Review: Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner

For decades now, the Central Intelligence Agency has reacted to most criticism by saying the agency’s successes are secret while their foul-ups are public.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tim Weiner puts the lie to that assertion in Legacy of Ashes, a comprehensive, chronological study of the past 60 years of the CIA. It won the National Book Award last year and has just come out in paperback.

In 600-plus eminently readable, utterly convincing pages, Weiner lays bare an agency that has long acted ineptly and illegally, one that casually lied to Presidents and any other officials who were occasionally dispatched to figure out why the CIA could never live up to its mission.

The big fuck-ups are here: the Bay of Pigs, the Iraq WMDs, the CIA being taken totally by surprise when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan or the Berlin Wall came down.

Even more alarming is the seemingly endless series of smaller misfires. Over the years the CIA parachuted hundreds of agents behind the Iron Curtain or into China or North Korea, agents who were immediately captured, tortured and killed because the target countries knew all about the missions. It refused to believe that a high-level Soviet defector was not a double agent. Its personnel were all too often assigned to countries where they knew neither the language nor the customs of the populace.

What’s remarkable is that Weiner gets all this – the litany of bone-headed thinking, carefree disregard of the Constitution and sheer failure – on the record. Everything comes from a named source or newly declassified documents.

No one comes off looking too well. Certainly none of the 11 presidents who have tried to tame, improve or ignore the agency.

The Bush Administration revamped the nation’s security bureaucracy in the wake of 9/11, weakening the CIA and putting much more of the responsibility for intelligence in the hands of the military.

Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen, but anyone who reads Weiner’s fascinating book can’t help but think things couldn’t get much worse. – Richard Connelly

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