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October 2007

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Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

Reviewed by J. R. Bullington, Editor

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. By Tim Weiner (New York: Doubleday, 2007. $27.95)

Tim Weiner’s thesis in this book is conveyed by its title. In 514 pages of text, supported by 154 pages of endnotes, he describes a 60-year record of unremitting failure, not only in specific covert missions gone wrong but also in the Agency's “central mission: informing the president of what is happening in the world.” He finds the Agency's annals “replete with fleeting successes and long-lasting failures,” and concludes that “the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service.”

As one would expect of a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the New York Times who has covered the intelligence beat for 20 years, Weiner writes skillfully and dramatically, frequently marshaling direct quotations in support of his arguments. Interestingly for American Diplomacy readers, he quotes not only CIA officers but also many State Department Foreign Service Officers, drawing extensively on the oral history collection assembled by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. (See: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/diplomacy/.) Old foreign affairs professionals will find many familiar names in this book.

Weiner claims to be writing serious history, both in the book's sub-title (“The History of the CIA”) and in his preface statement that this is “the first history of the CIA compiled entirely from firsthand reporting and primary documents….What I have written here is not the whole truth, but to the best of my ability, it is nothing but the truth.”

The book is an entertaining read, with lots of fascinating information and anecdotes; but as a portrayal of historic truth it fails to pass the smell test. It does not “smell” like any of the serious historical works I've read. It does, on the other hand, “smell” very much like a piece of prosecutorial investigative journalism, blended together with large whiffs of a massive op-ed piece, in which the author begins with a conclusion and sets out to assemble all possible evidence to support it.

The first problem is the book's total focus on the negative: misjudgments, duplicity, penetration by enemy agents, and massive incompetence. For Weiner, the Agency has done virtually nothing right. His portrayals are not only one-sided but one-dimensional. Any successes are either ignored or belittled as unimportant and transitory. Principal CIA actors, especially from the early years, are pictured as drunks, dolts, and out-of-control cowboys with few if any redeeming virtues. (Many of us have known some of these people, and view them very differently, as multi-dimensional people, with strengths and weakness like everyone else.)

Another problem is minimal if any context for the events being recounted. There is no recognition, for example, that the CIA was established to counter what George Kennan had identified as a sociopathic, irrational power, or that the Cold War in which we were engaged was seen by almost all Americans as an existential struggle against totalitarianism. Nor is there any recognition that, in contrast with our enemies, the United States in the 1940s had no traditional intelligence service or cadre of intelligence professionals to build on.

I noted this lack of context especially in the chapters on Vietnam; others will doubtless see it in areas and events where they have some personal expertise.

Intelligence professionals, including Sir Richard Dearlove, former director of MI-6, have pointed out numerous instances in which Weiner gets his facts wrong and draws clearly incorrect conclusions, such as “his extraordinary claim that in the whole of the Cold War the CIA controlled precisely three agents who were able to provide secrets of lasting value on the Soviet military threat.” (See Dearlove's review of Legacy of Ashes in the September 22 Financial Times.)

The CIA's historian, Nicholas Dujmovic, convincingly demolishes Weiner's scholarship and accuracy in a lengthy analysis published on the CIA website. (See: https://www.cia.gov/library/center -for-the-study-of-intelligence/ csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol51no3/ legacy -of-ashes-the-history-of-cia.html.) For example, the very title of the book, “Legacy of Ashes,” is based on a gross distortion of the facts. Weiner portrays the phrase, spoken by President Eisenhower at the end of his administration, as an angry retort to CIA chief Allen Dulles about the Agency's failings generally and its resistance to reforms. Dujmovic demonstrates that this central episode in the book is “an invented dialog, a created exchange that never happened.” The source documents show clearly that Eisenhower's remark was made in a meeting that took place prior to Dulles' comments to which Weiner says it was responding, and that it was not related to the CIA.

In its final chapters, which cover the period since the late 1980s when Weiner has been reporting on intelligence, his portrayals of CIA and its leaders become somewhat more nuanced and multi-dimensional. Many intelligence officers and other foreign affairs professionals, moreover, will agree with Weiner that the Agency has made too many mistakes, and that it should be more tightly focused on production of intelligence (as opposed to covert action).

This book is an interesting read, and it has some good information and some valid conclusions. Nonetheless, I agree with former MI-6 director Dearlove: “This is a polemic that uses a fundamentalist style of argument — every fact is harnessed to a single theme — to demolish the myth of the CIA and its reputation. In short, the work lacks subtlety of interpretation or analysis and risks losing what merit it has on account of its uncompromising bias.”


J. R. Bullington is currently editor of American Diplomacy and a senior fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College. He is a retired career Foreign Service Officer and U.S. Ambassador, with extensive service in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. From 2000-2006, he was director of the Peace Corps program in Niger.

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