The CIA’s Legacy of Ashes

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner. 2007. Doubleday.

For those interested in learning about the blunders, deceptions, crimes and disasters of the Central Intelligence Agency, Tim Weiner’s 2007 book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is an excellent place to start. The book presents a highly critical history of the agency dating from the its inception to the end of the George W. Bush era.

Tim Weiner is a former New York Times reporter who has also written books about the FBI, the Pentagon and the presidency of Richard Nixon. Recurring themes of Legacy of Ashes include dishonesty, incompetence and over-willingness to falsify intelligence to please superiors. Weiner argues that these same tendencies led not only to George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, but numerous other crimes and mishaps throughout the post-war era.

While this book won a National Book Award for Non-fiction, the CIA itself was more critical, stating that “anyone who wants a balanced perspective of CIA and its history should steer well clear of Legacy of Ashes.” Ironically, Weiner’s acknowledgements thank numerous high ranking CIA officials including former directors Richard Helms, William Colby, Robert Gates, and George Tenet whose conversations with him contributed to this book. Additionally, Weiner writes from the point of view of one who thinks the US should have a top quality intelligence service, but makes it clear that the CIA has dismally failed in this role.

Despite this, Legacy of Ashes has much to offer libertarians and other explicit opponents of secret governance, as nearly all of its narrative is presented in a matter of fact manner, reporting what happened while avoiding value judgments. Weiner used some 50,000 documents, mostly archived by the CIA, as source material. By sticking to “on the record” sources, he avoids the speculation and conspiracy-theorizing that otherwise pervades criticism of secret governance. Nevertheless, his report is extremely damning.

Weiner’s story starts at the end of World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War, when the US had essentially no intelligence on the Soviet Union. While originally founded as a kind of global news-gathering agency for the executive branch, the CIA couldn’t resist cloak-and-dagger activity (which it often did poorly). The agency’s precursor, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), was led by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, now seen as the “Father of American Intelligence” who believed US intelligence “must be global and totalitarian.”

The agency was able to skim money from the Marshall Plan, funding its early attempts to recruit Russian spies. Early operations tended to be quickly infiltrated by Soviet sympathizers and hundreds of CIA-trained recruits were found and executed by the Soviet state. On a similar note, a Russian spy broke into the CIA’s code-breaking center and destroyed what little information the agency had about the far east. This left the US government blindsided by the Chinese invasion of North Korea, which nearly drove US forces from the peninsula.

Under Allan Dulles, the CIA fought public distrust by exerting influence on news outlets such as The New York Times, Newsweek, the CBS Evening News and the Washington Post, as well as popular publications such as Time, Reader’s Digest, Look, and Parade. These media outlets did what they could to portray the agency and Dulles in a positive light, despite its many failed ventures, which were largely unknown to the American public and most members of government.

When the CIA did find success, it was more often than not done through bribery and brute force, rather than stealth, secrecy or good strategy. Weiner uses the installation of the Shah of Iran as an example. In a humorous anecdote he notes that an early attempt at a coup failed, leading the Shah to flee to Rome, where he inadvertently checked into the same hotel as the same moment as the vacationing Allan Dulles. Dulles was presumably quite surprised to see the Monarch walking the streets of Rome, but he still greeted the Shah by saying “after you, your majesty”.

On a more serious note, when the coup ultimately did succeed, it planted the seeds of anti-Americanism and religious extremism that would continue to haunt US/Iran relations throughout the book and to this day. Similarly another CIA celebrated success was the 1954 coup in Guatemala, which led to “forty years of military rulers, death squads, and armed repression.” Another such “success” was the Ba’athist coup in Iraq whose future leadership would include Saddam Hussein.

Weiner also discusses the agency’s failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro (who is still alive as of this writing). These failed attempts were intentionally kept from the Warren Commission after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, because the CIA initially feared that the assassin’s motive was retaliation for the failed attempts on Castro’s life. This omission is widely believed to have compromised the commission’s findings, leaving open the possibility of a link between the assassination and Cuba. It is also revealed that the nearly all Cubans working for the CIA, at the time, were in fact double agents, reporting to the Cuban government.

In another dark chapter, Weiner reviews the CIA’s funding of the rise of Suharto in Indonesia, and the resulting killings of hundreds of thousands as well as the holding of over a million political prisoners. Additionally, the agency created secret police in Cambodia, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Peru, the Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam, and Thailand. As well as an international police academy in Panama, whose graduates would lead death squads in El Salvador and Honduras.

During the Johnson era, and continuing under Nixon, the CIA embarked on an operation code-named Chaos, in which agents grew their hair long and infiltrated anti-war and black power groups. Much of this coincided with the rise of Henry Kissinger as the de facto head of covert operations and an increased surveillance of US citizens. Unsurprisingly, a strong emphasis is placed on the CIA-backed coup in Chile which initiated the brutal Pinochet dictatorship.

As the seventies wound down the Agency failed to predict the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as well as the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. A great deal of focus is given on the CIA’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal and its gun running mission to Jihadist in Afghanistan. Weiner notes that the CIA funded both sides in the war between Iran and Iraq. He also notes that after the CIA failed to predict Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, it attempted to compensate by predicting he would invade Saudi Arabia.

The final chapters focus on failed attempts to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden during the 1990’s and 2000’s as well as the intelligence failures and outright dishonesty that led to the US invasion of Iraq in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. He notes that CIA director George Tenet staked much of his own reputation and that of the agency on the gamble that WMD would be found in Iraq, despite evidence that was at best insufficient and at worst deceptively manipulated. His successor Porter Goss largely continued the CIA and Bush era traditions of purging the ranks of any sign of ideological dissent.

Weiner recounts all of this largely from the agency’s point of view, including its (often dysfunctional) relationships with various US presidents, the pentagon and its own leadership. Recurring themes include heavy alcohol abuse among the leadership, an inability of the agency to successfully recruit foreign agents or American agents who do not stick out like sore thumbs in foreign settings, and an over-willingness to doctor findings to coincide with the expectations of Presidents. That latter was often the case with the Soviet Union, with whom the agency was often so busy exaggerating its military might that it failed to notice the hugely dysfunctional Soviet economy. Ultimately, the book details too many additional instances of CIA support for dictators, involvement in the drug trade, overthrowing democratic governments and causing civilian deaths, as well as instances of failed predictions, lies and reckless endangerment of personnel to discuss all of them in this review.

Weiner squeezes a great deal of history into roughly 500 pages of narrative, but in doing so cannot go into the level of detail other books have on specific operations and activities. For example, while the book does discuss the CIA’s experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, especially LSD, on unwitting subjects, as well as its mind control research under Project MK-ULTRA, this is given much more thorough treatment elsewhere. At the end of the book one has little choice but conclude that an institution as secretive, murderous, dishonest, and as psychopathic as the CIA has no place in a free society, even if this is not the author’s stated position. Legacy of Ashes functions quite well as an introductory, long-view, critical history of American intelligence and secret government activity, and is an enjoyable read too.