Legacy of Ashes: Secrecy and Screwups

An eye-opening new history of the CIA uncovers an intelligence agency out of control.

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Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
By Tim Weiner. Doubleday. $27.95

In 1969, the Central Intelligence Agency informed President Richard Nixon that the Soviets lacked the ability to launch a knockout nuclear first strike. Outraged that this undermined their plans for an antiballistic missile system, White House hawks ordered the agency to, in the words to then-CIA director Richard Helms, “trim the evidence.” The intel was buried and the ABM plans went forward. “[T]he agency was tailoring its work to fit the pattern of White House policy,” writes Tim Weiner, hinting that the now-infamous “slam dunk” case for invading Iraq wasn’t the first time the agency told the White House what it wanted to hear—and probably not the last, either.

Legacy of Ashes is an epic, eye-opening history of an agency out of control. Weiner presents 60 years of bungled covert operations, blatant criminality, lying to the public, and breathtaking incompetence. This includes much of what has recently been confirmed by the CIA itself in last week’s “family jewels” disclosure, including attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders, the surveillance of journalists such as Michael Getler and Jack Anderson, and widespread spying on of anti-Vietnam War activists and groups allegedly “controlled” by the Soviet Union. He also conclusively disproves the myth of CIA omnipotence, long held by defenders and detractors alike. Even though it’s meddled in its share of world events, the CIA has also been repeatedly surprised by them, from China’s entry into the Korean War and the fall of the Berlin Wall to the rise of militant Islam, and of course, September 11.

Weiner, a two-time Pulitzer winner who’s covered the agency for two decades (and who is married to a senior fellow at the National Security Archive), wonders if a secret intelligence service is inherently incompatible with an open democracy. “How do you serve the truth by lying? How do you spread democracy by deceit?” Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer any ideas for how the CIA might be reformed. But his silence suggests that the agency, held unaccountable for so long, may be beyond repair.

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