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Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA Paperback – May 20, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Is the Central Intelligence Agency a bulwark of freedom against dangerous foes, or a malevolent conspiracy to spread American imperialism? A little of both, according to this absorbing study, but, the author concludes, it is mainly a reservoir of incompetence and delusions that serves no one's interests well. Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times correspondent Weiner musters extensive archival research and interviews with top-ranking insiders, including former CIA chiefs Richard Helms and Stansfield Turner, to present the agency's saga as an exercise in trying to change the world without bothering to understand it. Hypnotized by covert action and pressured by presidents, the CIA, he claims, wasted its resources fomenting coups, assassinations and insurgencies, rigging foreign elections and bribing political leaders, while its rare successes inspired fiascoes like the Bay of Pigs and the Iran-Contra affair. Meanwhile, Weiner contends, its proper function of gathering accurate intelligence languished. With its operations easily penetrated by enemy spies, the CIA was blind to events in adversarial countries like Russia, Cuba and Iraq and tragically wrong about the crucial developments under its purview, from the Iranian revolution and the fall of communism to the absence of Iraqi WMDs. Many of the misadventures Weiner covers, at times sketchily, are familiar, but his comprehensive survey brings out the persistent problems that plague the agency. The result is a credible and damning indictment of American intelligence policy. (Aug. 7)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Tim Weiner, multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, longtime New York Times reporter, and the author of Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, American Spy (1995) and Blank Check: The Pentagon's Black Budget (1991) hits his marks in Legacy of Ashes. Drawing on more than 50,000 documents and 300 on-the-record interviews with key players (10 of them former directors of the agency; all of the book's many notes and quotations are attributed), Weiner treats his subject with a ruthless, journalistic eye, skewering Republican and Democratic administrations alike for the CIA's slide into mediocrity. One critic finds a weakness in Weiner's exuberant dismantling of the old guard at the expense of more contemporary analysis. Still, this is an important book that will capture the attention of anyone interested in the CIA's checkered history.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
The book makes it painfully apparent that CIA is not so much James Bond or even George Smiley, but more like The Office. Except when they bungle, instead of hilarious awkwardness we get a bunch of people dead and/or tortured.
The main reason the CIA was established was to prevent another Pearl Harbor: to gather knowledge of foreign nations and what they are up to, so that the United States would not be caught by surprise again. In this task they have utterly failed, either not having the information or having plain wrong information. Sometimes they tried to cover up missing information just making it up on the spot, sometimes they caved in to the political pressure and told the people in power what they wanted to hear, even when they knew it was not true. Having provided so many times information that later turned out to be completely false they were often ignored in the few cases when they actually had some actual information. One example of embarrassingly and lethally bad intelligence was the bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade which CIA had claimed was a military depot.
One reason was that very few of the employees even spoke foreign languages like Arabic, Russian, Persian, Korean or Chinese. Once they tried to hire someone who had lived in Azerbaijan and spoke fluent Azeri, but he was rejected because he failed the English test. The one who had tried to hire him was exasperated: "I've got thousands of people here who can write English, but I don't have anybody here who can speak Azeri."
Another was that many in the agency wanted more to play James Bond than to do the boring work of gathering and analyzing intelligence. During the Cold War they sent hundreds of volunteers behind the Iron Curtain to do sabotage and form guerrilla forces, and basically every one of them was caught and killed, though sometimes they were first used by Soviets to feed back false intelligence and asking to send more men and guns, which Soviets then received with open arms. Despite the total failure of these operations, CIA kept on persistently doing them. One of the defining traits of the agency seems to be complete inability to learn from mistakes or even admit them.
I think this is what le Carré was hinting at in the The Looking Glass War about the inefficient bureaucracy, ambitions far beyond actual capabilities and resulting tragedies in the intelligence business, except that the truth turns out to be much, much worse.