Summary and book reviews of Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

Legacy of Ashes

The History of the CIA

by Tim Weiner

Legacy of Ashes
  • Critics' Opinion:

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

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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About this Book

Book Summary

For the last sixty years, the CIA has managed to maintain a formidable reputation in spite of its terrible record, burying its blunders in top-secret archives. Its mission was to know the world. When it did not succeed, it set out to change the world. Its failures have handed us, in the words of President Eisenhower, “a legacy of ashes.”

Now Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tim Weiner offers the first definitive history of the CIA—and everything is on the record. Legacy of Ashes is based on more than 50,000 documents, primarily from the archives of the CIA itself, and hundreds of interviews with CIA veterans, including ten Directors of Central Intelligence. It takes the CIA from its creation after World War II, through its battles in the cold war and the war on terror, to its near-collapse after 9/ll.

Tim Weiner’s past work on the CIA and American intelligence was hailed as “impressively reported” and “immensely entertaining” in The New York Times.

The Wall Street Journal called it “truly extraordinary . . . the best book ever written on a case of espionage.” Here is the hidden history of the CIA: why eleven presidents and three generations of CIA officers have been unable to understand the world; why nearly every CIA director has left the agency in worse shape than he found it; and how these failures have profoundly jeopardized our national security.

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 ...

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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? .... 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 ....which grants some of the keen-eyed vision that the agency has lacked for so long.   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

Full Review Members Only (871 words).

Media Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Evan Thomas

[By] using tens of thousands of declassified documents and on-the-record recollections of dozens of chagrined spymasters, Weiner paints what may be the most disturbing picture yet of C.I.A. ineptitude.

The Washington Post - David Wise

Legacy of Ashes succeeds as both journalism and history, and it is must reading for anyone interested in the CIA or American intelligence since World War II.

Kirkus Reviews

Absorbing, appalling history.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [A] fascinating, comprehensive and sometimes appalling history of the Central Intelligence Agency. - Nicholas Dujmovic, CIA historian and intelligence analyst

Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes is not the definitive history of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that it purports to be. Nor is it the well researched work that many reviewers say it is. It is odd, in fact, that much of the hype surrounding the book concerns its alleged mastery of available sources. Weiner and his favorable reviewers—most, like Weiner, journalists—have cited the plethora of his sources as if the fact of their variety and number by themselves make the narrative impervious to criticism. ....

History, fairly done, is all about context, motivations, and realistic expectations in addition to the accurate portrayal of events. Weiner is not honest about context, he is dismissive of motivations, his expectations for intelligence are almost cartoonish, and his book too often is factually unreliable. What could have been a serious historical critique illuminating the lessons of the past is undermined by dubious assertions, sweeping judgments based on too few examples, selective or outright misuse of citations, a drama-driven narrative, and a tendentious and nearly exclusive focus on failure that overlooks, downplays, or explains away significant successes ...

For all of its profound flaws bits of Legacy of Ashes are not bad (though Weiner has not earned the trust of the careful scholar regarding his sources, so best to check) ...

But these few plusses do not overcome the essential fact that Legacy of Ashes is a narrowly-focused and biased account. In his preface, Weiner claims to believe that the intelligence profession is critical to national security, but he is likely to have done considerable damage, as the people who take up the profession will, I fear, have to deal with his inaccuracies and skewed perspectives for years to come. Full review.

Reader Reviews

Iron Hand

Legacy of Ashes Review
This book doesn't talk about the many foreign agents who were trying to ruin everything the CIA was attempting to accomplish. The Russians had spies inside the FBI and Langley (moles) feeding them the stuff that made the spy-business impossible to ...   Read More


Comprehensive but biased
Right from the start, Weiner sets the tone of the book; and then beats you to death with his unremitting negative views on the CIA. from Author's Note: "Legacy ... describes how the most powerful country...failed to create a first rate spy ...   Read More

CE Lathrop

A Flawed, Even Deceitful Book
The problem with reviews of Weiner's book, as Jeffrey Richelson has amply demonstrated on the blog, is that most reviewers don't have substantive background about the subject matter and can't see past their own biases. For ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Central Intelligence Agency has been riven by turf battles, political infighting, and the lack of qualified agents and analysts. But just as frequently, the CIA has been brought to its knees by thoroughly avoidable blunders…

from the (somewhat) droll…

In 1994, the station chief in Guatemala accused the American Ambassador, Marilyn McAfee, of having a lesbian affair with her secretary, Carol Murphy. The station chief detailed his findings in "the Murphy memo," which he distributed around Washington. The CIA had, indeed, caught McAfee cooing endearments to Murphy on a bug in her bedroom. But it turns out that Murphy was her poodle.

to the distressful…

During the cold war, the CIA bought ...

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