The CIA is many things in fiction: America’s equivalent to MI6 with James Bond-like agents cavorting around the world, an organization so in love with secrecy that they do all sorts of evil deeds in the name of national security, the Keystone Kops. According to a recently declassified history of the CIA, it actually has been the biggest waste of money since World War II. That’s the conclusion Tim Weiner draws in A Legacy of Ashes, a history of the CIA from its inception to 2007, when it this book was written.
Weiner looks at the organization’s beginnings in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. There were many in those early days who saw the need for a service equivalent to the Soviet Union’s KGB or Britain’s MI6. In fact, the service was modeled on MI6. From the start, it had two problems. First, it’s field operations would inevitably become compromised. Second, the Clandestine Service grew in power and scope of mandate to the point where continuing the Clandestine Service was more important than giving the President up-to-date information about America’s adversaries. The Clandestine Service, Weiner submits, loved dirty work too much: Assassinations, coups, air-dropping insurgents into hostile countries (almost always to their deaths), and cozying up to too many dictators on the premise that “they weren’t communist.” The result was the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the surprise collapse of the Soviet Bloc (An intelligence report stated the Berlin Wall would not fall anytime soon. It fell the next day.), and both World Trade Center bombings.
There were a few successes. Some, like the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in the 1960s, were comically accidental. A few – the extraction of six embassy workers from Iran under a ruse of a movie studio and Charlie Wilson’s campaign to overthrow the Soviets in Afghanistan – were deliberately designed and executed. But the book Charlie Wilson’s War bears out Weiner’s premise. During the Afghan operation, Wilson and those in the agency he worked with found their operations snarled with an illegal operation in Nicaragua, the so-called Iran-Contra Affair.
Reading (actually listening, as I had this book on audio) this book brings one to the conclusion that the CIA’s problems and failures were institutional in cause. Early on, Dwight Eisenhower tried to bring the CIA to heel and, on the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration, complained bitterly to the Agency’s senior management that they had handed him “an eight-year defeat,” one that culminated in the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Ironically, the Agency’s two best era’s came during George H.W. Bush’s tenure as Director of Central Intelligence and as President. Bush found he loved the agency and its work. Morale soared under his leadership, and the CIA had more successes on his watch than failures. As President, he already had a feel for what the Agency could and could not do, and told them it did not matter if Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega had been a CIA operative. He was a threat to national security, and so he had to go down no matter what those in the Clandestine Service thought.
Bush’s son, however, soured on the CIA for obvious reasons. Over the years, they had not developed any meaningful way to sift through intelligence that might have stopped 9/11, a conclusion backed by the 9/11 Commission. They also were responsible for Colin Powell’s disastrous speech to the UN, which included the infamous “yellow cake” incident. One of Powell’s books and the movie W. (which George W. Bush has said actually pulled a few punches it should have thrown) bear this out, though some of the blame goes to White House staffers dropping the ball as well.
The best way to describe this book comes from an Amazon reviewer, who went in expecting the British Secret Service and found “The Office instead.”