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And You Thought NASA Was Screwed Up

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIALegacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

Reviewed by Doug Brown

Tim Weiner's excellent account of the CIA has already won many kudos and plaudits, including the National Book Award. There's not much I can add to that, other than to say folks really should read this book. After the film Syriana came out I read Robert Baer's See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, as the credits of the film stated it was loosely based on Baer's book. That book gave a pretty unflattering view of the CIA as an agency out of touch with the intelligence happening on the ground. Weiner shows that Baer only had a tiny fragment of the picture of the CIA's irrelevance and incompetence.

The CIA was originally established to be the president's newspaper, an agency to inform U.S. policy makers of what was happening in the world. Unfortunately, it was formed by the folks who had worked the OSS in World War II, and they wanted to keep playing cloak and dagger. Quickly the agency fragmented into intelligence and clandestine services divisions, which communicated little with each other and liked each other less. Meanwhile, presidents showed little interest in the day-to-day output of the intelligence side. Only a couple of CIA directors have had the privilege of meeting the president with any regularity -- and some only met with presidents once or twice in their entire term in office.

Legacy of Ashes will shoot down any illusions you may still harbor of the Kennedys (Jack and Bobby) being noble upright citizens. They were the ones who got the CIA into the political assassination business, and ramped up the activities of the clandestine service. And they were utter failures at it (futile attempts to assassinate Castro, Bay of Pigs, etc.). After Kennedy's assassination, the CIA withheld information from the Warren Commission, triggering a thousand conspiracy theories (most of which give the CIA far too much credit and power).

Experience with the CIA in previous administrations gave Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld very low opinions of the agency. This disdain was part of the intelligence failure that led to Iraq. A larger part was the CIA's longstanding practice of telling presidents what they thought the administration wanted to hear. Very little data, mostly questionable, became "slam dunk" certainty when filtered through the CIA. And Osama bin Laden is either dead of old age or still out there somewhere.

It is very disconcerting that the last remaining superpower's intelligence agency has worse maps of Belgrade than Powell's Books does (hey, maybe we should run the country!), and those maps are used to select bombing targets. Most people at the CIA don't speak foreign languages, so communications between and within other nations go untranslated. Every director has been despised by the agents in the trenches. Fractionalized, marginalized, and far too often just plain wrong, Weiner's CIA doesn't bear any resemblance to the all-powerful agency depicted in films and spy novels. Eisenhower's description of the CIA during his term provides the books title: a Legacy of Ashes indeed.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. See No Evil: The True Story of a... Used Hardcover $12.95

3 Responses to "And You Thought NASA Was Screwed Up"

    J. R. Hofer February 16th, 2008 at 10:45 am

    That crusty old British novelist Graham Greene definitively defined the adolescent stupidity of national clandestine services in his novel, Our Man in Havana (1958).

    But what should we expect, we citizens in this country? We love this kind of theater in the same way we love football, cage-fighting, Jerry Springer, and the gruesome details of the beaver-flashing Britney Spear's public existential meltdown. Nothing is too crass for our sensibilities. No price is too high for such entertainment. "Oh yeah, Baby!"

    Chalmers Johnson (remember him? the opposite of fun and tawdry spectacle, the hard-working scholar of tomes of analysis about the depth and breadth of American hubris?). Chalmers tells us in his book Nemesis that the Pentagon (or is it DoD? who cares, the fricking money just goes down a hole and is never seen again -- billions of it) budget is about 3/4 of a Trillion dollars per year. Worse, he explains that about 40% of this obscene budget has NO (that's right, NO, NONE, NADA, NICHTS)oversight by congress. That's about 300 billion dollars! Mary Mother of God! What the human moral spirit couldn't do with that kind Jack (as my mother-in-law used to refer to it) Didn't we not so long ago here in Oregon have a story about a lady unable to handle the majestic temptation of the local Little League equipment fund, embezzling a pauper's ransom to buy a new set of tupperware? Does no one appreciate the weakness of the human will? Homo homini Lupus

    Good parents go away for the weekend, worrying about what their adolescent sons might do in their absence. (I know what they do; I was an adolescent once; they all go over to J's house when his parents are away; raid the liquor cabinet; invite in every friend they've ever known (especially the girls); and have a two-day party that would put Herr Von Buehler to shame.) Do you not think it is from this Darwinian population of daring darlings our masters of espionage come? Do you think the grown-up adolescents are any better at managing large parts of the 300 billion dollar Defense liquor cabinet than they were of managing their parents' liquor cabinet, even after having received the rigorous training of learning the ritualistic clap-trap litany of for God and country? Give me a fricking break! Once a socipath, always a friend of some congressperson.

    These tight-grouped disturbed personalities have not been asleep in their Hummers while the money has been rolling in. Remember the party while the parents were away? Well, that menacing bunch in black, hunkering down in the corner of the kitchen --the Blackwater boys and girls -- well, they are at the party to keep order, at both home and abroad. Don't kid yourself. These children, very accustomed to seeing others in pain, are not at the party to serve drinks and vacuum the house before the parents get home. (If required, this group is prepared to take the parents out BEFORE they get home.)

    According to Gore Vidal, it was Reichsfeldmarshall Vandenberg who convinced Harry Give-them-Hell Truman that Truman would have to "scare the hell" out the American people (read "children') if Truman were to have a war-time military budget in peace-time.
    And so, we kiddies, after an afternoon of watching Pinkie Lee and Sgt. Preston, were told terrible stories at bedtime godless communists coming to take away our toys, our friend Jesus, and the family's beloved Studebaker.

    In preparation for this "inevitable" invasion by these foreign mind-snatchers, the bigger and brighter boys and girls at the Hanford Atomic Werken in Richland experimented with the local Kinder by doing "controlled releases" of radioactive iodide to see what its dispersion across the agricultural countryside was like. (Controlled: "Hold valve open for say, a few minutes every day or so, then close." ["Und, by the way Schmidt, just which valve was that? B oder C oder D?"] We local kids drank our "special" milk, the life-giving fluid coming from irradiated bovines of paradise who grazed in atomic fields of still-more-wonderful-things-to-come. (Today's children in the magnificent all-volunteer army get to drive tanks armored by dense depleted uranium which fire depleted uranium shells, the fragments of which ceramacize on impact, blowing nolens-volens -- depending on der Wind -- over friend and foe alike -- a very Geneva Convention sort of thing to do. Oh these kids nowadays! (my advice to my fellow little experimental Walla Walla/Tri-City is to request Herr Docktor to palpate their thyroid glands, and, most especially, not forgetting to demand dinner from Herr Doktor afterwards)

    The simple truth is (is any truth simple? yes. Your dead child in your arms. Yes. Your lover's brains blown out the back of her head. Yes. Your child's future mental development obliterated. Yes. Your beloved democratic republic grotesquely transforming, like Gregor Samsa, into a giant ugly cockroache with an appetite for anything decent or humane) we children born in the 1940s should have expected all this. Should have watched for it with political and moral baseball bats to crush the carapaces of the Cold War Jungen when they started to march and sing in our cities and towns and villages.

    These boys and girls of Tenet Troop 2003, Cold War Jungen, are out of their minds and dangerous as the neighbor's taunted pitbull, Mandibles.

    It's time to take their allowances away, put them on some sort of political anti-depressant, and get them the hell jobs as hair-dressers and lawn maintenance specialists.

    These bastards are dangerous! And they are wasting our resources and labor and spirit and moral good faith. God damn the people who went out of town, leaving the car keys and credit cards on the kitchen table!

    Tergiversators all! Tergiversators and lying bastards!

    (i'm looking in the mirror, screaming at myself and reaching for the clonazopam)

    Terry H February 19th, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Makes me wonder why, if Cheney and Rumsfeld had such disdain for the CIA they would use them to make the case for war in Iraq.

    J. R. Hofer February 21st, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Useful idiots.

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