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Book Review – Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

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There's a blurb on the back of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA in which a Christian Science Monitor reviewer calls it "the scariest book of the year." It's the scariest book of any year in recent memory, if "scary" is understood to reach beyond mere bumps in the night and encompass the horrifying ways in which a great nation can utterly fail in upholding its own ideals.

In Legacy of Ashes, author Tim Weiner assembles a convincing argument for the dissolution of American government and a return to the calming embrace of British rule, as he takes readers on a tour through sixty-odd years of absolute failures on the part of the Central Intelligence Agency. The cost of these misadventures is billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and yet the agency's officials and agents conduct themselves with a swagger and hubris totally disproportionate to their own accomplishments. It's a near-endless parade of devastating blunders that makes for a compelling and grueling read.

Essentially, the CIA is painted as a government organization that has rarely if ever known how to carry out its mission. The goal of their projects is ostensibly to gather intelligence worldwide on America's allies and adversaries, and to analyze this intelligence for use by the President, the State Department, and the Pentagon.

Instead, the CIA's activities from its inception devolve into the kind of silly cloak-and-dagger covert missions that make for awful Chuck Norris movies. Except with the Chuck Norris movies, all you've really lost is a few hours of your time — when the CIA fouls a covert op, it usually pours millions of dollars and actual human lives down into the abyss. Their failures have serious consequences, and yet for decades, the organization is allowed to act with near-impunity and no accountability whatsoever.

Weiner's prose style is clean and sparse, and he focuses exclusively on the CIA's history, which occasionally means excluding bits of detail that would help fill in the blanks for those who aren't avid students of American history. The section on the Cuban Missle Crisis, for example, assumes that the reader will bring in some knowledge of the events surrounding this period, and skims over some of the key moments from a broader perspective. But then, the story here isn't really America so much as it's the same worst-case scenario Americans have seen from their government all too often — a tale of power-hungry, self-obsessed, delusional "leaders" who blindly carve a path through enemies tangible and imaginary, whatever the cost may be.

The story told by Legacy of Ashes is all the more terrifying when you consider the immortal words of George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it." Again and again, the CIA fails to remember its own past failures; again and again, it recommitts the same mistakes and loses even more money and lives in the process. Perhaps Weiner's greatest accomplishment is how he draws a convincing line between the agency's earliest disasters and its most recent failure in providing the non-existent "evidence" that prompted the invasion of Iraq and convinced the UN to support that invasion. The CIA never did heal itself; it continued to repeat the failures of the past at an almost incalculable cost.

Legacy of Ashes is absolutely worthwhile, but is still an intense and difficult book. Be forewarned as you plan your vacations and spend Saturday afternoons in the hammock: It is not anything close to "summer reading." Do not take it to the beach.

Instead, Legacy of Ashes is the kind of volume that might be best served by the harsh, merciless nights of fall and winter, when you can curl up on the couch and descend into the horror show of death, destruction, and wasted resources that is the history of the CIA. Anyone interested in the past, present, and future of our government and how it operates should find this an essential read — it's just not for the faint of heart, and there's nothing "escapist" about it. Steel yourself, and educate yourself on this nation's darkest secrets.

About Matt Springer

  • Lou Novacheck

    Jeffrey Richelson is considered by most to be the preeminent nongovernmental expert on intelligence matters, particularly as pertains to US intel matters. He’s got a pretty different take on this book.

    Also, take a look at the CIA’s review of the book. Some excerpts:
    “Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes is not the definitive history of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that it purports to be. Nor is it the well researched work that many reviewers say it is.”
    “Starting with a title that is based on a gross distortion of events, the book is a 600-page op-ed piece masquerading as serious history; it is the advocacy of a particularly dark point of view under the guise of scholarship. Weiner has allowed his agenda to drive his research and writing, which is, of course, exactly backwards.”
    “Weiner is not honest about context, he is dismissive of motivations, his expectations for intelligence are almost cartoonish, and his book too often is factually unreliable. What could have been a serious historical critique illuminating the lessons of the past is undermined by dubious assertions, sweeping judgments based on too few examples, selective or outright misuse of citations, a drama-driven narrative, and a tendentious and nearly exclusive focus on failure that overlooks, downplays, or explains away significant successes.”

  • bliffle

    CIA was pretty good when it was eyes and ears only, but when they started giving CIA missions it perverted their eyes/ears capablities. Execution should be separated from intell.

  • John Wellington

    Let me be the judge. I will accept a free copy of the book.