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