suspected of crimes or of being foreign agents.” Biden said he was “very disappointed” by the revelations, adding that the proposed executive order would “re-introduce the CIA into domestic surveillance activities.” Biden, according to the AP, “said he understood the new proposals would relax standards on mail-openings, surreptitious entry and electronic surveillance directed at Americans without evidence of criminal activity.” The draft order contained a cover letter from newly confirmed CIA Director Casey. As the scandal unfolded, a series of questions were raised about past business dealings by Casey, who was a millionaire businessman, and questions surrounding alleged misconduct committed by his newly appointed deputy. By July 1981, Biden was among a growing group of both Republicans and Democrats calling for Casey’s resignation.

Biden was one of only four senators to vote against the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.

Even amid the scandals, Biden also partially sided with Casey in advocating that people accused of publicly naming an undercover CIA operative could face prosecution and jail, including journalists and researchers. Biden supported the measure but said he would do so only if prosecutors had to prove that journalists intended to willfully “impair or impede” intelligence operations. “If your intent is to harm the United States, then you should go to jail,” Biden said in defending his Senate Judiciary Committee vote. When his proposed limitations on prosecuting journalists were rejected by the majority of his Senate colleagues, Biden was one of only four senators to vote against the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. Biden asserted that the act was “so broadly drawn that it would subject to prosecution not only the malicious publicizing of agents’ names but also the efforts of legitimate journalists to expose any corruption, malfeasance, or ineptitude occurring in American intelligence agencies.”

In December 1981, Biden said that while Casey was “eminently fit” to run the CIA, he had ”displayed a consistent pattern of omissions, misstatements, and contradictions in his dealings with this and other committees of Congress.” Casey ultimately survived the crisis, despite Biden’s efforts. ”I have a very different view from that of my colleagues on this matter,” Biden said after his colleagues voted that Casey should continue as CIA director. ”The issue is not whether Mr. Casey committed a crime or whether there’s a smoking gun,” he said. ”The issue is whether he should have the confidence of the committee. And I draw different conclusions from the material produced by inquiry.”

Casey would go on to become a central player in the Reagan administration’s dirty wars in Central America, the CIA’s support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and a program of global covert actions in the name of defeating communism. During Casey’s tenure, Biden described himself as the “single most active” Democrat on the Intelligence Committee and claimed that he “twice threatened to go public with covert action plans by the Reagan administration that were harebrained,” effectively halting them. While Biden remained a steadfast critic of Casey during his CIA tenure, at times he worked with Casey to win Senate support for controversial military and CIA actions, including the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Biden also aided Casey both publicly and behind the scenes in the CIA’s war against leakers and whistleblowers.

As the Iran-Contra scandal came to public light in 1986, Biden called on Reagan to fire Casey, saying the CIA director could “serve the president best by no longer serving him.” Casey remained in power for almost the entire duration of Reagan’s two terms before being admitted to the hospital where he would die of brain cancer in 1987.

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