Dangerous Liaisons: A Review of Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

February 11, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 1 5 min read

coverMore than any other government agency, the CIA has found itself the target of criticism from both the left and the right. Liberals tend to fault the agency for what it’s done – spying on American citizens, conspiring to overthrow legitimate foreign governments, operating secret prisons around the world – while conservatives lament what the CIA hasn’t been able to do – namely, to provide accurate and timely intelligence to the President of the United States. In Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner deftly and succinctly shows how the agency has navigated the first sixty years of its existence, from its roots in the old OSS to its present-day pariah status within the Beltway.

Weiner, a reporter for the New York Times, states his thesis in the opening two lines of the Author’s Note that precedes the text: “[Legacy of Ashes] describes how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization failed to create a first-rate spy service. That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States.” Weiner finds the root of the failure in several places. He blames “a chronic American weakness: secrecy and deception were not our strengths.” As the British empire collapsed following World War II, the United States was left as the sole force able to oppose the spread of Soviet communism. It badly needed a first rate intelligence service to provide it with information on Soviet military capabilities, infrastructure, and intentions. The Central Intelligence Agency was supposed to be that service.

From the start, the agency was ill-conceived. Weak leadership plagued its earliest years. With retired rear admirals and Democratic party bigwigs at the helm, the agency, then called the Central Intelligence Group, languished, suffering from a postwar lack of direction that would be echoed at the end of the Cold War. The old OSS had been dismantled hastily after VJ day, with most European offices losing all of their officers. The talent that the OSS had attracted – the creme de la creme of America’s Ivy League – went back to their jobs as lawyers and bankers, leaving the United States standing naked before the behemoth of the Soviet Union.

As the CIA began to get its feet under the direction of Walter Bedell Smith, an army general and Eisenhower’s hatchet man during WWII, it developed a plan to combat the Soviet Union. And make no mistake, the Soviet Union was its sole target. As George Kennan, the leading Kremlinologist in the American government put it, “We had accustomed ourselves, through our wartime experience, to having a great enemy before us. The enemy must always be a center. He must be totally evil.” Whether it was wise to consider an enemy “evil” appears never to have been in question.

At the dawn of the Cold War, the CIA developed a rift that would never fully heal. The division within the agency between analysis and covert action would prove literally fatal for thousands of people. Under the direction of Allen Dulles, the agency began to focus on covert action – secret overseas missions aimed at undermining Soviet interests – at the expense of obtaining and analyzing intelligence (which was, of course, the stated purpose of the CIA). Weiner is clear about his feelings on Dulles: “Over the next eight years, through his devotion to covert action, his disdain for the details of analysis, and his dangerous practice of deceiving the president of the United States, Allen Dulles did untold damage to the agency he had helped to create.” Under Dulles’ direction, the CIA followed folly with folly, disaster with disaster, and claimed precious few victories.

It would have been one thing to continue with covert operations if they had proven successful, but this was not the case. Nearly every covert operation the US launched against the USSR was met with instant and total failure. The reason for this was simple – the Russians were better at this sort of thing than the Americans were. The Soviets knew of most operations before they were launched, thanks to well-placed spies within the CIA. Indeed, the idea that the Russians knew all, that they had infiltrated the CIA completely would come to be accepted as fact. Jim Angleton, head of counter intelligence for twenty years during the Cold War, was a major reason for this:

Drunk after lunch, his mind an impenetrable maze, his in-box a black hole, he passed judgment on every operation and every officer that the CIA aimed against the Soviets. He came to believe that a Soviet master plot controlled American perceptions of the world, and that he and he alone understood the depths of the deception. He took the CIA’s missions against Moscow down into a dark labyrinth.

Paralysis eventually gripped the Soviet division of the CIA, as Angleton’s paranoia strangled its every move.

Weiner traces the history of the agency through the Eisenhower years, when it launched coups in places like Guatemala (successfully) and Indonesia (unsuccessfully), bought elections in Italy and Japan, and dug a tunnel through Berlin to intercept Soviet communiques (Of course, the Soviets knew of the tunnel and sent nothing but disinformation streaming through it until the operation was eventually killed). One might think Kennedy would have pulled the plug on the covert action wing of the CIA, considering its track record, but unfortunately he followed the advice of Allen Dulles and his own brother, Robert Kennedy, and pressed onward with operations to overthrow Fidel Castro.

Legacy of Ashes sheds new light onto the Kennedy assassination and the government’s reaction to it, the hastily-conceived Warren Commission. Immediately after the assassination, the CIA pulled its dossier on Lee Harvey Oswald. What they found was disturbing indeed. Not only had Oswald defected to the Soviet Union (it was generally accepted that all defectors were interrogated by the KGB), but he had also had contact with the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. “He had met face to face with a man named Valery Kostikov, who was thought to be a member of Department 13 of the KGB – the department responsible for assassination.” None of this found its way to the Warren Commission, thanks to Angleton, who sabotaged efforts to communicate this information to the committee, conduct that Weiner concludes to be an obstruction of justice.

Among the more shocking revelations of the book are the many urban legends that are, in fact, true. The CIA did invent LSD and used it in mind-control experiments codenamed Project Artichoke and Project Ultra. “Under its auspices, seven prisoners at a federal penitentiary in Kentucky were kept high on LSD for seventy-seven consecutive days.” Despite its mandate to spy exclusively abroad, the CIA opened the first class mail of many Americans for years. The CIA did, in fact, hire mafia hit men to kill Fidel Castro; they attempted to poison his food and place explosives in his cigars. The CIA has been operating secret prisons and practicing “rendition” – the act of arresting someone and spiriting them off to an unknown location for an unknown crime – for the past forty years. Indeed, one of the most terrifying aspects of the book is how often the CIA failed to learn from its previous mistakes and transgressions. These facts – and they are facts – are the reason so many liberals view the CIA with such disdain. It’s a shame, as the CIA’s stated mission, to provide intelligence to the United States, is of vital importance.

Of course, it hasn’t done a good job of providing information either. It failed to see the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chinese attack during the Korean War, the Tet offensive, the Iranian revolution, or the attacks on September 11, 2001. It provided what it knew to be unsubstantiated intelligence about Iraqi programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, helping lead America into a protracted and bloody war. The CIA has failed as thoroughly to understand radical Islam as it did to understand the Soviet Union.

Weiner masterfully exposes the incompetence of the agency and the men who’ve led it. Using a relentless narrative style that dispenses with lengthy biographies of even the most important individuals, he pushes through a staggering amount of raw information in relatively short order. His prose is sharp, and never condescends to the reader – there are no background sections on the history of the Korean War, for instance, or the rise of Mao in China. For all its weight, the book has surprising moments of humor, such as the description of Jim Angleton as “the CIA’s champion of alcoholics, a title held against stiff competition.” One can’t help but share Weiner’s frustration about the CIA’s past, as well as his fear for what its failures mean for America’s future. Legacy of Ashes is the rare book that should be read by every American, especially in an election year. Luckily, it’s also a thoroughly enjoyable book, one that’s hardly a chore to read.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Patrick has worked in the book business for over seven years, including a two-year stint as the webmaster and blogger for Vroman's Bookstore. He is currently the Community Manager for Goodreads.com. He's written book reviews for Publishers Weekly, and he's spoken about books and the internet at the LA Times Festival of Books, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association spring meetings, and the 140 Characters Conference. He writes the sporadically entertaining Tumblr blog The Feeling.