Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner review – it’s a history of the CIA!

I have finished reading Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner. I found it to be a very odd book.

On the one hand, I have no fault for Weiner’s research. Since I’ve been following the CIA for a while, much of it was known to me, but seeing it collected in one spot was moving – the CIA has done so much evil.

On the other hand, Weiner doesn’t follow his research to the obvious conclusion: that the CIA never worked, and never will, that people operating in secret cannot be trusted, and secret services are a threat to democracy and global stability. Which is to say, the CIA should be shut down for the good of the United States and the world.

Any history of the CIA, if accurate, is a history of brutality, stupidity, and incompetence. It is hard to judge if the CIA’s failures do more damage than it’s successes – though its successes are few and far between.  Weiner’s history is accurate: it charts the CIA’s brutality, stupidity, and incompetence.

In particular, the CIA’s job was to spy on the Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed, the CIA had precisely zero highly placed spies in the Soviet command. Over the course of two generations, it had recruited zero high-level spies – all the best CIA spies were Russians who contacted the Agency, not the other way around, and all CIA spies in Russia were eventually turned and then imprisoned or killed. Because it had no sources inside the USSR, the CIA spent forty years lying to American Presidents about the real threats of the USSR and were unable to predict any major Soviet action – be it suppressing Hungarian revolution, invading Afghanistan, putting missiles in Cuba. Time and again, the CIA failed in its basic mission. Along the way, it got a lot of people killed.

And it’s successes? They were things like overthrowing the legally elected Iranian President Mossadegh – which was the primary cause of the rise of religious fundamentalist leaders in Iran. Or overthrowing the legally elected government of Guatemala and supporting the brutal death squads of the banana republics. Or perhaps one wants to count the multi-decade subversion of free elections in Italy and Japan? You know. Our allies.  Some of the CIA’s best operations were against our allies.

The toxic stew of CIA incompetence and deception has gotten the US involved in unwinnable wars – particularly the CIA deception over the Gulf of Tonkin incident that got US troops into Vietnam and lies about weapons of mass destruction that abetted the invasion of Iraq.  Tens of thousands of Americans died, in part because of CIA lies and omissions.

On the other hand, Weiner, for reasons that are unfathomable to me, doesn’t seem to be reading his own book. It ends with a paean to our need for the intelligence service that the CIA never was, and never will be, lead by demigods as brave as Achilles, as cunning as Odysseus, and as wise as Solon. In short, people who do not exist. And despite an honest recounting of the damage that the CIA has done to the reputation and policy of the United States – not to mention thousands of American lives lost through CIA incompetence – Weiner never reconciles the place of covert action’s lies and treachery with the needs of democracies for openness and accountability.

The biggest flaw, though, is that he fails to provide an intelligence context. The reason the CIA was created was to prevent “another Pearl Harbor.” It ignores that the US and Japan were nearly at war for over a decade – both countries had contingencies for attack and defense. The possibility of an attack was well-known, and many intelligence assets were watching the Empire of Japan.  Right before the Pearl Harbor attack, the Navy was put on alert. While not anticipating Pearl Harbor, specifically, there was plenty of intelligence that Empire of Japan was going to attack the US. I am not promoting a conspiracy theory, here, but there was plenty of intelligence, including intel that Hawaii might be attacked. What could the CIA have done in this situation that was not already done? That was not already being done by the State Department?  The failure to “predict” Pearl Harbor was not a lack of intelligence assets, but the perplexing difficulty in analyzing intelligence.

In recent years, since about 1970, the biggest indictment of all intelligence services is that free and open inquiry works better. I’m talking about reporters, mostly, but increasingly social media. Who needs spies on the ground when you have millions of people tweeting what’s going on? When you can follow things in real time on Facebook and Periscope? It wasn’t JUST that the entire apparatus of American intelligence was wrong about, say, weapons of mass destruction, but that publicly available information – reports of UN weapon’s inspectors, journalists, human rights organizations – were RIGHT. Which just makes sense, if you ask me. Intelligence whose methodology which we can see and debate is better than intelligence whose reliability is a “trust me on this, I’m an expert.”

The truth is that the CIA doesn’t just stink at its job simply because they get people killed – the quality of their intelligence is exceeded by many other methodologies! It is an important part of the narrative that Weiner leaves out completely.

So, weird book. It contained a lot of useful information but avoided the conclusions arising naturally from the narrative.

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