Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

by Tim Weiner

Hardcover, 2007

Call number

327.127 WEI

Collection

Publication

Doubleday (2007), Edition: First Edition, 702 pages

Description

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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member enoerew
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)
LibraryThing member mjgrogan
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.
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LibraryThing member Scapegoats
This is a very mixed book. On one hand, it is very-well researched and very easy to read. On the other hand, it is pretty much a hack job on the CIA. That isn't hard to do, but he accentuates the negative aspects and glosses over the rare successes. I enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn't use it as a textbook. It reads like someone with an ax to grind rather than a scholarly book, which is a shame because of the sources he had access to.

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.
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LibraryThing member patienceltd
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.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
A five star topic, with five star research, does not a five star book make. I give Mr. Weiner one star for this 'book,' which is not a book at all. It is a collection of research notes that would be better titled "What the CIA did after the second world war to ruin the world for most people, including its own agents."

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.
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
This is an extensive, exhaustive history of the CIA. It does not portray the agency in the slightest favorable light. Since it's inception the CIA has failed in almost every aspect of its mission. It has not provided good intelligence to policy makers; it missed the mark on Castro and Cuba, failed in understanding eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, got it completely wrong about WMD's in Iraq and more.

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.
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LibraryThing member MaryriverMcLeod
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.
LibraryThing member Richj
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.
LibraryThing member kainlane
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.
LibraryThing member jcvogan1
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)
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
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 hope
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LibraryThing member piefuchs
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?
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LibraryThing member jcopenha
It was full of interesting reading, but I fear there was a clear bias to showing the failures of the CIA. While there are plenty of references I found myself annoyed at the authors constant colorizations of events.
LibraryThing member wfzimmerman
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.
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LibraryThing member Alex1952
This is a book worth reading if you are interested in understanding the misguided foreign policy of the United States since WWII and the major role the CIA played in it.

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.
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LibraryThing member dgmillo
A truly depressing, yet enlightening read. If you have a romantic idea of the CIA, I highly recommend you read this.
LibraryThing member nbmars
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)
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LibraryThing member dlovins
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."
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LibraryThing member jonmodene
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.
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LibraryThing member stampfle
One of the best books I have ever read on the history of the CIA. It is truly unbelievable what the CIA has carried out in the name of America and as an American I am shocked!
LibraryThing member grandpahobo
This is an incredibly detailed history of the CIA, from its inception as the reincarnation of the OSS until 2007. The book is dense and detailed, but the story is very compelling. The author does an excellent job of telling the story of the CIA, as disturbing as it is, objectively and honestly.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
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.

Pages

702

ISBN

038551445X / 9780385514453
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