The CIA is a powerful espionage unit whose covert operations have led to the overthrow of dangerous governments. The CIA’s intelligence analysts have helped prevent countless deaths. The CIA knows everything that’s going on in any given place around the world. The CIA is watching you. The CIA has spent billions of dollars to stage coups and save democracy. The CIA has sometimes put the wrong people in place and led to the end of democracy. The CIA has missed numerous attacks and military actions despite evidence literally at their doorsteps. The CIA has constantly been compromised by double agents and internal moles. The CIA’s history is one of incompetence, idiocy, and blindingly foolish mistakes.
The perception of the Central Intelligence Agency has long been different than the reality. The company line has been that their failures are publicized, while their successes have been by necessity classified. Actually, the reverse is closer to the truth. The agency built its reputation on a few small successes, while its many failures were buried. In Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner does his best to dig those disasters up and present them in all their unglory.
A history of the agency from its inception to the present (quite literally the present—Weiner references books that were published almost the same time as his), the book is filled with details that in many cases, were previously unknown. Weiner had access to thousands of pages of recently declassified documents and interviewed many of the major players, thus giving both a formal and personal tone to the events recounted here. There are more than one hundred fifty pages of notes here, making it almost impossible to question the veracity of any incident, no matter how improbable or idiotic it may appear.
And oh, the improbable and idiotic are frequent. Born from the remnants of World War II’s OSS, the CIA struggled from the beginning to clarify its mission. It was originally intended to just provide a daily digest of intelligence for the president. Instead, swept up in the communist paranoia of the 1950s, it quickly became bogged down in increasingly complex and unlikely attempts to control foreign governments everywhere from the Middle East to South America.
Communism was the most destructive force of the 20th century. When I say that, I don’t mean that communist itself was a force against democracy and personal freedom—I mean that the fear and perception of it led the US to do an incredible number of wrong and deadly things. Without even getting into the Red Scare in the America and the lives and careers ruined there, the US has historically overestimated the power of communism over people and governments. The US saw communist governments as part of a Soviet monolith, in thrall to the Kremlin and part of a plan to take over the world. For many countries, though, the rise of a communist party was more an expression of nationalism; communism just happened to be the ideology that most appealed to these often small, poor, recently de-colonized nations. The US failed to understand, for example, that the North Vietnamese were fighting for Vietnam, not the Soviet Union. Communism, for many of these nations, was a framework that like many religions, would have been reshaped and modified to fit their cultures and resources. Maybe a communist government would have lasted, maybe it would have eventually failed. Maybe it never would even have come to power. But once the CIA got wind of a communist party or communist candidate in an election, they began to meddle, with the result of often putting dictators and fascists in charge, sometimes even followed by the communist government they’d tried to keep out in the first place. In any event, it seems unlikely that letting a communist candidate get elected in Guatemala or Indonesia would have led to the end of the free world.
I know, hindsight is 20/20. The problem, though, is that these fears about the power of communism arose because of our incredible ineptitude when it came to spying on the Soviet Union. From the end of the World War II to the end of the Soviet union, the US had almost no reliable intelligence. The CIA couldn’t get any spies into useful positions early on. A tunnel was dug from West Berlin into East Berlin to set up telecommunications intercepts. Information flowed fast and furious, but it was all false; a Soviet mole working in British intelligence had tipped off the operation before the first shovel hit the ground (the information would have been semi-useless even if it had been genuine—then, as now, the CIA struggled to recruit, train, and employ linguists). In later years, US agents in the Soviet union began to disappear or be killed. The CIA desperately tried to uncover the cause, refusing to recognize the possibility of a mole within the agency itself; to admit that would be to admit a horrible lapse of security and internal checks. By the time Aldrich Ames, a long-time CIA analyst living in suburban Virginia was arrested, numerous agents had been killed due to information he had passed on to the Soviets.
The US was unaware of the scope of armaments of the Soviet Union. They had no feel for the Soviet economy or how committed the people were to communism, how they felt about it and its strength or future. The CIA remained convinced that the Soviets were more powerful than they really were, and worse, that they had hopelessly infiltrated the US with their own spies. While they certainly had their share of agents, wiretapping, and communications intercepts going on, they were hardly the terrifying giant infestation the agency believed. Much of this perception was due to the longtime presence of James Angleton, chief of counterintelligence. A heavy drinker whose closest friend and confidante in Washington, was of all people, Kim Philby, Angleton was paranoid beyond all measure. He had a picture of the power and abilities of the Soviets and their spy service and if he was given truthful information, dismissed it, waiting until something that fit his ideas came along. CIA policy was shaped around the largely false fears he instilled in the agency and the government. The only seemingly successful operation executed by the US in the Soviet Union took place in the 1980s, thanks to a tip from French president Mitterand that their agents had discovered that the Soviets were stealing US technology. This allowed the US to start feeding faulty blueprints and schemes to Soviet buyers, which in turn caused them unwelcome economic stress when things began to fail. But again—this all took place because the French intelligence had successfully infiltrated the Soviet Union while the CIA seemingly never could on any useful level.
The history of the CIA is littered with examples of ignoring the truth in favor of the hoped for truth. In 1950, the agency reported that China was not going to enter Korea even as hundreds of thousands of troops massed on the border. They didn’t believe that the Soviets would invade Afghanistan until they were in there. In 1989, the CIA’s chief of the Soviet division of the clandestine service learned about the Berlin Wall coming down via CNN; part of this surprise, of course, was related to the fact that the CIA had so little idea that people, well, weren’t happy under communist rule). In 1990, the CIA insisted that an Iraq invasion of Kuwait was unlikely until twenty hours before it actually happened—and that was probably one of their better predictions. They weren’t aware of nuclear bombs being tested in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and India in the late ‘90s until the bombs were actually exploded. And of course, there is the most recent case of relying on shaky to nonexistent to unconfirmed intelligence (oh, that word…) to launch another war in Iraq.
The CIA conducted clandestine operations designed to overthrow or assassinate other world leaders. It spied on Americans. It got involved in illicit arms deals. These are just two of the many things the agency got involved in that were far beyond the original mandate. The agency got bigger and bigger and more and more complicated and more and more money was thrown around. Morale ebbed and rose; some directors of Central Intelligence were competent but thwarted at every move to get the agency under control. Others were out of their league and unable to check the increasingly difficult to track and understand bureaucracy. Some presidents were interested in the CIA and used it as much as possible—often to illegal ends. Some weren’t and ignored it. Neither tack was helpful.
Recruiting good people has always been a problem for the CIA. The original ideal of the Ivy-educated white young man, leftover from the OSS days, took too long to break. The agency is insular and distrusts outsiders at its own peril; the always woeful lack of linguists has been due to a reluctance to bring in people from foreign backgrounds, no matter how well they check out. Family has always been one of the more common ways to recruit spies—Ames’ father had worked for the agency, and look how he turned out…oh, never mind. And so, in turn, the ability to bring in diverse people with a varied body of knowledge has led to misinterpretation of cultures, and incorrect predictions.
All of this seems incredible to the people who believed in the power of the CIA. Just as the CIA overestimated the strength and reach of the Soviet government, the CIA’s reputation outstripped its actual accomplishments. In 1979, when the shah of Iran was overthrown and the US embassy seized, one CIA analyst was taken captive and interrogated for days. They told him that they knew that he was the head of the CIA operations in the Middle East, he was planning the ayatollah’s assassination, and trying to destroy their government. Unfortunately, the analyst had only been employed by the CIA for nine months. He knew little about Iranian culture and barely spoke the language. This actually angered the hostage-takers even more—they took it as an insult that the US had sent such an inexperienced and uninformed officer to their country. They thought the CIA was all powerful and all knowing and that they had captured quite a prize; instead they had a virtual amateur, and he was far from the only one out there.
A useful national intelligence force is still more of a goal than a reality. It’s been organized and reorganized and its effectiveness remains a question. That’s part of the problem with spy agencies: no one really knows what’s going on until afterwards, but if we knew what was going on in advance, so would those being spied upon. It’s an entity trying to operate in the dark in a society that prefers openness in its government and it’s a difficult balancing act. It’s hard not to wonder why Britain, for example, has been so successful at managing its espionage units. Then again, I haven’t read a complete history of MI5 and MI6, and if I did (yes, I’ll look), maybe I would find a similar number of debacles. But it seems unlikely.
Weiner’s book is a valuable addition to spy literature. Again, the research is impeccable and fascinating in itself—read the footnotes if you have the time. I recommend it to any fans of espionage history in general or those who might have had any romantic ideas about the CIA and need to be relieved of those illusions (btw, don’t even get me started about romantic ideas and needing to shatter some illusions. I am truly an idiot.). The book’s litany of catastrophic failures could lead one to be depressed about the state of affairs and afraid for the future of our country, if not the world. Optimistic as always, I’ll look at it this way—if we could survive the last sixty years of these agency follies, well, we must be pretty strong. Or maybe just lucky. Yeah. Maybe just lucky.