Review: Legacy of Ashes

Date01 June 2008
Published date01 June 2008
| Reviews |
| 506 | International Journal | Spring 2008 |
The History of the CIA
Tim Weiner
Toronto: Doubleday, 2007. 702pp, $35.95 cloth (ISBN 978-0385514453)
Writing about national intelligence systems can be very tricky work. Writing
about American national intelligence is doubly so, and the decisive politici-
sation of the study of intelligence has become very clear over the last decade.
The CIA, rightly or wrongly, has come to represent all that people feel is ei-
ther very wrong or very right about America’s intelligence community and
indeed America’s foreign policy.
No better example of the “very wrong” school can be found than
of Ashes
, an attempt at a definitive history of the CIA, written by Pulitzer-
prize winning journalist Tim Weiner, who covered the CIA for more than
20 years as the
New York Times
’s national security correspondent.Aware of
the personalities and fights in the capital, having interviewed 10 former di-
rectors of central intelligence, dozens of other senior intelligence officers,
and enjoying access to many government officials, he would seem an ideal
candidate to write a balanced account of the CIA’s first 50 years. He has not
done so.
In the second sentence of his introduction, Wiener states his argument
clearly: “The most powerful country in the history of western civilisation has
failed to create a first-rate spy service.” The 500 pages of text that follow at-
tempt, through a breathtaking
post hoc ergo propter hoc
argument, to prove
that CIA’s putative failures surrounding 9/11 were the direct result of its pre-
ceding 50 years of botched operations. The polemical style of the prose—
which I must add is impeccable and very pleasant to read—does not let up.
If the CIA got it wrong, Weiner tells you about it in episodic, anecdotal, and
high-impact style.
On the surface this might suit most people. The CIA has indeed made
a big mess of a lot of big operations. North Korea’s invasion of the south
caught it by surprise, and the agency failed to predict the first Soviet, Chi-
nese, and even Indian nuclear tests. Whether they succeeded or not, CIA
covert actions in places such as Guatemala, Iran, Indonesia, and Cuba de-
serve much criticism.
But a litany of failures does not a definitive history of the CIA make.
Through the first third or so of the book, Weiner concentrates heavily on
covert action but says little about the CIA’s efforts to build up a picture of

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