Here is the hidden history of the CIA: why eleven presidents and three generations of CIA officers have been unable to understand the world; why nearly every CIA director has left the agency in worse shape than he found it; and how these failures have profoundly jeopardized our national security. For sixty years, the CIA has managed to maintain a formidable reputation in spite of its terrible record, burying its blunders in top-secret archives. Its mission was to know the world--when it did not succeed, it set out to change the world instead. Now Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Weiner offers the first definitive history of the CIA, based on more than 50,000 documents, primarily from the archives of the CIA itself, and hundreds of interviews with CIA veterans, including ten Directors of Central Intelligence.--From publisher description.
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.
His basic point is that CIA has never been any good at its job. He blames this on the extremely vague mission it had, poor leadership and political pressure. He goes leader by leader and basically says what each did wrong. The most alarming parts are from the early Cold War, when he discusses infiltration teams dropped into China or the Soviet Union, all of whom were quickly discovered, which lead to capture and/or death. He goes on to show how different presidents and DCIs worked together or against each other, but rarely to good effect.
Among the frustrating parts of Weiner's omissions is the near-complete lack of discussion of promoting youth groups to fight communism. He only mentions them when the CIA funding is discovered, not mentioning the successes they had before that. He also shows how the CIA was never able to penetrate Moscow, except when he gets to the 1980's and 1990's, he says how the network there fell apart. The problem with his narrative is that it only barely mentioned how such a network was built. He left the impression that the CIA had no assets in Moscow except now one is built and being destroyed by a mole.
Another problem is that he also sometimes talks about individuals in the CIA and sometimes talks about it acting as a unified institution ("the CIA did..."). Grouping it together is convenient and many scholars of international relations have done it when discussing countries, but since he discusses the inner workings of the CIA, it would be much better if he were able (or willing) to say who drafted the briefings for WMD or on Bin Laden rather than falling back on the CIA as a whole and attributing unified motives to its actions.
Even with those problems, it is worth a read. He has lots of good stories and occasional good men who get overridden in a bad system. And the CIA has proven that it was not particularly competent, so this is a good subject for a hatchet job. It isn't comprehensive and it isn't balanced, but it is interesting and informative. Just take it with a grain of salt.
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.
Though Weiner has done a great job of bringing them together, there's no 'organization' to the facts. The title of each chapter is a quote from someone taken from that chapter; each chapter is split up into oodles of 1-2 page sections that are, again, headed by a quote from someone in from that section. In other words, this is one-damn-thing-after-another history. That's great if you're doing research, but is a torturous read; a friend of mine summed it up nicely: he can write great sentences, but he has no idea how to put sentences together into paragraphs. And the same thing goes for his sections/chapters/book sections/the book's narrative. The general narrative is meant to be "The CIA does too much covert operating and not enough collection and analyzing of data." Which might be true, but given the immense pressure that ever more idiotic American presidents have applied to the Agency, it's hardly the big cause for concern. Maybe *not* trying to murder everyone to the left of Goldwater in South American/Asian/African/Middle Eastern/European politics would be a good idea?
Anyway, this is less a review than a warning: I'd advise you to buy this book, and dip into it every now and then. There's no reason to read it cover to cover when you could be reading good, depressing spy novels instead.
Most damning, however, is the CIA's failures at covert operations around the world. When it failed in a public view like the Bay of Pigs it was devastating to our nation's interests. When it "succeeded" like Guatamala and Iran, it sowed the seeds of future foreign policy disaster. More troubling than these well-known events, however, is its obsession with small-scale covert operations in Europe and Asia which almost entirely resulted in loss of life of agents. If ever there was an example of national hubris and over reach it was the CIA's attempts to influence world affairs through its schemes.
The agency seemed to be staffed in the main by amateurs or incompetents, many times drawn from the eastern elite universities. Throughout its history the CIA has struggled to recruit and retain truly professional skilled staff.
The book mentions the misuse of the agency through violation of its charter by various presidents; the most notorious being Nixon, but also Johnson and Kennedy.
What were the causes of such misguided actions and failed strategies and tactics? I think the national paranoia about the perceived threat of communism is the root cause. While no doubt the aims and behavior of the Soviet Union were against our interests, our reactionary endeavors to thwart the communists manifested almost delusional and over the top responses by our government. One must ask whether instead of subversion and malice a policy of good will that exemplified to the world our ideals would have served us better in the long run.
It's a depressing story which ends without much hope
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?
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.
The book starts at the end of WWII and ends around 2007. Although many of the events described would be known to people that follow politics and foreign affairs, the book is based on documents that have been declassified up to 2007 and on personal interviews with CIA officers still alive. For those old enough to have lived through many of these events, the book reveals that actually things were much worse than we thought at the time. The incompetence, idiocy, illegality and fanatical obsession, with communism of those who run the CIA and their bosses (i.e., the various presidents) is so infuriating that I could not read more than 10 pages at the time.
It is really ironic that the country that acts as the world leader and promoter of democracy and its ideals would operate agencies that act in a totally undemocratic way not only against the citizens of other countries, if their decisions are seen as threatening to mostly fictional American interests, but also against its own citizens and their elected representatives.
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.
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."
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.