ANY history of a secret agency is bound to be, in certain important respects, provisional.
Even when you take that real-world caveat into account, however, it still is clear that Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” is about as magisterial an account of “the agency’s” 60 years as anyone has yet produced. More than that, it is a timely and vital contribution to one of the most fraught debates now roiling our bitterly divided capital: the correct role of the intelligence agencies and their proper relationship not only to the executive and legislative branches but also to the rule of law itself.
Clearly, Weiner’s publisher realizes that: When the CIA announced it would this week release redacted accounts of its misconduct over the years -- the so-called family jewels -- this book’s release was advanced to this month, from Aug. 7. It was a shrewd decision. The agency’s familial gems turned out to be mostly paste -- at best, additional details concerning things already broadly known -- but “Legacy of Ashes,” by contrast, fairly glitters with relevance.
Weiner, a New York Times reporter who covered the CIA for that paper during the 1990s, has been working on this book for at least 20 years. He’s a superb reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 at the Philadelphia Inquirer for stories he did on the Pentagon’s “black,” or secret, budget. He turned that material into his first book, which was followed by what many people consider the definitive book on Soviet mole Aldrich H. Ames’ devastating betrayal of the CIA.
The most remarkable and, for that matter, admirable thing about “Legacy of Ashes” is that it is based entirely on primary sources and on-the-record interviews. Nothing goes unattributed, and when the author does draw his conclusions -- which he does frequently and with refreshing clarity -- they have that muscular authority that only facts can create.
Those facts are drawn from multiple sources, including the author’s exclusive access to the CIA’s own numerous secret histories of its operations, from more than 50,000 documents -- many newly declassified -- in the archives of the agency, White House and State Department, from on-the-record interviews with 10 directors of central intelligence and from more than 300 interviews with current and former CIA agents and officials.
In Weiner’s view, the story that emerges is “how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service. That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States.... The annals of the Central Intelligence Agency are filled with folly and misfortune, along with acts of bravery and cunning. They are replete with fleeting successes and long-lasting failures abroad.... The one crime of lasting consequence has been the CIA’s inability to carry out its central mission: informing the president of what is happening in the world.”
The current war in Iraq is but the most immediate bloody consequence of that failure.
Weiner does a brilliant job of delineating the ambivalence that attended the CIA’s creation after World War II. President Truman wanted to know what was going on in the world around him but was reluctant to create an “American Gestapo": He was initially convinced that’s what a centralized intelligence agency would become. Indeed, the CIA’s predecessor in World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), had a spotty record, studded with heroism and spectacularly costly failures. Its severest critics, however, noted that the OSS’ greatest strengths had been analytic rather than operational. Truman initially decided to forgo an intelligence agency, and then he was maneuvered into creating the CIA not only by those in the government who thought spies were needed but also by the increasingly urgent exigencies of the nascent Cold War.
None of that ambivalence would keep Truman or his equally conflicted successors from turning to the CIA for extralegal, clandestine operations at home and abroad. The temptation, right down to the present day, simply has proved too great for any occupant of the executive office to resist. The irony, as Weiner documents, is that the agency never has been more of a failure than when it has been most clandestine.
Even its storied “successes” in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and Afghanistan -- all of which are examined in fresh new light in this book -- turned out to be long-term failures. The agency -- despite the incalculable cost of its technical and analytic component -- has failed to give warning of every significant international event from the onset of the Korean War to 9/11. Along the way, it gave American officials and military officials particularly faulty information on the Balkans and Somalia.
From the beginning, the CIA’s most crucial responsibility -- appraising Soviet intentions and capabilities -- evoked a mixture of invincible ignorance and incomprehension. Weiner sketches out a particularly chilling and detailed scene in which then U.S. envoy to Moscow Walter Bedell Smith (Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s former chief of staff) goes alone to the Kremlin for a one-on-one meeting with Josef Stalin, designed to divine the dictator’s intentions. Further description of their encounter would undercut the confrontation’s cinematic impact in the book, which is considerable.
When it came to understanding and grappling directly with the Soviet Union and its very effective intelligence operations, the CIA failed miserably over and over again. As late as May 1981, Weiner writes, "[t]he Soviets weighed the rhetoric and the realities of the Reagan Administration and began to fear a surprise attack by the United States. They went on a global nuclear alert that lasted for two years. The superpowers came too close for comfort to an accidental nuclear war without the CIA ever realizing it.” Former CIA director (and now secretary of Defense) Robert M. Gates, who was then the agency’s foremost Soviet analyst, told Weiner, “We did not then grasp the growing desperation of the men in the Kremlin ... how pedestrian, isolated and self-absorbed they were; how paranoid, fearful they were.”
Equally disturbing, the record shows that when it came to spy vs. spy, the Soviets had the CIA for lunch. Moscow infiltrated the OSS and the CIA from the start, planting moles who did invaluable service for the Kremlin, decade after decade. The CIA never succeeded in penetrating the Soviet regime or its intelligence agencies on any significant or consistent level.
Weiner is particularly good on Bill Clinton’s cluelessly dysfunctional relationship with the CIA -- and on its consequences. It was a devastating period for the agency, which had enjoyed a particularly favored position when one of its former directors, George H.W. Bush, occupied the White House. Clinton knew next to nothing about R. James Woolsey when he named him director, and the two met precisely twice over the next two years.
“I didn’t have a bad relationship with the president,” Woolsey said, “I just didn’t have one at all.”
Clinton further affronted the agency because he “never came to the CIA to pay respects to the dead and wounded” after a Pakistani-born gunman attacked the agency’s Langley, Va., offices in 1993. “He sent his wife instead.” According to Weiner, “It is hard to exaggerate how much fury this created at headquarters.”
That anger was equaled when Clinton ordered an entirely ineffectual response to what the CIA believed was Saddam Hussein’s attempt to kill former President Bush and members of his family when they visited Kuwait. The U.S. retaliated with a missile strike on the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence, but as Woolsey told Weiner, “Saddam tries to assassinate former President Bush and President Clinton fires a couple of dozen cruise missiles into an empty building in the middle of the night in Baghdad, thereby retaliating quite effectively against Iraqi cleaning women and night watchmen.”
Clinton also refused to accept one of the agency’s rare, real-time warnings concerning an impending international catastrophe: the genocide in Rwanda. When he chose to intervene in Haiti to support Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he discovered that the priest-turned-president’s major antagonists were drug-dealing Haitian intelligence officials, trained and financed by the CIA. As a consequence, he -- like other chief executives before him (notably Richard Nixon) -- came to believe the agency was riddled with opponents of his policies.
That was one of the reasons Clinton delegated dealing with the CIA to a national security staffer, George J. Tenet. We’re still dealing with the consequences of that mistake, though Weiner gives a far more coherent and convincing account of the agency’s failures in the run-up to the Iraq war than Tenet did in his own recent memoir.
Weiner believes in the indispensability of an intelligence agency, but he’s too good a reporter and too realistic an analyst not to weigh the possibility that, as the world’s most open society, we may lack the genius for constructing a necessarily secret institution. As he points out, during the years when the myth of the agency’s omnipotence was being constructed, the CIA “concealed its failures abroad, lying to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. It told those lies to preserve its standing in Washington. The truth, said Don Gregg, a skilled Cold War station chief, was that the agency at the height of its powers had a great reputation and a terrible record.”
In other words, we Americans may not be much good at spying, but we’re hell at public relations.