I have been fascinated with the CIA for a long time. Probably since I was in high school and read The CIA and Cult of Intelligence, a high critical book, that the CIA didn’t want published and in which some passages were redacted. I actually haven’t read a book about the CIA for a long time. I bought Legacy of Ashes a while ago but didn’t pick it up until recently. I am glad I did. Timothy Weiner has written a fantastic book, encompassing the entire history of the Agency and exposing how inept it truly can be.
The book starts with the formation of the CIA after WWII and at the inception of the Cold War. The United States was paranoid about the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. The Agency was immediately hamstrung as being caught between two different missions. “One believed in the slow and patient gathering of secret intelligence through espionage. The other believed in secret warfare – taking the battle to the enemy through covert action. Espionage seeks to know the world….. Covert action seeks to change the world.” The CIA was and still is caught between these two worlds.
Weiner spends a good chunk of the book showing just how inept we were at the art of spying and the art of analysis. We were constantly wrong about so many world events. The CIA continually over-estimated the strength of the Soviet military and the weakness of the Soviet economy. Part of the problem was the KGB, which was much more ruthless and experienced, infiltrated the CIA almost at its inception. They had moles and spies and double-agents we could only dream of. Every time we got someone inside the Soviet Union to spy for us, the person was exposed and eventually arrested and executed.
The covert action arm of the CIA got lucky a couple of times. One was the coup in Iran that brought the Shah to power. Regardless of the fact that his ruthless secret police, the NKVD made life miserable for Iranians and helped foment the resentment of the Shah that eventually led to his overthrow in 1979 and the installation of a radical Islamic government.
The other was the overthrow of a “leftist” regime in Guatemala. Which lead to a dictatorial regime that killed thousands of people. That was fine as long as they were not communists.
The vast majority of the book focuses on the failures of the CIA, of which there are too many to name. The CIA failed to predict what would happen in Viet Nam and was partly responsible for the quagmire that it became. The CIA failed to predict the six day war in 1967 between Egypt and Israel. The CIA failed to predict the fall of the Shah of Iran. The CIA failed to see India’s nuclear test. And perhaps the biggest failure of all – 9/11.
The CIA was founded, in large part, to prevent another Pearl Harbor. The CIA was tasked with knowing who the enemy was, what they were up to, and to preempt or prevent another attack on American soil. The CIA failed to predict 9/11 in a meaningful way. Instead, the CIA spent trillions of dollars supporting regimes that killed and suppressed its people. They supported apartheid in South Africa and were responsible, partly, for the arrest and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. A fact I was unaware of until I read this book. They supported Pinochet in Chile and funneled drugs through Panama, supporting Manuel Noriega. It is no wonder so many countries in the world hate us so vehemently.
Weiner does a good job of exploring the inherent conflict between covert action and intelligence analysis. The analysts were always looked down on by the people running the agency, who preferred the spy craft and covert action parts of the Agency. However, they lamented the fact that the analysts could not give accurate information, without acknowledging that they failed to provide current information for them to analyze.
The book ends in the George W. Bush administration. It does not cover the hunt for bin Laden much. It does not see what some have called the redemption of the CIA. But what this book does do is show that the CIA has been hamstrung from its inception. It shows the incredible hubris the United States has vis-a-vis what’s good for other countries. At one point, Henry Kissinger says, “I don’t see why we have to let another country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible.” I think that kind of says it all.
I loved this book. It is full of detail and facts. There are 200 pages of notes at the end. Weiner obviously did his research and prepared what I consider to be THE book about he CIA. If you are interested in the CIA and Cold War history, this is the book for you.