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With shocking revelations that made headlines in papers across the country, Pulitzer-Prize-winner Tim Weiner gets at the truth behind the CIA and uncovers here why nearly every CIA Director has left the agency in worse shape than when he found it; and how these profound failures jeopardize our national security.
Published: VintageAnchor an imprint of Random House Publishing Group on
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Availability for Legacy of Ashes; The History of the CIA
    Damning history of the CIA and its failures in both foreign and domestic involvement. Some areas still obscure and lack context, but overall cohesiveness of the book does not suffer too greatly for it.more
    Exhaustive history of the Central Intelligence Agency, tracing its ups and downs and its few successes and many failures. The allegations of political interference by virtually every presidential administration are highly disturbing, as are the tales of field agents running their own covert operations without the knowledge of the director.It's a depressing story which ends without much hopemore
    To summarize, an intelligence-gathering agency composed of civilians was formed following the end of World War II in order to inform the U.S. president of world events and threats, only to develop into a militarized and eventually privatized entity. One may feel a good deal of shame seeing the underbelly of one's country, but the truth must be known.more
    Performing a quick mental tabulation of 700 pages divided by assumed incidences of scandal and cover-ups led me to expect this tome to be composed of, like so many others, seventy-something pages of painfully dry text separating any given scandalous exposé. I was pleasantly shocked that by page 65 my thirst for absurdly messed-up stuff was fully quenched. Guided by the author’s previous NYT experience with US Intelligence, a number of key interviewees, and numerous documents declassified in the mid-aughts, this is the story about our vaunted intelligence organization that has apparently never succeeded at anything over its sixty-plus years except finding out about the Six Day War a day or two in advance. Countless covert operations met with prompt failure though occasionally these met success with the installation of rouge dictators who caused everyone problems shortly thereafter. Standard Cold War mass paranoia really defined the agency. A desperate anti-Communist-Ideology-Ideology becomes an all-encompassing. No Second or Third World locale was safe from real or perceived Commie infiltration, thus all of these places were subject to the thuggish machinations of our very own or directly sponsered, mostly diplomatically immune (though not bullet-proof it turns out), “intelligence” squads. All this for the low, low price of billions of bucks (perhaps in excess of a cool trillion overall?) that were mostly unaccounted for. It was a pretty dismal scenario but fortunately that minor aspect of wretched human/social capital predicated the eventual fall of our Soviet counterparts. This aspect, of course, went unnoticed by our intelligence experts until around 1992.Far from offering a simple breakdown of the CIA regarding its internal… breakdowns – for that would only fill 578 pages – Weiner positions the Agency in relation to the various Executive Branches throughout the years. Essentially some Chiefs took great advantage of the clandestine nature of the organization, ordering illicit hits and whatnot. Others, such as the guy from Hope, didn’t really care much for international issues and just let the CIA - now in a confused, post-Cold War disarray – languish. The peanut dude tried to use the group to enhance humanitarian efforts throughout but that simply resulted in (completely and predictably unpredicted) hijackings. Some of the more cynical members of the upper governmental echelons felt the CIA didn’t read enough newspapers to stay up to speed.Of course the shambles left after all of this – if an agency that couldn’t maintain a single Soviet insider could ever have been considered intact – doesn’t/hasn’t bode well for our more recent issues with international terrorism. Predictably all this incompetence leads to a “didn’t see that coming” 9/11, the whole WMD debacle, and so forth. It seems that if the CIA armed half of these groups to begin with, they might be able to have a bit more penetration. Of course agent candidates who speak the desperately needed foreign languages apparently have to kick ass on the English exam as well. Therefore it seems our foreign intelligence bureau is perpetually stuck with the linguistic diversity of your average State U frat house. One can only hope that this book doesn’t become quickly dated.more
    This is the book to read if you want a sweeping overview of the hubris, ignorance, and sheer destructiveness of American covert action since the inception of the CIA. The book suffers somewhat from the sheer volume of the material (which simultaneously hides some omissions and falsehoods) and a historical narrative structure, rather than an in-depth analysis of the organization. The author's does succeed in framing the CIA'S faults as a combination of personality culture, the problem of "dirty tricks" in a free society, internal tension between intelligence gathering vs. covert action, and unaccountability.Overall, it does a respectable job of providing the reader with a background on how the CIA both mid-wived and failed to foresee the September 11th attacks, and how it continues to fail in both its overt and covert goals.more
    An important book. Lays out the role and (mostly) the failures of the CIA. If you want to know if Congress was lied to, this is the book to read (the answer is yes -- for decades) Written and edited well enough to make it worthwhile to read such a tome.more
    Interesting history with little bias, though I'm sure there was some there. A lot of dates and names to keep track of, but that is expected of a history book.more
    Using only publicly available sources the author covers the CIA from the post war period through 2006. The main thesis is that the CIA is incompetent and always has been. Argument is very persuasive that the early CIA was a disaster as it focused on paramilitary activities. Much less is discussed in the 70's and 80's, except major news stories, fall of the Shah etc..., and the role the CIA played in those events.more
    I waited years for this book! Always wanted to know if my gut was right about what was really going on - sadly it was. Every American should read this and one of the questions we should ask the canidates for pres is "What are you going to do about the CIA?" It really is an important topic.more
    The New York Times Sunday Book Review of 7/22/07 described Tim Weiner’s history of the CIA as “a litany of failure” but I’m not sure I agree that this was the only message of the book. Certainly there are many descriptions of intelligence failures, from not foreseeing the explosion of the Soviet atomic bomb to ignoring the warnings that ended in the destruction of the World Trade Centers. But the CIA engaged in a lot of more “successful” activities as well, most notably, contributing to the toppling of foreign unwanted regimes. (And it should be noted “unwanted” means by the U.S. rather than the citizens of the country in question.) In fact, when CIA operatives decided a ruler needed to be deposed, the U.S. President was often the last to know. During the Eisenhower regime, the Dulles brothers for example (one verifiably crazy and the other arguably crazy) largely took matters into their own hands in getting rid of Mossadegh in Iran (we’re still suffering the blowback from that one) and Arbenz in Guatemala. In each case, the threat of Communism was used as an excuse, but greed for natural resources seemed to be the actual reason for fomenting unrest, economic deprivation, murders, and misery. (Mossadegh reportedly abhorred Communism, but committed the grave sin of wanting a larger (and more equitable) share of his country’s oil profits from the British, who owned the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In the case of Arbenz, when no evidence could be found of Communist influence, our Ambassador told the Dulles brothers that “If he is not a Communist, he will certainly do until one comes along.”) The book begins with the establishment of the OSS in 1942 and takes us up to the beginning of 2007. Since Weiner is drawing almost exclusively from documents and interviews from former CIA members and Congressional committee inquiries, his history isn’t as hard-hitting as it might have been. Details about drug-running, assassinations, regime undermining, torture and dirty tricks really get pretty short shrift, even though they have formed the core of the CIA’s field activities since its formation. As a rule, though, the farther back in history he goes, the more information he has. (In some instances, however, such as the CIA’s LSD experiments, he admits that most documentation was destroyed. Similarly, regarding the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy’s assassination (which followed, apparently, many attempts by the “ferret-like” Bobby Kennedy to assassinate Castro), most witnesses are dead and left no written testimony behind.) As Weiner moves into more recent times, his coverage gets scantier. Nixon and Kissinger should have had the same very extensive coverage as John and Bobby Kennedy; certainly the former caused even more heartache in Central America than the latter (though not for want of trying). Our involvement in Afghanistan (detailed extensively in other books such as “Charlie Wilson’s War”) gets virtually no coverage whatsoever by Weiner. And what about the whole Valerie Plame scandal? Not a word. And perhaps the most glaring omission of all: no more than a fleeting reference to the FBI and its relationship to the CIA and role in the same operations.Nevertheless, this book is a good start for exploring the background of the CIA: who the major players have been, what the interaction has been like with the other government agencies, and what role we have played in the seemingly “internal” affairs of other nations. The book is interesting, and maddening –one listens incredulously to the grim and endless recital of our sins and omissions abroad and our failure, even today, to learn from them. Still, this book has its own omissions, and thus is only a first step to understanding the place of the U.S. in today’s world.(JAF)more
    Hmmm.The entire modern history of the CIA is shown to be a bitter brew of failure and hubris.Hard to believe.Yet Tim Weiner spins a believable and detailed story.Whoever is the next President should read this and then issue an Executive Order to shut the whole slime pit down that same day.Start over and hire some talented and proven people to run the next one. A great read.more
    A very readable, single volume history of the CIA which proports to be based exclusively on available sources. Obviously one cannot undertake a task of this magnitude on this topic without having people come out with a number of large and small quibbles. The best and most fair (and thorough) description of the quibbles that I have read is on the CIA website itself. Nothing that I have seen, however, convinces me that it not worth reading this excellent book.There are two big weaknesses in the history. The first is that the information almost exclusively covers clausdine services with only minimal information given on fact finding, especialy the role of improved technology on fact finding. The second weakness is that the CIA failures (most emphasized by the author) and successes are not put in context of agencies with similar mandates in other countries. Were other countries predicting what the US was not?more
    60 years of CIA history as largely an exercise in futility and failure, per NYT correspondent Tim Weiner. To be fair, though, it seems hard to avoid paralysis given the paradoxical nature of its mission. John Hamre, former deputy secretary of defense and president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says: "It is an organization that thrives through deception. How do you manage an organization like that?" Weiner amplifies this point: "How do you run a secret intelligence service in an open democracy? How do you serve the truth by lying? How do you spread democracy by deceit?" (p. 501)Persistent problems include overemphasis of covert ops at expense of strategic intelligence gathering, chronic shortage of qualified agents with necessary language and diplomatic skills, and of course politicization of intelligence.Weiner issues a sober warning (p. xvii): "No republic in history has lasted longer than three hundred years, and this nation may not long endure as a great power unless it finds the eyes to see things as they are in the world. That once was the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency."more
    Just received the review copy of this book. My first reaction is that it is a must for anyone who reads books about intelligence -- it is the first single-volume history of the CIA's entire lifetime written completely from original sources and without using classifed or unattributed data. (For which the author deserves maximum kudos!)That being said, I am not entirely satisfied with the book -- I have a nagging feeling that it's written at the wrong level of resolution. By which I mean it is focused on providing narrative accounts of the activities of a relatively few high-level managers and Washington bureaucrats, rather than providing a detailed operational assessment of the CIA's effectiveness. The author is clearly aware that such assessments exist -- he draws on them extensively in early chapters, for example in the discussion of the suicidal (and rather provocative from today's perspective!) missions to paradrop hundreds if not thousands agents into the Soviet Union, China, and Korea during the 1950s. I found myself hungering for some synthesis tables -- a list, perhaps, of publicly documented CIA projects in the 50s and 60s, and their outcomes. In essence, I am wishing that this book was written by a worldly academic rather than a journalist. This is an "inside the Beltway" Woodward-style story, rather than an operational history. I can't blame the author for this choice, since in all likelihood the audience for a Woodward-style book is at least 10x the audience for an operational history, but it does mean that the book has a hard time living up to its advance billing as a complete history of the CIA.More later, as I read on.more
    Read all 15 reviews

    Reviews

    Damning history of the CIA and its failures in both foreign and domestic involvement. Some areas still obscure and lack context, but overall cohesiveness of the book does not suffer too greatly for it.more
    Exhaustive history of the Central Intelligence Agency, tracing its ups and downs and its few successes and many failures. The allegations of political interference by virtually every presidential administration are highly disturbing, as are the tales of field agents running their own covert operations without the knowledge of the director.It's a depressing story which ends without much hopemore
    To summarize, an intelligence-gathering agency composed of civilians was formed following the end of World War II in order to inform the U.S. president of world events and threats, only to develop into a militarized and eventually privatized entity. One may feel a good deal of shame seeing the underbelly of one's country, but the truth must be known.more
    Performing a quick mental tabulation of 700 pages divided by assumed incidences of scandal and cover-ups led me to expect this tome to be composed of, like so many others, seventy-something pages of painfully dry text separating any given scandalous exposé. I was pleasantly shocked that by page 65 my thirst for absurdly messed-up stuff was fully quenched. Guided by the author’s previous NYT experience with US Intelligence, a number of key interviewees, and numerous documents declassified in the mid-aughts, this is the story about our vaunted intelligence organization that has apparently never succeeded at anything over its sixty-plus years except finding out about the Six Day War a day or two in advance. Countless covert operations met with prompt failure though occasionally these met success with the installation of rouge dictators who caused everyone problems shortly thereafter. Standard Cold War mass paranoia really defined the agency. A desperate anti-Communist-Ideology-Ideology becomes an all-encompassing. No Second or Third World locale was safe from real or perceived Commie infiltration, thus all of these places were subject to the thuggish machinations of our very own or directly sponsered, mostly diplomatically immune (though not bullet-proof it turns out), “intelligence” squads. All this for the low, low price of billions of bucks (perhaps in excess of a cool trillion overall?) that were mostly unaccounted for. It was a pretty dismal scenario but fortunately that minor aspect of wretched human/social capital predicated the eventual fall of our Soviet counterparts. This aspect, of course, went unnoticed by our intelligence experts until around 1992.Far from offering a simple breakdown of the CIA regarding its internal… breakdowns – for that would only fill 578 pages – Weiner positions the Agency in relation to the various Executive Branches throughout the years. Essentially some Chiefs took great advantage of the clandestine nature of the organization, ordering illicit hits and whatnot. Others, such as the guy from Hope, didn’t really care much for international issues and just let the CIA - now in a confused, post-Cold War disarray – languish. The peanut dude tried to use the group to enhance humanitarian efforts throughout but that simply resulted in (completely and predictably unpredicted) hijackings. Some of the more cynical members of the upper governmental echelons felt the CIA didn’t read enough newspapers to stay up to speed.Of course the shambles left after all of this – if an agency that couldn’t maintain a single Soviet insider could ever have been considered intact – doesn’t/hasn’t bode well for our more recent issues with international terrorism. Predictably all this incompetence leads to a “didn’t see that coming” 9/11, the whole WMD debacle, and so forth. It seems that if the CIA armed half of these groups to begin with, they might be able to have a bit more penetration. Of course agent candidates who speak the desperately needed foreign languages apparently have to kick ass on the English exam as well. Therefore it seems our foreign intelligence bureau is perpetually stuck with the linguistic diversity of your average State U frat house. One can only hope that this book doesn’t become quickly dated.more
    This is the book to read if you want a sweeping overview of the hubris, ignorance, and sheer destructiveness of American covert action since the inception of the CIA. The book suffers somewhat from the sheer volume of the material (which simultaneously hides some omissions and falsehoods) and a historical narrative structure, rather than an in-depth analysis of the organization. The author's does succeed in framing the CIA'S faults as a combination of personality culture, the problem of "dirty tricks" in a free society, internal tension between intelligence gathering vs. covert action, and unaccountability.Overall, it does a respectable job of providing the reader with a background on how the CIA both mid-wived and failed to foresee the September 11th attacks, and how it continues to fail in both its overt and covert goals.more
    An important book. Lays out the role and (mostly) the failures of the CIA. If you want to know if Congress was lied to, this is the book to read (the answer is yes -- for decades) Written and edited well enough to make it worthwhile to read such a tome.more
    Interesting history with little bias, though I'm sure there was some there. A lot of dates and names to keep track of, but that is expected of a history book.more
    Using only publicly available sources the author covers the CIA from the post war period through 2006. The main thesis is that the CIA is incompetent and always has been. Argument is very persuasive that the early CIA was a disaster as it focused on paramilitary activities. Much less is discussed in the 70's and 80's, except major news stories, fall of the Shah etc..., and the role the CIA played in those events.more
    I waited years for this book! Always wanted to know if my gut was right about what was really going on - sadly it was. Every American should read this and one of the questions we should ask the canidates for pres is "What are you going to do about the CIA?" It really is an important topic.more
    The New York Times Sunday Book Review of 7/22/07 described Tim Weiner’s history of the CIA as “a litany of failure” but I’m not sure I agree that this was the only message of the book. Certainly there are many descriptions of intelligence failures, from not foreseeing the explosion of the Soviet atomic bomb to ignoring the warnings that ended in the destruction of the World Trade Centers. But the CIA engaged in a lot of more “successful” activities as well, most notably, contributing to the toppling of foreign unwanted regimes. (And it should be noted “unwanted” means by the U.S. rather than the citizens of the country in question.) In fact, when CIA operatives decided a ruler needed to be deposed, the U.S. President was often the last to know. During the Eisenhower regime, the Dulles brothers for example (one verifiably crazy and the other arguably crazy) largely took matters into their own hands in getting rid of Mossadegh in Iran (we’re still suffering the blowback from that one) and Arbenz in Guatemala. In each case, the threat of Communism was used as an excuse, but greed for natural resources seemed to be the actual reason for fomenting unrest, economic deprivation, murders, and misery. (Mossadegh reportedly abhorred Communism, but committed the grave sin of wanting a larger (and more equitable) share of his country’s oil profits from the British, who owned the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In the case of Arbenz, when no evidence could be found of Communist influence, our Ambassador told the Dulles brothers that “If he is not a Communist, he will certainly do until one comes along.”) The book begins with the establishment of the OSS in 1942 and takes us up to the beginning of 2007. Since Weiner is drawing almost exclusively from documents and interviews from former CIA members and Congressional committee inquiries, his history isn’t as hard-hitting as it might have been. Details about drug-running, assassinations, regime undermining, torture and dirty tricks really get pretty short shrift, even though they have formed the core of the CIA’s field activities since its formation. As a rule, though, the farther back in history he goes, the more information he has. (In some instances, however, such as the CIA’s LSD experiments, he admits that most documentation was destroyed. Similarly, regarding the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy’s assassination (which followed, apparently, many attempts by the “ferret-like” Bobby Kennedy to assassinate Castro), most witnesses are dead and left no written testimony behind.) As Weiner moves into more recent times, his coverage gets scantier. Nixon and Kissinger should have had the same very extensive coverage as John and Bobby Kennedy; certainly the former caused even more heartache in Central America than the latter (though not for want of trying). Our involvement in Afghanistan (detailed extensively in other books such as “Charlie Wilson’s War”) gets virtually no coverage whatsoever by Weiner. And what about the whole Valerie Plame scandal? Not a word. And perhaps the most glaring omission of all: no more than a fleeting reference to the FBI and its relationship to the CIA and role in the same operations.Nevertheless, this book is a good start for exploring the background of the CIA: who the major players have been, what the interaction has been like with the other government agencies, and what role we have played in the seemingly “internal” affairs of other nations. The book is interesting, and maddening –one listens incredulously to the grim and endless recital of our sins and omissions abroad and our failure, even today, to learn from them. Still, this book has its own omissions, and thus is only a first step to understanding the place of the U.S. in today’s world.(JAF)more
    Hmmm.The entire modern history of the CIA is shown to be a bitter brew of failure and hubris.Hard to believe.Yet Tim Weiner spins a believable and detailed story.Whoever is the next President should read this and then issue an Executive Order to shut the whole slime pit down that same day.Start over and hire some talented and proven people to run the next one. A great read.more
    A very readable, single volume history of the CIA which proports to be based exclusively on available sources. Obviously one cannot undertake a task of this magnitude on this topic without having people come out with a number of large and small quibbles. The best and most fair (and thorough) description of the quibbles that I have read is on the CIA website itself. Nothing that I have seen, however, convinces me that it not worth reading this excellent book.There are two big weaknesses in the history. The first is that the information almost exclusively covers clausdine services with only minimal information given on fact finding, especialy the role of improved technology on fact finding. The second weakness is that the CIA failures (most emphasized by the author) and successes are not put in context of agencies with similar mandates in other countries. Were other countries predicting what the US was not?more
    60 years of CIA history as largely an exercise in futility and failure, per NYT correspondent Tim Weiner. To be fair, though, it seems hard to avoid paralysis given the paradoxical nature of its mission. John Hamre, former deputy secretary of defense and president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says: "It is an organization that thrives through deception. How do you manage an organization like that?" Weiner amplifies this point: "How do you run a secret intelligence service in an open democracy? How do you serve the truth by lying? How do you spread democracy by deceit?" (p. 501)Persistent problems include overemphasis of covert ops at expense of strategic intelligence gathering, chronic shortage of qualified agents with necessary language and diplomatic skills, and of course politicization of intelligence.Weiner issues a sober warning (p. xvii): "No republic in history has lasted longer than three hundred years, and this nation may not long endure as a great power unless it finds the eyes to see things as they are in the world. That once was the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency."more
    Just received the review copy of this book. My first reaction is that it is a must for anyone who reads books about intelligence -- it is the first single-volume history of the CIA's entire lifetime written completely from original sources and without using classifed or unattributed data. (For which the author deserves maximum kudos!)That being said, I am not entirely satisfied with the book -- I have a nagging feeling that it's written at the wrong level of resolution. By which I mean it is focused on providing narrative accounts of the activities of a relatively few high-level managers and Washington bureaucrats, rather than providing a detailed operational assessment of the CIA's effectiveness. The author is clearly aware that such assessments exist -- he draws on them extensively in early chapters, for example in the discussion of the suicidal (and rather provocative from today's perspective!) missions to paradrop hundreds if not thousands agents into the Soviet Union, China, and Korea during the 1950s. I found myself hungering for some synthesis tables -- a list, perhaps, of publicly documented CIA projects in the 50s and 60s, and their outcomes. In essence, I am wishing that this book was written by a worldly academic rather than a journalist. This is an "inside the Beltway" Woodward-style story, rather than an operational history. I can't blame the author for this choice, since in all likelihood the audience for a Woodward-style book is at least 10x the audience for an operational history, but it does mean that the book has a hard time living up to its advance billing as a complete history of the CIA.More later, as I read on.more
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