Books by Weiner, Tim

Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51445-3.
I've always been amused by those overwrought conspiracy theories which paint the CIA as the spider at the centre of a web of intrigue, subversion, skullduggery, and ungentlemanly conduct stretching from infringements of the rights of U.S. citizens at home to covert intrusion into internal affairs in capitals around the globe. What this outlook, however entertaining, seemed to overlook in my opinion is that the CIA is a government agency, and millennia of experience demonstrate that long-established instruments of government (the CIA having begun operations in 1947) rapidly converge upon the intimidating, machine-like, and ruthless efficiency of the Post Office or the Department of Motor Vehicles. How probable was it that a massive bureaucracy, especially one which operated with little Congressional oversight and able to bury its blunders by classifying documents for decades, was actually able to implement its cloak and dagger agenda, as opposed to the usual choke and stagger one expects from other government agencies of similar staffing and budget? Defenders of the CIA and those who feared its menacing, malign competence would argue that while we find out about the CIA's blunders when operations are blown, stings end up getting stung, and moles and double agents are discovered, we never know about the successes, because they remain secret forever, lest the CIA's sources and methods be disclosed.

This book sets the record straight. The Pulitzer prize-winning author has covered U.S. intelligence for twenty years, most recently for the New York Times. Drawing on a wealth of material declassified since the end of the Cold War, most from the latter half of the 1990s and afterward, and extensive interviews with every living Director of Central Intelligence and numerous other agency figures, this is the first comprehensive history of the CIA based on the near-complete historical record. It is not a pretty picture.

Chartered to collect and integrate information, both from its own sources and those of other intelligence agencies, thence to present senior decision-makers with the data they need to formulate policy, from inception the CIA neglected its primary mission in favour of ill-conceived and mostly disastrous paramilitary and psychological warfare operations deemed “covert”, but which all too often became painfully overt when they blew up in the faces of those who ordered them. The OSS heritage of many of the founders of the CIA combined with the proclivity of U.S. presidents to order covert operations which stretched the CIA's charter to its limits and occasionally beyond combined to create a litany of blunders and catastrophe which would be funny were it not so tragic for those involved, and did it not in many cases cast long shadows upon the present-day world.

While the clandestine service was tripping over its cloaks and impaling itself upon its daggers, the primary intelligence gathering mission was neglected and bungled to such an extent that the agency provided no warning whatsoever of Stalin's atomic bomb, the Korean War, the Chinese entry into that conflict, the Suez crisis, the Hungarian uprising, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran/Iraq War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, and more. The spider at the centre of the web appears to have been wearing a blindfold and earplugs. (Oh, they did predict both the outbreak and outcome of the Six Day War—well, that's one!)

Not only have the recently-declassified documents shone a light onto the operations of the CIA, they provide a new perspective on the information from which decision-makers were proceeding in many of the pivotal events of the latter half of the twentieth century including Korea, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the past and present conflicts in Iraq. This book completely obsoletes everything written about the CIA before 1995; the source material which has become available since then provides the first clear look into what was previously shrouded in secrecy. There are 154 pages of end notes in smaller type—almost a book in itself—which expand, often at great length, upon topics in the main text; don't pass them up. Given the nature of the notes, I found it more convenient to read them as an appendix rather than as annotations.

February 2008 Permalink