CIA's dark history, right up to the present in "Legacy of Ashes"
Tim Weiner has stepped back from his daily coverage of the so-called U.S. government "intelligence" agencies to look at the big picture.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA"
by Tim Weiner
Doubleday, 704 pp., $27.95
Top-notch journalists such as Tim Weiner of The New York Times are often so busy writing about what happened today that they cannot devote their talent to placing those deadline stories in context.
Fortunately, Weiner has stepped back from his daily coverage of the so-called U.S. government "intelligence" agencies to look at the big picture.
With "Legacy of Ashes," Weiner punctures claims by the spymasters at the Central Intelligence Agency that they have a track record of thwarting enemy threats and serving their nation well. Most important, Weiner has based his exposé on 60 years of CIA internal documents, obtained legally through perseverance. Weiner believes fervently in the importance of an effective spy agency, and thus presents his investigation in the spirit of building up, rather than tearing down. He says the Central Intelligence Agency's ineptness "constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States."
In fairness, Weiner documents the positive, what he calls "acts of bravery and cunning," such as recruiting spies in hostile territory, providing reliable information during the early years of the Vietnam War and running a successful counterattack against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. But the CIA's own documents provide another saga, that of "folly and misfortune," causing Weiner's exposé to feel both devastating and depressing. Only the most xenophobic patriots will be able to finish this massively documented book without a sense of shame for the bad behavior of a U.S. bureaucracy on the global stage, and without a sense of anger at the misuse of resources.
In addition to its loyal agents and analysts, the CIA also spawned spies who handed the Russians potentially valuable national-security information and compromised the safety of countless U.S. government employees. Under President Reagan, the CIA, as Weiner shows, "set off on misconceived third-world missions, selling arms to Iran's Revolutionary Guards to finance a war in Central America, breaking the law and squandering what trust remained reposed in it." Later, the CIA "failed to see that the Islamic warriors it supported [against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan] would soon take aim at the United States, and when that understanding came, the agency failed to act. That was an epochal failure."
The consequences are not abstract. Weiner says CIA mistakes "have proved fatal for legions of American soldiers and foreign agents; some 3,000 Americans who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001; and 3,000 more who have died since then in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Before World War II, the United States stood as the only world power without a long history of spying on alleged international enemies through a central agency. A hastily pulled together group of men and women labored mightily during World War II but received little incentive to remain after the victory.
During the late 1940s, as the legislative and executive branches of government negotiated to form what became known as the CIA, a few wise observers predicted problems. For example, how could spies spread throughout the world and analysts headquartered in the Washington, D.C., area understand other cultures without speaking their non-English languages? How could operatives learn covert action in a laboratory, without practiced trainers?
Useful intelligence versus presidential ambition
On the other end of the information pipeline, how could CIA agents with useful information persuade presidents to act on reports that stood in the way of political ambition? Weiner demonstrates over and over how CIA officials "learned it was dangerous to tell [a president] what he did not want to hear." As a result, Weiner says, the agency "misapprehended the intentions and capabilities of our enemies, miscalculated the strength of communism and misjudged the threat of terrorism." An agency created to ensure that the U.S. government would never again suffer a surprise like Pearl Harbor unwittingly led to lots more Pearl Harbors, by other names.
Weiner brings the history to the present day, criticizing President Bush for compromising any remaining shreds of credibility at the CIA, an agency once directed by his own father. The current president failed to listen carefully to CIA advice (about the threat of Osama bin Laden, most notably), politicized the bureaucracy with his appointments and spun the reports he received to fit preconceived policy, especially concerning the invasion of Iraq.
Readers will be able to choose their own "greatest hits" from the huge number of CIA misadventures documented by Weiner. One suggestion: Read Weiner's approximately 150 pages of endnotes along with the text. The endnotes in this book do not consist merely of citations. Instead, many of the endnotes are narratives, explaining the documents upon which Weiner relies, as well as adding both substance and color to the main text.
"Legacy of Ashes" is recent history at its best, and its most dismaying.
Steve Weinberg is a former Washington correspondent for newspapers and magazines who has practiced investigative reporting for 40 years.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.