Excerpt from Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Legacy of Ashes

The History of the CIA

by Tim Weiner

Legacy of Ashes
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2007, 448 pages
    May 2008, 832 pages

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Author's Note

Legacy of Ashes is the record of the first sixty years of the Central Intelligence Agency. It describes how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service. That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States. Intelligence is secret action aimed at understanding or changing what goes on abroad. President Dwight D. Eisenhower called it “a distasteful but vital necessity.” A nation that wants to project its power beyond its borders needs to see over the horizon, to know what is coming, to prevent attacks against its people. It must anticipate surprise. Without a strong, smart, sharp intelligence service, presidents and generals alike can become blind and crippled. But throughout its history as a superpower, the United States has not had such a service.

History, Edward Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is “little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” The annals of the Central Intelligence Agency are filled with folly and misfortune, along with acts of bravery and cunning. They are replete with fleeting successes and long–lasting failures abroad. They are marked by political battles and power struggles at home. The agency’s triumphs have saved some blood and treasure. Its mistakes have squandered both. They have proved fatal for legions of American soldiers and foreign agents; some three thousand Americans who died in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001; and three thousand more who have died since then in Iraq and Afghanistan. The one crime of lasting consequence has been the CIA’s inability to carry out its central mission: informing the president of what is happening in the world.

The United States had no intelligence to speak of when World War II began, and next to none a few weeks after the war ended. A mad rush to demobilize left behind a few hundred men who had a few years’ experience in the world of secrets and the will to go on fighting a new enemy. “All major powers except the United States have had for a long time past permanent worldwide intelligence services, reporting directly to the highest echelons of their Government,” General William J. Donovan, the commander of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, warned President Truman in August 1945. “Prior to the present war, the United States had no foreign secret intelligence service. It never has had and does not now have a coordinated intelligence system.” Tragically, it still does not have one.

The CIA was supposed to become that system. But the blueprint for the agency was a hasty sketch. It was no cure for a chronic American weakness: secrecy and deception were not our strengths. The collapse of the British Empire left the United States as the sole force able to oppose Soviet communism, and America desperately needed to know those enemies, to provide foresight to presidents, and to fight fire with fire when called upon to light the fuse. The mission of the CIA, above all, was to keep the president forewarned against surprise attack, a second Pearl Harbor.

The agency’s ranks were filled with thousands of patriotic Americans in the 1950s. Many were brave and battle–hardened. Some had wisdom. Few really knew the enemy. Where understanding failed, presidents ordered the CIA to change the course of history through covert action. “The conduct of political and psychological warfare in peacetime was a new art,” wrote Gerald Miller, then the CIA’s covert–operations chief for Western Europe. “Some of the techniques were known but doctrine and experience were lacking.” The CIA’s covert operations were by and large blind stabs in the dark. The agency’s only course was to learn by doing—by making mistakes in battle. The CIA then concealed its failures abroad, lying to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. It told those lies to preserve its standing in Washington. The truth, said Don Gregg, a skilled cold-war station chief, was that the agency at the height of its powers had a great reputation and a terrible record.

Excerpted from Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner Copyright © 2007 by Tim Weiner. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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