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Review: "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," by Tim Weiner

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Legacy of Ashes

The Basics

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
By Tim Weiner
702 pp., Doubleday

In a few words: Tim Weiner, a 1988 winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times reporter, traces the history of the CIA from its hurried inception in 1947 to the debacle of the Iraq war--launched on the CIA's bogus, information that Iraq possessed WMDs. It's a history of failure, of fatal mistakes and lessons not learned, of never-heeded predictions of catastrophes such as 9/11, of rogue hubris and of dysfunction that got worse with time. Weiner's myth-busting book is as disheartening as it is absorbing and necessary.

Failure at Every Level

Not far from the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., there's an old torpedo factory that's now home to eight miles of microfilm. It's the CIA archive of intelligence gathered during the Viatnam war. "Never had so much intelligence meant so little," writes Tim Weiner about half way through Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. "The conduct of the war had been set by a series of lies that the leaders of the United States told one another and the American people. The White House and the Pentagon kept trying to convince the people that the war was going well. In time, the facts on the ground would prevail."

The CIA's failure to provide actionable intelligence during the Vietnam War wasn't the exception. It was the rule, and until then merely its worst failure. There'd been many before. There'd be more catastrophic failures subsequently, culminating in the failure to properly analyze an abundance of intelligence that pointed to the imminence of the 9/11 attacks, or share it with agencies that could act on it such as the FBI.

Legacy of Ashes is the 60-year history of the Central Intelligence Agency. But very little in these pages will seem new to anyone fairly familiar with the chronicle of hubris and abuse of power that was the Bush administration. Domestic spying, secret prisons, torture, "harsh" interrogations, assassinations, cooked up intelligence warning of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, too much reliance on technology instead of human intelligence? Weiner shows it was all the usual of the CIA.

The More Things Change...

CIA Logo
John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert used the CIA as their toy thing, ordering covert operations by the hundreds--and ordering the agency to spy domestically on reporters. Domestic spying was also a Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon specialty. Every president between Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford implicitly endorsed political assassinations. The Kennedy brothers elevated the state-sponsored crime to an obsession in their attempts to kill Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Secret prisons? In secret prisons in the Panama Canal zone and elsewhere, The CIA's "Artichoke" program between 1948 and 1952 experimented on human beings, drugging them, breaking them down violently to devise mind control techniques that would make interrogations impossible to outsmart. Torture? The CIA's "Phoenix Program" in Vietnam resulted in the death of thousands of Vietnamese prisoners--suspects and innocents--at the hands of CIA agents, advisers and their South Vietnamese allies.

Cooked up intelligence? Just as CIA Director George Tenet told President Bush in 2002 that the case for war against Saddam Hussein was a "slam dunk," Allen Dulles, the CIA director from 1953 to 1961, told Kennedy face to face in the White House in 1961 that the Bay of Pigs operation against Fidel Castro would be a sure success. Massaging flimsy evidence on which to base cataclysmic national policy? Well before the bogus case of Iraq's WMDs, there was the "missile gap" with the Soviet Union that the CIA invented in the early 1960s to step up American production of strategic nuclear weapons. On goes the list of familiar mendacity.

Those were some of the more overt transgressions of law that the CIA made routine. It was and remains, after all, an agency founded to operate beyond the law and with near absolute immunity from oversight or accountability.

The failures of intelligence were just as routine. Some examples: The agency failed to predict that the Soviet Union was about to acquire the atomic bomb in 1949. It failed to predict the Korean war, the Arab-Israeli war of 1956, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 (the agency was predicting at the time that the Soviet Union would endure for decades, its military capabilities intact), the rise of jihadists and al-Qaeda in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the 9/11 attacks, the Iraqi insurgency, North Korea's or Iran's development of nuclear weapons--and those are just the eye-rolling failures.

Never did the CIA have the kind of analytical or language capabilities that could effectively penetrate either the Soviet Union, Islamic regimes or terrorist organizations. It sent thousands of CIA agents to their death on harebrained missions behind the Iron Curtain but never developed the capability to infiltrate such organizations as al Qaeda. (To this day, fearing security breaches, the CIA won't hire Arab-Americans who have relatives in the Middle East.) What it did have is suit-cases full of cash and the ability to buy intelligence from friendly regimes such as Israel or Egypt or European powers.

Official Lies

abu ghraib torture

An Abu Ghraib prisoner is covered in mud and what appears to be feces.

U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)
And it had presidents willing to lie on its behalf--from Dwight Eisenhower, who lied about the U-2 spy planes overflying the Soviet Union (weather planes, was the official explanation) to Ronald Reagan, who told the American public in a national address, as the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal was exploding all around him, that "we did not--repeat--did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages." Yes, he and the team of rogue foreign-policy free-lancers he had assembled, including CIA director William Casey, did.

The second Bush took lying and CIA abuses to a level all his own.

It's not that the CIA didn't analyze itself. It did. But report after report designed to correct the agency's dysfunctions were ignored, its worst habits reinforced. After being discredited by the Iraq war, the agency's most experienced agents left or were purged, further gutting CIA capabilities even as Bush increased its budget. The result was the privatization and corporatization of intelligence: "Corporate clones of the CIA started sprouting all over the suburbs of Washington and beyond," Weiner writes. "Patriotism for profit became a $50-billion-a-year business, by some estimates, a sum about the size of the American intelligence budget itself." It had started after the end of the Cold War, when the CIA used private contractors to fill a void "created by the budget cuts that began in 1992." But after 9/11, "the outsourcing went out of control."

And that's how the CIA began employing contractors as interrogators, torturers, bomb-loaders, spies and mercenaries.

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