Friday, October 5, 2012

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

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

Author: Tim Weiner

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Date Published: June, 2007 (Hardcover Edition)

Pages: 848 (Trade Paper Edition, including notes)

This book begins with a quote from 17th century French literary figure Jean Racine: “There are no secrets that time does not reveal.”  It appears that time, the Freedom of Information Act and author Tim Weiner have revealed many of the most closely kept secrets of CIA.  They also have shattered any myth of competence and exposed the many weaknesses of and abuses of power by CIA in its sixty year history.  Tim Weiner is a respected investigative journalist, having written about American intelligence for “The New York Times” for over twenty years and received a Pulitzer Prize for his work on secret national security programs.

The book is divided by presidential administration, beginning with the founding of CIA under Harry Truman.  The title of the book is derived from a quote by Dwight Eisenhower and summarizes his assessment of the intelligence community’s performance during his administration and what he was leaving for the incoming President, John F. Kennedy.

The purpose for founding CIA was to provide accurate information to the President regarding our enemies as well as allies so that the President and cabinet could then make intelligent foreign policy decisions.  The battle early on was between “information gatherers” and “covert operators”.  Eventually the covert ops advocates took charge, mainly under the influence of the first Director, Allen Dulles.  Covert operations eventually expanded to include fomenting revolution (Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia and more), assassinations and domestic spying.

Two of the more shocking and frightening parts of the book are the accounts of CIA’s involvement in the assassination of President Diem of South Vietnam under the direction of John and Robert Kennedy as well as the multiple CIA attempts on the life of Fidel Castro.  The book implies that the subsequent assassination of JFK was direct retaliation by Cuba.  CIA knew of contacts between Lee Harvey Oswald and the Cuban embassy in Mexico City in the weeks leading up to November 22, 1963.  Some of this information was withheld from the Warren Commission and many on that Commission were skeptical of their conclusions (including a young representative, Gerald Ford, who was keeping CIA briefed on all of the proceedings).

The second shocking revelation is the outright lies that many Presidents have told the Congress as well as the American people about CIA activities.  These include Dwight Eisenhower lying about U2 spy plane missions over the Soviet Union and Ronald Regan stating unequivocally in his State of the Union message that the United States never supplied arms to Iran when CIA had, in fact, done just that with the full awareness of the Chief Executive. 

Parts of the book read like a Laurel and Hardy comedy.  One example is the U.S. Army aiding and supplying President Sukarno of Indonesia as he fought a coup attempt from his own military which was sponsored by and supplied by CIA.  A second example is the attempts at putting agents on the ground in North Korea during the Korean War.  Every agent dropped into the North was immediately captured and either killed or turned into a double agent within twenty four hours of being deployed. 

The recent intelligence failures regarding Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden and Iraq are all well documented and are the final “mind bogglers” in this narrative.  Although there was a Presidential caveat to eliminate Bin Laden during the Clinton administration, CIA missed opportunity after opportunity because (at least in Mr. Weiner’s opinion) of George Tenet’s reticence.  The fiasco of the cruise missile which was launched to take out a munitions cache in Bosnia and instead destroyed the Chinese embassy was based on faulty CIA intelligence.  The now infamous “unequivocal proof” of the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was based on CIA data from one very unreliable source and came second hand from Germany.  That “intelligence” was also years old when it was given to the White House and used as justification for the invasion of Iraq.  All of the pundits who decry George W. Bush’s domestic surveillance and abuse of personal rights and liberties should understand that this type of thing has been going on since the inception of CIA.  CIA was used for domestic spying in the 50s against suspected communists, in the 60s and 70s against civil rights advocates and the anti-war movement and now against suspected terrorists.

This book is a thorough (605 pages plus 175 pages of notes and footnotes) discussion and explanation of American foreign policy over the last sixty years.  If you haven’t read a newspaper in decades or believe that everything that America does in the world is right and just and motivated by good intentions, this book will shock and infuriate you.  If you are cynical about our representative government and believe that power corrupts, this book will do nothing but support that view.  If you are the least bit paranoid, you probably should not read this book at all.  Let’s hope that future presidents have either read this book or have it next on their “must read” list so that they don’t fall into the same traps and temptations as their predecessors.

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