235 of 251 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 2007
As Tim Weiner makes clear in the first pages of this book, the driving force for the creation of CIA was to establish a clearing house where all intelligence information available to the U.S. could collated, vetted, and organized into coherent knowledge. And as he also makes clear this mission was subverted and overshadowed from the start by the culture of the veterans of the WWII Office of Strategic Services (OSS) who dominated the early CIA. These veterans were far more comfortable with covert action and clandestine collection of intelligence than desk bound intelligence analysis. So from the time of its creation to the present, the Directorate of Intelligence (analytic shop) has existed in the shadow of the Directorate of Operations (DO). Virtually every CIA Director from the beginning has focused on one or all of the following: initiating DO operations; cleaning up messes left by DO operations; or reorganizing the DO to do a better job.
This book is a case in point. Although ostensibly about CIA as an institution, the book really focuses on DO and its alleged failures. This fascination with the DO by journalists, Presidents, and CIA Directors has allowed the analytic arm of CIA to atrophy from almost the very first. Yet the many failures and embarrassments that Weiner has chosen to chronicle in this book are as much the fault of DI as DO.
Now this book is essentially a massive and well written critique of CIA and especially the DO. For the most part it is pretty accurate, but as CIA has pointed out in a rather pitiful rebuttal of the book, it is not entirely fair and balanced. For example, in 1998 India exploded a nuclear weapon to the utter surprise and amazement of the entire U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). Weiner jumps on the CIA in particular for its failure to predict this event. What he did not mention was the fact that India used its considerable knowledge of the workings of the U.S. Intelligence System to develop and execute a masterful denial and deception program. Further, India has a world class counter-intelligence service that makes collection of secret intelligence in India a very dicey proposition in the best of circumstances. True CIA was guilty in this instance of mirror imaging and failed to creatively use a number of clues available from secret and open sources, but it also had a really tough nut to crack, As Weiner chronicles the many missteps that CIA has made, he would be more credible had he also gone into a bit more detail about the impressive obstacles faced by CIA operations officers. In the end this is a fascinating book that accurately chronicles a part, but not the entire CIA story.
111 of 132 people found the following review helpful
The incident which gives this book its title reveals something essential about its tone and direction. At the end of his two - terms of office President Eisenhower called into his office, the former legendary OSS officer and director of the CIA Allen Dulles, and said to him point- blank. " After eight years you have left me , a "legacy of ashes." In other words the institution whose task it was to provide vital intelligence to the U.S. Executive on world - affairs had not done its job. Eisenhower was concerned about what legacy would be handed on to his successor, President Kennedy. And surely enough some months later 'The Bay of Pigs' fiasco occurred in great part because of the faulty plan and information provided by the CIA's Richard Bissell. Bissell believed an infiltrating semi- Army of 1600 would easily defeat Castro's sixty- thousand troops. The result was the Kennedy Administration's first major disaster.
The two - sides of Intelligence work, the gathering of information, and the undertaking of covert operations are generously surveyed in this work. Weiner a long- time reporter for the NY Times devoted twenty- years to this book, and in the course of it read through fifty- thousand declassified CIA Intelligence documents. He also interviewed ten former directors of the CIA.
He points out errors made all along the way. Frank Wisner at the beginning ignored 'intelligence gathering' and sent during the Korean War thousands of hired agents to suicidal behind- the- enemy- lines operations. In the Bay of Pigs fiasco and in numerous other operations the CIA instead of providing hard, truthful contradictory analysis essentially worked to politically support a prior decision of the Executive branch. Speaking 'truth to power' has not been its essential strong point.
Weiner understands the difficulty of having a spy agency in a democracy where there is always a certain discomfort regarding covert operations. His argument is nonetheless not about the wrongness of having such an Agency in a Democracy, but rather about the too frequent failures of judgment and action.
This book is extremely rich , providing new insight into a great share of American post- war history. It touches upon almost all the major conflicts. It also chronicles CIA successes wherever they have occurred, It is not in other words a one- sided politically motivated bashing of the Agency but rather a thoughtful, informative, challenging study that may provide valuable guidance as to how the Agency should be reformed to better confront the many security challenges the U.S. is facing today.
142 of 183 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2007
While Legacy of Ashes provides interesting bits of information regarding the CIA's distant and recent past, it is not good history because it provides almost no context for the events that it describes. It leaves one with the impression of a CIA populated by comic book bad guys, lunatics and clowns.
In the Second World War and the period immediately thereafter, having been forced out of a self-imposed hiatus from dealing with the rest of the world, the United States had come face-to-face with totalitarianisms and the unparalleled carnage they had wrought. We learned of the Nazi death camps, the victims of communism in countries that were grist for the Soviet mill and, as time went on, untold millions who died for Mao's Marxist experiments in China. It should be no surprise that those who witnessed the slaughter and destruction that followed what appeared to be a triumphant march of ideology would be able to justify extreme measures to slow it down. This central reality gave rise to dramatic changes in the U.S. military including the build-up of a nuclear arsenal, the Marshall plan, communist "witch hunts", the space program, and the CIA. In short, the world was a very different and much more dangerous place than we had imagined, the U.S. was the only major western nation left intact, and we were struggling to find effective ways to deal with existential threats.
Unfortunately, very little of this context is provided in Legacy of Ashes. Too often we are left with nothing but the operational details of failed efforts to accomplish - what? The CIA and/or the White House wanted to overthrow Guatemala and Iran or assassinate Castro because personalities were enamored of covert operations?
That so many efforts were poorly thought out or poorly executed can be instructive, but, again, not without more context. Although rarely mentioned, the Soviets were engaged in covert operations around the world, including assassinations, coups and the arming and training of some stunningly unsavory characters. Were the Soviets more successful? If so, why? Is there something about our national character or form of governance that makes us preternaturally unable to succeed in the arena of covert operations and intelligence? In recent years the United States appears to have reached a consensus view that many of the types of efforts to which the early CIA devoted enormous energy should not be a part of our arsenal. Is this view correct in light of the very different types of threats we now face? Unfortunately, these important topics are not considered in any depth in this book.
Finally, I was left to wonder whether the author's reliance on primary and secondary documents and interviews with former CIA staff led him to accept their biases even as he criticized the agency. In particular his treatment of Vietnam seems insufficiently critical of conclusions reached by CIA analysis. For example, his treatments of Diem and the role of the Buddhist monks are facile and superficial. And I was surprised by his apparent acceptance of the notion that the war was not winnable because of the size and strength of the Viet Cong and that the Tet offensive provided evidence of this. In fact, the Tet offensive was a catastrophic military defeat for the Viet Cong which left it routed. It never again played any significant role in the war which became increasingly conventional, right through the Easter offensive in 1972, which the ARVN with U.S. air power defeated, and the final invasion in 1975 which saw Soviet tanks rolling through Saigon. But the author appears to accept the CIA's contemporaneous assessments over those of subsequent history.
While the author has clearly put a great deal of work into this volume, it is more of a greatly expanded news article - heavy on details while short on context - than the history of the CIA that the nation needs, and may have to wait many years to get.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2007
This is a very thoroughly-researched and well-documented history of the CIA, from its inception in 1947 to the present day. The author, Tim Weiner, is a New York Times reporter who has covered the agency for many years. His book is based on more than 50,000 documents from the CIA archives, many of them recently declassified. It is stronger on events that happened more than, say, twenty years ago, since documents on the last two decades still remain classified.
This is primarily a history of the CIA's failures, and the list of failures is very long. Even some of the agency's rare successes ultimately end up as unintended consequences. The outright failures were failures of intelligence, events that the agency was unable to foresee such as the Soviet explosion of the atomic bomb, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and, more recently, the 9/11 attacks. Failures to predict the future are somewhat forgivable since they are crimes of omission or just plain incompetence.
The author tells us that the CIA's mission from the beginning was problematic. It has the duel task of collecting intelligence and conducting covert operations. This combination is a dangerous mix in that it will end up corrupting the integrity of both. Many of the covert operations such as the Bay of Pigs were undeniable failures. But many of the so-called successes such as aiding Islamic warriors against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or installing the Shah in Iran turned out to be very short-lived. The unintended consequences or "blowback" have come back to haunt in a very big way. This is not to say that the CIA is responsible for the current state of Iran or Afghanistan, that would be giving them too much credit. The emphasis of this book is about the CIA's ineffectiveness.
Weiner seems more concerned about the incompetence of the agency than their immorality. Unlike the post-Watergate screeds against the CIA calling for its termination, this author wants to build a better agency. This is laudable. Anyone who thinks the United States does not need an intelligence agency is living in a dream world. Whether we need covert operations is still an open question. The morality of these operations need to be discussed before they can be conducted.
Weiner's first step in building a better agency would be hiring competent personnel who speak the language and know the history and culture of the country where they are stationed. (Read Amazon reviewer and former spy Robert D Steele, who has written at great length on this subject.) The current practise of hiring political cronies to foreign stations would be laughable if it weren't so tragic. Weiner's account of the student takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 is a good example. They captured William Daugherty, head of CIA station. They accused him of masterminding a vast spy network in the Middle East. In reality Daugherty had only worked for the agency nine months and didn't speak the language. No intelligence there.
In the back of my mind I can't help thinking that the agency must have gotten some things right, and that Weiner is only giving half of the balance sheet. It must be noted that failures make good reading, and that the prevention of a disaster or a terrorist act does not. In any event, this book is a good read and hopefully it will make the agency more circumspect about its future operations.
32 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2010
Has there ever been more scrutiny and criticism of an organization that is suppose to operate in secret? At its formation from the remnants of the OSS, the CIA was always playing "catch-up" with other nation's counterparts who were more practiced at the 'great game'. Then in short order, its many missteps brought about distrust from its own government and people. Despite this, the CIA managed to maintain a formidable reputation in spite of its truly awful record.
Its purpose or mission was to know the world. Soon that came to entail exporting and cementing democracy. The result, in the words of President Eisenhower, is "a legacy of ashes." Weiner's book delivers on two levels. First, it offers up a definitive history of the CIA activities (much you may have read before but the whole effort is more comprehensive). But more importantly, he provides an analysis of why the organization has been such a debated failure giving credence to the theory that its brand is more valuable than its substance.
History will show that the US missed a critical opportunity to totally revamp its entire intelligence apparatus in the wake of 9/11 rather than simply applying bandaids and creating an umbrella structure for competing organizations.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2012
As a conservative I picked this book up expecting another liberal hit piece against the people who keep us safe. Surprisingly enough I was impressed by the appearance of objectivity of the author. Using primary sources and countless interviews from former employees and CIA directors the author tells a story of the CIA that is quite alarming. As the title indicates this is about the failures of the CIA since its inception following WWII. What we learn is that right from the beginning the CIA deviated from its intended mission: collecting accurate intelligence to aid policy makers and the president. Instead the CIA began on a track of attempting to be a cloak and dagger agency; getting involved with political assassination, swinging foreign elections, aiding coups, and sabotage.
Though the original minds and spies at the CIA were bold and wanted to penetrate the USSR and subvert the global spread of communism, their track record of success is pitiful. In the business of national security good intentions can be deadly. Results preserve peace and the CIA did not deliver when it mattered.
The book is a chronology of its failed missions and almost criminal negligence in its expenditure of men and money. The CIA was created to stop another Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and it failed...miserably. This book explains how.
Sure there were some successes but they were few and far between and this book explains them well. Some of book beween Korea and Vietnam were a tad long winded but it's important for the book.
Some key points of interest were how the CIA interpreted the JFK assassination (not to spoil it) but it's obvious they weren't involved; they weren't that good! George H.W. Bush is still regarded as a CIA favorite director despite not really doing too much. The CIA kept Reagan in the dark about the Iran-Contra deals, and Clinton didn't give a crap about the CIA. When it comes to W the book gets interesting. I expected the author to ring Bush's neck but instead he points a very clear picture about why the administration decided to move forward with Iraq and why their assessments about WBDs were wrong. There is no evidence that Bush lied but in instead the CIA was downright wrong, irresponsible and incompetent. This book faults all the presidents to some degree but since I couldn't find clear bias though I was looking for it I am satisfied on this books objectivity. The future doesn't look too bright for the CIA and in fact their covert activity is clearly best left to the military. The image of Hollywood and popular fiction painting the CIA as an omnipotent agency capable of amazing James Bond-ish success is clearly a fantasy.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Weiner has written an interesting and compelling polemic against the CIA. He maintains that the CIA is an incompetent organization that has never fulfilled its mission of providing reliable central intelligence, but that it has been quite good at political survival and creating an image for itself. In the process, the CIA has done damage to our democratic institutions -- lying to the President, running rogue operations overseas that depose or kill leaders, and engaging in domestic spying.
But Weiner is so focused on criticizing that he ends up doing a bit of a hatchet job on the Agency. The CIA has to be given its due for some of its successes, and its failures are symptomatic of far larger problems than the incompetence of one agency. For example, Weiner acknowledges that the CIA got Vietnam right, but then bowed to polical pressure to rubber stamp the military's erroneous counting of the insurgency and assumption that it was winning a war of attrition. And Director Helms resists Nixon's directive to feed to the Watergate burglars the Agency's vast store of secret cash -- yet the Agency cannot ultimately resist the temptation to expand the war on American enemies to domestic targets. As for the Cold War, it is the survival instinct of the Agency that perhaps explains its move after the 1960s to vastly exaggerate the power of the Soviets.
Weiner is devastating in recounting the remarkable failures of the Agency to plant overseas spies against totalitarian governments. But that may well be more of a function of the inherent advantages of controlled societies to ferret out such threats -- our society is simply not structured to do as good a job.
Also infuriating is the Agency's habit of throwing huge amounts of cash around to buy or influence foreign leaders. Throwing money at problems works no better abroad than it does at home.
Weiner does not offer prescriptions for reform. But implicit in his narrative is the idea that the Agency's spy wing must be a far smaller and more elite group to be effective (and must include recruits who aren't yuppies). Perhaps the spy wing would be the elite status that all agents strive for, but that many are cut from (and are given different tasks in the organization better suited to their skills). Also, the Agency is simply too political. If its size were cut significantly but its budget for an elite organization were guaranteed and if the Director were more of a nonpartisan person (perhaps selected like the head of the Fed or the head of the FBI), perhaps the Agency would run better.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2012
Did we know it all or is there lots of news here? I remember WWII, Korea, the '56 war, Guatemala, The Wall, Cuba, Lumumba, Lebanon, The DR, Vietnam, Iran, Iran #2, the Mayaguez, Chile, etc. etc. Revisionist Cold War history indicted the CIA. It makes me despair. There are real enemies, but the CIA needed enemies to justify its existence. What I didn't know was the culpability of presidents. Leaving Roosevelt aside, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes and Clinton all hand a hand in the pot. Carter way have the least blame though he is not blameless, and Clinton's CIA may not have had much capability. The CIA lied to them all. It messed up time after time and except during the Church committee hearings dodged most of the deadly bullets. But then presidents got the CIA to go along even when it knew much better. Maybe only Johnson and McNamara, reading CIA assessments of Vietnam, saw the handwriting on the wall. Other presidents didn't want to hear contrary advise. So Chaney and Bush browbeat the CIA but for all presidents the CIA served up only the facts the head of state wanted to hear. That the CIA did internal surveillance and went after its domestic enemies seemed known. But its shear incompetence overwhelms my anarchistic soul. It couldn't pull things off almost anywhere around the globe despite its few victories, like the Shah (after an earlier notorious failure), Guatemala and a few Soviet deserters. Its ineptitude killed people wholesale. Hundreds of saboteurs and spies dropped into Korea, China, Soviet dominated Europe and Tibet were lambs for the slaughter. Having a mole in the CIA who alerted the enemies of drop sites didn't help. The CIA did not seems to care about nor ever accept blame for the stupidity that lead to the sacrifices. Although the Tibetans never mention it the CIA was doing this until 1969 and still had the Dalai Lama on their payroll afterwards. But then that is what they seemed to be the best at, paying off foreign government officials and influencing elections. The numbers of their flunkies are legion: the Japanese ruling party since WWII, Conservative German politicians, Italy, Greece, Thailand and on and on. The CIA didn't mind if their payees were, or morphed into, fascists as long as they were anti-communist.
It might be said that democracy can't breed foreign agents. The Soviets, and less so the British, found dedicated spies they could insert into foreign governments. Covert agents rose to prominence only to used years later when what they knew was very valuable. Certainly the CIA had difficulty finding capable foreign language speaking agents. Since they were paranoid about foreign nationals, they had a much smaller pool from which to chose. Professors at famous universities were recruited to find students for the CIA. So many of the CIA covert agents were ignoramuses but also drunks, adolescents playing spy, and generally incompetent. Many of the locals they recruited were either double agents or con men making money off of naïve agents. And legality, that never bothered the CIA. After all you couldn't run covert operations and worry about staying within either legal or moral bounds. Maybe Churchill is right that democracy is a lousy system of governance nonetheless better than any of its alternatives. Weiner's history of the CIA shows that neither our Presidents nor their flunkies felt responsible to democracy when they wanted to get certain things done. The Dulles brothers ran circles around Ike. Nixon thought that if he, the President, did something then it was legal---especially if nobody knew about it. Kissinger set up a rapprochement with China without the CIA having a clue. Bobby Kennedy loved playing spy. He got the CIA to recruit the Mafia to kill Castro, so many in the CIA felt that John's assassination qualified as tit for tat. What sullies memories of John was that he was one of the worst offenders at operating covertly. At his feet one can lay the overthrow of Chedi Jagan in Guyana, and operations in Vietnam, a secret war in Laos, Thailand (rigged elections), Iran, Pakistan, Bolivia, Columbia, the DR, Ecuador, Guatemala and Venezuela. The Alliance for Progress, hah hah. The CIA knew the Gulf of Tonkin was radar interference after provocation but they were too late and Johnson didn't want to hear it. Reagan maintained deniability for Iran-Contra but nobody really paid very much for its treasonous offences. Oliver North: "F*** the Congress. Send the stuff now."
One of Weiner's most important points is that the cowboys coming out of the OSS whose MO was covert action dominated CIA activities. There were CIA agents, congresspersons, presidents, military and cabinet officers who wanted the CIA only to deliver assessments of the world situation. There, the moral offenses would be much less. Yet that is not what the CIA itself really wanted to do and in any case they were not much better at assessing than newspapers that they read. So Presidents either ignored them or did not have the patience to pay attention to CIA materials. And the CIA was wrong time after time: the Bay of Pigs, Iran's revolution, the implosion of the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Israel, not to speak of WMDs in Iraq and now Iran. It is depressing how many times the US was on the wrong side of history. We have spawned brutal dictatorships, taught torture, and leaving aside the Tamal Tigers, we created breeding grounds for suicidal terrorists. And because of CIA ignorance or rightwing attitudes we have pushed policies which have often made more trouble than the situations they were intended to remedy. It certainly the case that "socialist revolutions" have turned into brutal tyrannies. The Soviet Union is the best case in point as are Cambodia and some "socialist" countries in Africa. Stalinist dictatorships lost the cold war. It is dubious that the CIA contributed to this. I wonder what Russia, Vietnam, Cuba, Angola, even China would have been like without the counterrevolutions sponsored by Imperialists. Maybe no different, but then again their harshness may have been muted by less pressure to survive and their mellowing may have come much sooner. Cuba did pretty well at avoiding tyranny but it may have done even better without the harassment of US supported Gusanos and the bloqueo.
On fault I find in Weiner as a researcher is the depth of understanding of general history which he brings to his assessments. I think he has done a great job of utilizing released archival materials and interviews but I get a bit touchy. The example that sticks out is in 1945 the man who later became the head of covert operations watching helplessly as the Soviets shipped presumably innocent Romanians of German ancestry off to labor camps. There is no mention of the horrible profascist role of Romania and particularly the Volksdeutch. But then there are few such lapses in the book.
So what have we now. I haven't much sense about how the CIA has been subsumed in the anti-terrorism industry. The author seems to think they have no chance because of their lack of agents with both linguistic and informational skills. So off their agents go to the privatization of the intelligence. But I don't know. Is Obama any different than his predecessors. I doubt it. Our incompetence in the Muslim world has all the hallmarks of past failures. We just burned Korans in Afghanistan (Koran which were used to convey messages among prisoners, itself a profanation) and a GI murdered 17 innocents in their sleep and as his defense attorney now claims, in his sleep too. Maybe the CIA has become a paper tiger but its progeny give little confidence of being other than epigone of a corrupt Caligula-like sire. Thank you Tim Wiener for so depressing me with some realities of history.
Charlie Fisher author of "Dismantling Discontent: Buddha's Way Through Darwin's World," available on Amazon.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2012
This fascinating, provocative and relevant book is a history of the first sixty years of the CIA compiled solely from first hand reporting and primary documents. It is a devastating account of how the agency lurched from crisis to crisis unable to establish a first rate intelligence organization in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.
What began as a successor to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the military intelligence unit during WWII, the CIA was established to combat the emerging threat of the Soviet Union at the tail end of that war. The goal of the CIA was to ensure that there would never be a second "Pearl Harbor," but the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 left the CIA somewhat aimless without its original raison d'etre. With the horrendous attack on 9/11, the initial reason and great fear that brought the CIA into existence had already come to pass.
The ultimate findings of this award-winning study is that each President due to their own idiosyncrasies or failings left the CIA worse off than the previous administration. Some chose incompetent directors, others chose to ignore sound advice, while still others made decisions due to political criteria rather than substantive ones. Some presidents made the CIA a personal surveillance agency against presumed domestic enemies, while others pressured the CIA to tailor its findings to fit White House policy to the detriment of the organization and the country.
This caustic indictment suggests critical errors were made by and to the CIA throughout its history. Its choice of gadgets over spies left it totally unaware of many critical developments. Its love of high wire covert actions over time-consuming intelligence gathering often left it bereft of knowledge and in embarrassing international situations.
The conclusion that Weiner has come to is that the CIA ended its sixty-year history the same way Eisenhower evaluated it at the end of his administration - as a "legacy of ashes."
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Tim Weiner gives a sweeping account of the full six decade history of the CIA. As his title "Legacy of Ashes" implies, it is a chronicle of blunders and incompetence occasionally interspersed with success.
A constant theme throughout the book is the clashes of strong egos, of individual ambition taking precedence over national interest. This is a problem throughout the bureaucracy. The natural brakes on bureaucracy are the Congressional checkbook, oversight and rivalries from above and elsewhere in the bureaucracy, and public opinion informed by a diligent press. Bureaucrats everywhere try to hide their failings. When the mission itself is clandestine, they can be unusually successful in doing so.
The CIA is split into a Directorate of Operations and a Directorate of Intelligence, responsible for covert actions and espionage respectively. The DO received most of the funding through the early history of the CIA, and because of its activist charter got the agency into its gravest difficulties. Under its first long-term director, Allen Dulles, it developed a passion for regime change. Installing the Shah in Iran was the most sparkling success. Along with regime change, it was fascinated with political assassination.
Presidents were fascinated by the opportunities which a clandestine service presented for carrying out activities outside the law, or at least at its limits. They often directed the CIA to do things that its management would rather not have done, and they often asked for intelligence that was impossible to acquire given the CIA's resources. The tension resulted in a lot of lies being told. Presidents and Congress were told what they wanted to hear rather than the truth. Agency directors, especially those from the outside, seldom got the whole truth from their underlings. Even station chiefs often ran their own operations without informing their superiors. And, the superiors often did not want to know the details; they did not want to have to lie out right when called before their higher ups.
Castro was an especially attractive target for assassination. Weiner chronicles several schemes to wipe him out. He does not say that Kennedy's assassination was directly due to Castro, but he does say that the CIA withheld a great deal of information from the Warren Commission investigating the assassination, and suggests that they would have come to different conclusions had they had all the facts.
Other bungled covert operations included the Bay of Pigs, our operations against Sukarno in Indonesia, Iran Contra, the many failures to eliminate bin Laden between the time of the embassy bombings in Africa and 9/11. We embarrassed ourselves by association with skulduggery in Chile, the Diem assassination in Vietnam, and murderous regimes throughout Africa and Latin America.
The failures on the intelligence gathering side were equally great. The fundamental problem that has dogged the agency since its inception is that they have never had agents who speak foreign languages and are willing to live under cover in foreign countries to collect human intelligence. Weiner claims that we were almost uniformly unsuccessful in placing agents in the USSR, China, Vietnam, Cuba and Islamic nations. The intelligence we were able to gather came from foreign intelligence agencies, communications intercepts and other electronic sources.
The fact that we did not know what was going on lead to many failures. We did not understand the USSR and its intentions, so we vastly overrated the threat. We constantly overrated the danger of merely neutral countries going over to the communists, leading us to support regime changes that installed right wing thugs. In my travels through South America I am amused at the patronizing, sometimes contemptuous familiarity with which almost everybody speaks of the CIA. La see-ah. When those regimes fall, as in Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, we reap a harvest of resentment.
Weiner does not delve deeply into the motives of moles and traitors, but he does offer ample evidence that our counterintelligence has been consistently weak. The Soviets penetrated the CIA with some regularity, and our agents were neutralized. As a consequence, spying for America has been extremely dangerous for Soviet citizens and Muslims.
The focus of the book is primarily on the US. Weiner does not go into the extent of the real threat posed by, for instance, left-wing guerrillas in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil during the 1970s. The regimes we supported were repressive, and our CIA perhaps out of control, but there was a real enemy, a fact which Weiner tends to understate.
No personality comes out of the book untarnished, but Weiner clearly views some of his subjects as more intelligent and having more integrity than others. Presidents Eisenhower, Carter, Ford and George H. W. Bush come out looking pretty good. John and Bobby Kennedy relentlessly pushed the CIA to unconscionable acts. Nixon, George W, and Lyndon Johnson did likewise. Among the CIA directors, Richard Helms and George Tenet come out looking fairly good; William Casey, Allen Dulles, and Porter Goss come out looking bad. Weiner has a long list of sources, and one suspects that good sources got favorable treatment.
The major conclusion of the book are that running an espionage service is inconsistent with the freedoms inherent in a democracy. Weiner says in his conclusion that an occasional terrorist attack is probably the price we must pay for maintaining our individual liberties. A conclusion I draw is that there are no altruists in government. People seek power for its own sake and sometimes their own enrichment. The unaccountable power that came with service in the CIA was attractive to a number of unprincipled characters from its very first days, with the veterans of the OSS. Will