Review: Legacy of Ashes–The History of the CIA

5 Star, Empire, Sorrows, Hubris, Blowback, History, Intelligence (Government/Secret)

Legacy of Ashes

5.0 out of 5 stars Should Be a Four, But Overly Harsh Review Calls for Balance

July 22, 2007

Tim Weiner

While I would normally take away one star for a failure to provide useful policy context (the Presidents and their staffs were as much to blame for all these fiascos, and in his eagerness to do primary research, he appears to have completely missed some very important facts as stated in the varied memoires), on balance this is a tour d’force. See my lists for a diversity of other recommended reading.

In two specific instances, the lack of context casts the CIA more negatively than it merits. The Indian nuclear test was missed in large part because the Pentagon was controlling the satellites and focusing them almost full time on Iraq. In Afghanistan, CIA not only performed heroically in establishing the geospatial foundation for precision air strikes, but it also had eyes on Bin Laden for four days, with Rumsfeld in one instance allowing the Pakistanis to evacuate 3000 Taliban and Al Qaeda, and General Franks in another refusing to put Rangers around Bin Laden, claiming it would take weeks. With such idiocy (or deliberate support for Al Qaeda) at the policy level, CIA can hardly be blamed for everything.

The author makes no mention of the reality that CIA was Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC, nor does he review, as I do in The New Craft of Intelligence: Personal, Public, & Political–Citizen’s Action Handbook for Fighting Terrorism, Genocide, Disease, Toxic Bombs, & Corruption, both the long history of presidential and congressional commission dismay over CIA’s lack of language skills and open source access and collegial relations with the Pentagon, and the fact that policy is always, invariably, responsible for as many high crimes, misdemeanors, and errors and omissions that comprise the massive betrayal of the public trust that the federal government has come to represent these past fifty years. See The Fifty-Year Wound: How America’s Cold War Victory Has Shaped Our World and The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (The American Empire Project)

On Dick Cheney, who escapes notice in this book, but whose disdain for the CIA is now somewhat more understandable to me, see my review and explicit list of 23 impeachable offenses that the book documents, offenses that should have seen Cheney removed from office two years ago. I refer to Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency.

While Eisenhower’s condemning “legacy of ashes” is in the title, the better bottom line comes in the body of the book: “A harvest of lies and a complete lack of intelligence.” Elsewhere the book abounds with hubris and arrogance, blindness, a propensity to slander and assassinate (ineptly). The CIA was “ham-handed and free-wheeling.”

The author draws on varied sources to characterize the clandestine service as skilled at “gross overstatement joined with grotesque incompetence.” The essence of the book and CIA’s continuous record of bluster and failure is ably captured on page 126, “Cloaked yet flamboyant–that was the CIA under Allen Dulles. It was a place ‘where truly clandestine practices were compromised” while ‘analysis was clothed in an atmosphere of secrecy that was unnecessary, frequently counterproductive, and in the long run damaging,’ Cline thought.”

A few gems:

* Truman wanted a global newspaper, not a cloak & dagger
* Truman was trumped by his own Pentagon, which wanted a spy service
* CIA directors routinely lied to presidents
* Most DCI’s left CIA worse off than before
* FBI has more agents in NYC than CIA has case officers around the world
* From the beginning CIA repressed democracy, loved dictators and corruption
* Russians and Cubans have consistly broken all CIA efforts to penetrate (indeed, when all Cubans were doubled, two of my clandestine classmates had the pleasure of appearing on Cuban TV after being covertly filmed “in the act”)
* Thousands (sic) I believe hundreds of thousands, have died because of CIA complicity, errors, incompetence, or plain amorality.
* CIA brought into the USA 100 Nazis every year, the maximum allowed them
* CIA delusional, failed mission after failed mission (but all got promoted)
* P 53: “At CIA, an order is a departure point for a discussion.”
* CIA funded hundreds of “morally reprehensible suicide missions.”
* CIA constantly fell for fabricators, con men, and double agents
* CIA’s scorecard in penetrating Manchuria: 101 killed, 111 captured. ALL.
* CIA has had clandestine prisions in Germany, Japan, and Panama, “like Guantanamo only worse.” Now they have others elsewhere.
* CIA all too quickly adopted the tactics of its enemies.
* Never, ever, has CIA had a sufficiency of linguists.
* When Iran took the Embassy, the CIA Station consisted of four officers, not one of whom spoke Farsi. The Iranians were offended.
* It was CIA that put the Bathists and ultimately Saddam Hussein in power.
* CIA’s support for “strongmen” inspired populist insurrections.
* CIA suffered from cultural myopia, complete lack of languages, and antiquated information technology

This book destroys Allen Dulles for all time.

There is more but I recommend buying and purchasing this book, because as I write this America is in the midst of what may be the gavest Constitutional crisis of our time–an impotent Congress is allowing Dick Cheney to operate “without limits” in ways that are absolutely and unquestionably in clear violation of the Constitution in multiple ways.

As I put the book down, ignoring some of my notes for lack of word count, I saw two with which to end this review.

Robert Gates: “Adjust or die.” This book puts the final nail in the CIA coffin.

The author did not say, but my reading of the book creates the following note:

US Government a Ship of Fools, with immoral Presidents asking incompetent spies to be equally immoral, while pathetically inept Members of Congress stood idly by, the occasional commission notwithstanding.

Good people trapped in a very bad system where the pathologies of power nurture ideological fantasy and treason against the Republic.

Five other books (see lists also):
None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam
Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars
On Intelligence: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World
Of Spies and Lies: A CIA Lie Detector Remembers Vietnam
Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

Vote on Review
Vote on Review