Tim Weiner begins his history of the CIA with an unambiguous
rebuke: "The most powerful country in the history of civilization has failed to
create a first-rate spy service." He warns that the United States'
three-hundred-year dominance will evaporate "unless it finds the eyes to see
things as they are in the world." For all its covert activities, the CIA's
deepest secret, according to Weiner, is how little it knows about other
countries and how often it acts blindly, with dire consequences. Since its
inception in 1945, the agency has routinely put thousands of agents and their
informants in grave danger for mere scraps of intelligence. Just as routinely,
the CIA has failed to foresee major threats to American security; the deadly
blindsiding on 9/11 has a long and alarming pedigree.
Weiner documents how the agency's failures have been built into its very structure and thus continue to recur with each new global conflict. The agency's endemic problems include the battle for control between the White House and the military, the tug of war between the two often incompatible missions of intelligence gathering and covert operations, and the perennial lack of qualified analysts who know the languages and cultures of the countries on which they report. It is downright shocking to read how frequently American spooks are conned by their sources, who feed them false intel for cash or for political advantage. But the most interesting architectural weakness is the inherent clash of values between the secrecy of spying and the openness of democracy.
Perhaps this explains why even the agency's putative successes have come at the cost of the freedom it is supposed to champion. In 1953, the CIA funded the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who had nationalized Iran's oil production, and installed General Zahedi, who had pledged allegiance to the Shah and his rightest regime, in his place. High on its first success at altering the course of an entire nation, the agency next set its sights on Latin America. In 1954, it helped overthrow the government of Guatemala and install a military dictatorship friendly to the corporate interests of the United States. Both operations were touted as the ultimate examples of the agency's power, but Weiner shows that both barely succeeded only by "brute force and blind luck," not skill and knowledge, and both countries endured decades of repression and violence from the regimes handpicked by the Americans. Covert action, it would seem, advances private interests rather that the public good.
Weiner singles out only two brief moments in the agency's life as "halcyon days." The first was when CIA Director Richard Helms did not bow to the extraordinary pressure to doctor the grim facts of the Vietnam War for President Johnson. The second was when Bob Gates took over as director just after the Berlin Wall fell. In the wake of the CIA's jawdropping inability to foresee the weakening of Soviet power, Gates reorganized the agency to make it smaller, smarter, and more responsive to contemporary threats in a newly reconfigured globe.
It must be said that Legacy of Ashes is, after all, an institutional history, not a narrative history, which means that it lacks a singular plotline and cast of characters. Weiner strings together six decades' worth of excellent stories a fast clip and with appealing understatement. But I found it occasionally difficult to keep track of all the bureaucrats, and sometimes wished Weiner would slow down and take me to the scene instead of reporting it with as many of the journalistic whos, whats, wheres, whys, and hows as he could pack into this dense book.
One story that I was expecting to read never appeared: the story of how Weiner researched and wrote the book itself. After all, how does a journalist bring the clandestine to light? He tells us that the book is based on more than 50,000 government documents, 2000 oral histories, and 300 interviews, including ten former directors of central intelligence. This is the first history of the CIA to be entirely on the record, with no anonymous sources. And so I hunted through the footnotes in search of additional details of how the evidence was procured, but aside from listing his sources (which frequently include his own articles in the New York Times), Weiner does not divulge how he was able to get the story where others were stymied.
But it isn't fair to indict the book for what it isn't. Legacy of Ashes is a myth-busting book. Weiner points out that the only thing the agency was good at was propagating the image of itself as omniscient. Quite a few enemies bought into that myth, thus protecting American interests even when its own spies couldn't back up such bravado with action and intelligence. Such a myth "held that the agency could change the world, and it helps explain why the CIA is so impervious to change." It remains to be seen whether the agency will learn from its latest scandal, the potentially criminal destruction of videotapes made of the interrogation of terror suspectsbut Weiner's book is a ripstop in the fabric of American intelligence. Legacy of Ashes grants some of the keen-eyed vision that the agency has lacked for so long.
This review is from the June 1, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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