Deep down, most of us probably know that the Central Intelligence Agency can’t be nearly as cool as our popular media would have us believe. But still, the picture presented in Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner’s exhaustive general history of the CIA, is nevertheless a crushing disappointment. Just because it was obvious to most people that the agency wasn’t full of suave and brilliant superspies—MIT mind in a GQ body—doesn’t make it any easier to realize that it is an expensive, cumbersome, out-dated, dangerous, and deeply dysfunctional organization that we’re likely better off without.
Weiner’s book was originally scheduled for an August release but got bumped up to June after the 26th of that month when, with some fanfare, the CIA declassified hundreds of pages of revelatory historical documents outlining some particularly horrific behavior from the early 1970s (you can see the documents yourself at www.foia.cia.gov). A précis of those documents makes for uncomfortable (though oddly familiar, in a Cheney/Gonzales-way) reading, with its tortured prisoners and domestic surveillance of American citizens. But it’s just a taste of what’s in store for readers of Legacy of Ashes, whose roughly six decades of history begins in hubris and trawls through ignominy and illegality before ending in confused embarrassment. To make it even more punishing is the fact that Weiner takes it all from the record: “No anonymous sources, no blind quotations, no hearsay ... [the book is] compiled entirely from firsthand reporting and primary documents.” It’s a doggedly truthful account, one that doesn’t to resort to hyperbole because the facts speak loudly enough.
In the beginning, it was about information. Although America has utilized spies since the Revolutionary War, until World War II it had never had a dedicated espionage service along the lines of those operated by the old-line European powers. So when Harry Truman was shot into the presidency by President Roosevelt’s death in 1945, and faced a strange new world where all the rules were being rewritten daily, he thought it would be a good idea to have an intelligence operation that could tell those in Washington what was going on out there in the world. Thus, in September 1947, with the signing of the National Security Agency, the CIA was born.
The military had created the ad hoc Office of Strategic Services for all its spying needs during the war, but it had never been intended to last into peacetime. Not only that, its commander, General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, cared more for thrilling skullduggery than patient and meticulous gathering of information. He liked dropping teams of infiltrators behind enemy lines—teams that were usually never heard from again. He had one of his men spend weeks researching the workability of strapping incendiary bombs to the backs of thousands of bats and setting them loose over Tokyo. Donovan also had grand ideas for a postwar spy agency which would become part of the military establishment, learning about the “capabilities, intentions, and activities of foreign nations” while also running “subversive operations abroad” against America’s enemies. In late 1944, Donovan wrote a letter to FDR theorizing that, “In a global and totalitarian war, intelligence must be global and totalitarian.” No surprise then that when leaks came out in the media from an investigation FDR ran into the OSS’s operations they contained dark warnings that Donovan wanted to create an “American Gestapo.”
But, as Weiner memorably begins the book, “All Harry Truman wanted was a newspaper.” This push-pull between the commando fantasies of the CIA heads and the White House’s simple desire (and need) for more information would define the agency throughout its entire existence. Having just defeated the Nazis and the Japanese, become the world’s dominant economic and cultural force, and in a tense standoff with a totalitarian empire, America was both apprehensive and wildly hubristic about its place in the world. Presidents were now constant actors on the world stage, with every movement having to be considered in light of the great struggle against communism. For a formerly isolationist power to have a clue of what it was doing, intelligence was needed. Unfortunately, espionage in the classic sense as practiced by the British, Russians, and (soon) the Israelis was a painstaking and ruthless affair requiring diligence and great insight into human nature and the world. Unfortunately for America, and the many countries (mostly Third World and pretty harmless) who got in her way, the old boys club of WASP blue bloods running the show down at the CIA weren’t so interested in gathering information—they wanted to play spy games with the commies.
A great part of Legacy of Ashes is a dispiriting catalogue of the CIA’s adventures abroad, rarely any of which can be thought well of today. From toppling governments in Guatemala and Iran, manipulating elections in Italy, blatantly undermining governments from Syria to Indonesia or planning assassinations, the agency’s focus was on the paramilitary. Apparently coups were just more fun than digging up information. Stingy with giving out any information about itself and operating from behind a veil of inscrutable arrogance and rumored omnipotence, the CIA was given billions of dollars and told to fight communism however and wherever they wanted. Al Ulmer, Far East division chief in the 1950s, puts it quite frankly to Weiner (who gets an astounding number of people to talk on the record here, by the way), “We went all over the world and did what we wanted. God we had fun.”
There weren’t just failed missions, the CIA seemed unable to handle even part of its brief. A particularly bad year was 1950. In July, without a peep from the CIA’s Asian stations, North Korea invaded the South. On September 20, the CIA said the Soviets couldn’t produce an atomic weapon for four years at least. They were proved wrong three days later. On 30 October, the CIA said the Chinese wouldn’t enter the Korean War (in a sad reply of later events, some of their field agents did indeed warn of this, only to be ignored by headquarters). Two days later, 300,000 Chinese troops came close to driving the U.S. army into the sea.
The agency was also helplessly riddled with spies and leaks. For decades there was little they could do behind the Iron Curtain without it being known immediately in the Kremlin. When the CIA tried to drive Indonesian President Achmed Sukarno from power in 1957, they managed to keep their plans secret for a total of three days. Their entire operation to drive Castro from power using Cuban exiles was immediately doomed, as Castro’s own people had thoroughly infiltrated the movement from the start and transmitted everything right back to Havana. And still the Oval Office couldn’t find out what was happening in the world.
It shouldn’t be thought, however, that the presidents were an opposing force to the wayward inclinations of the CIA. Although frustrated by the agency’s inability to provide reliable foreign intelligence, presidents from Eisenhower to Carter and Clinton used the agency to play dirty tricks in all corners of the world. It’s an ugly tale, with Weiner revealing a truly frightening lack of respect in the White House for any real sense of accountability or morality when it came to utilizing deadly force in some remote Third World nation whenever they felt like it.
No matter how far John F. Kennedy’s stock may have fallen, it’s still unnerving to read Weiner’s account of how, in January 1961, the CIA station chief in the Dominican Republic—where public sentiment was turning against U.S.—backed dictator Rafael Trujilo, whom the U.S. had decided was now an embarrassment-received a cable from Washington approved by Kennedy which read, “We don’t care if the Dominicans assassinate Trujilo, that is all right. But we don’t want anything to pin this on us.” Trujilo was shot dead two weeks later, possibly with weapons delivered from the U.S. via diplomatic pouch. Although there was no smoking gun, Weiner’s reasonable conclusion is that “the assassination was as close as the CIA had ever come to carrying out a murder at the command of the White House.” If you want to keep a good opinion of any U.S. president since Harry Truman, do not read this book.
Even after the cowboy decades of the 1950s and ‘60s, the remainder of the 20th century still showed little positive coming out of the CIA, which lurched from poor espionage techniques (the number of agents they were ever able to recruit from behind the Iron Curtain was embarrassingly small) to overseas fiascoes. Even when the agency did its mission right (as in supporting Afghanistan’s mujahedin and essentially sucking the Soviets into a Vietnam-esque conflict that hastened the collapse of their empire) they managed to fail (not worrying about the potential blowback from encouraging and arming extremist Muslim fringe groups bent on jihad).
At the start of the new century, when it could argued that America had more need than ever for a barometer of foreign threats, the CIA was in a crisis. The great crusade against communism was over, and the agency was no longer able to attract those who could even be remotely described as the best and the brightest. As dysfunctional, counterproductive, and frequently amoral as the CIA’s core operatives had been during the Cold War, they were for the most part dedicated and willing to go anywhere and do anything necessary to get the mission done. But in 2001, as al Qaeda plotted:
The CIA stood at 17,000 people, about the size of an army division, but the great majority of them were desk jockeys. Roughly one thousand people worked abroad in the clandestine service. Most officers lived comfortably in suburban cul-de-sacs and townhouses in the orbit of the Washington beltway. They were unused to drinking dirty water and sleeping on mud floors. They were unsuited for lives of sacrifice ... Most of [the CIA personnel focused on al Qaeda] were staring at computers in headquarters, cut off from the realities of the outside world by their antiquated information technologies. To expect them to protect the United States from attack was at best a misplaced faith.
And to think that the agency has changed at all from that dispiriting bureaucratic jumble between then and today would be even more misplaced. By the time one is finished with the book it’s difficult to see any reason even for keeping such a pathologically untrustworthy and counterproductive entity around.
Tim Weiner has done an extraordinary job here in transmitting such a towering mountain of information with relative ease. Legacy of Ashes is encyclopedic but never dull, fairly racing through the years, and delivering what could have been a real slog of an espionage wonk thesis with real élan. Although the author wisely avoids making any real policy recommendations here, if a member of Congress makes a move in the near future to abolish the CIA for once and for all, it will most likely be a copy of Weiner’s book at the top of his night-time reading pile.