Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

If Legacy of Ashes were a record album, Tim Weiner would surely have titled it The CIA’s Greatest Shits. As it is, the subtitle is The History of the CIA, which is a misnomer right off the bat because it’s a history and not the history, and as a history it’s mostly a litany of the CIA’s continuous selection of errors, both tactical and strategic. The title itself is not from Weiner, but rather from Dwight Eisenhower, assessing his efforts over two complete presidential terms to mold the Central Intelligence Agency into a useful tool for a democratic nation. Every president who followed would have similar experiences with the CIA, and only the first president Bush, who had taken on the thankless job of CIA director during the Ford administration, appears to have had a decent relationship with the Agency during his term of office.

Legacy of Ashes

The problems are structural, and to an extent known to any ruler who has ever had a spy agency. The spies’ stock in trade is deceit, and over time they often deceive not only their adversaries but their putative masters. All too often, in Weiner’s account, American spies deceived themselves as well. At times, it was lies all the way down: CIA directors deceiving Congress and presidents, heads of covert action deceiving directors, station chief deceiving both local ambassadors and headquarters, and certainly field agents deceiving nearly everyone they interacted with.

Other problems are particular to the CIA and the American intelligence community. In Weiner’s telling, the deep rivalry between the CIA’s analytical and operational parts has hampered the Agency’s functioning from its very beginning. Presidents theoretically want the most accurate assessments possible of America’s foreign enemies and competitors; again theoretically that should come from the CIA’s analytical side, drawing on information and resources from across the American intelligence community. In practice, though, the covert action side of the Agency has often commanded the lion’s share of the CIA’s resources, including the favor of leadership. When 90 percent of an organization’s resources are devoted to one approach, the other is bound to suffer.

American intelligence is further divided among many other organizations, each of them competing for money, clout, recognition, and attention at the highest levels. Weiner sketches how the Pentagon in particular has waged a long-term campaign to render the CIA subordinate to military priorities and demands. This is a problem throughout American foreign policy, as external actors attempt to assess America’s true intentions and where power actually resides in the structures of the American government. Weiner shows how in various places, notably Central America and Southeast Asia but also Greece before 1974, local governments came to the conclusion that the CIA station and not the US Embassy was the real locus of American efforts. They then virtually ignored official relations with the State Department and built up secret relations with the CIA teams in their countries. To make matters worse, from the American perspective, they were often correct to make this assessment. (It’s beyond the scope of Weiner’s book, but this problem exists on a much bigger scale between the Departments of State and Defense. The resources available to the military often dwarf what is available to diplomats, and continuity in military commands is often greater than among rotating embassy staff. Governments then come to the understandable conclusion that Defense matters and State does not, and conduct their relations accordingly.) Further, the various intelligence organizations guard their sources and methods, and often their information, making it impossible for the CIA to do its supposed job of coordinating all American efforts and synthesizing information collected into the best possible assessments for the country’s civilian leadership.

To complicate matters still further, presidents and their administrations often arrive with preconceived ideas about the state of the world and about the usefulness of the Agency. Nixon was convinced that the CIA was full of liberals out to get him; Johnson wanted a reason to escalate in Vietnam; Reagan’s people firmly believed that the CIA had been drastically underestimating the economic strength of the Soviet Union and Communist Europe (the truth was nearly the exact opposite), and so forth. Nor do presidents consistently want objective assessments, even when the CIA is able to deliver them. “Lyndon Johnson had stopped listening to [CIA director] John McCone long ago. The director left office knowing he had had no impact whatsoever on the thinking of the president of the United States. Like almost all who followed him, LBJ liked the agency’s work only if it fit his thinking. When it did not, it went into the wastebasket.” (p. 248) To save its institutional skin, the CIA often bent to the presidential will. On the other hand, the Agency also did things without presidential knowledge or assent that made them into public liars. Eisenhower and the U2 flights, Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, on through Clinton and missile strikes in Sudan.

As a book, Legacy of Ashes is thorough and well-sourced, especially for the first few decades of the Agency’s existence. Mandatory declassification of records after 35 or 50 years has exposed much of the CIA’s mythmaking about its early successes, and Weiner makes good use of what has entered the public record. For example, he does not mince words about the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the subsequent commitment of American military forces to war in Vietnam. It concerned,

what the president and Pentagon proclaimed was an unprovoked attack by North Vietnam on American ships in international waters on August 4 [1964]. The National Security Agency, which compiled and controlled the intelligence on the attack, insisted the evidence was ironclad. Robert McNamara swore to it. The navy’s official history of the Vietnam War calls it conclusive.
It was not an honest mistake. The war in Vietnam began with political lies based on fake intelligence. Had the CIA been working as its charter intended, if McCone had fulfilled his duties under law as he saw them, the false reports might not have survived for more than a few hours. But the full truth did not come out until November 2005, in a highly detailed confession released by the National Security Agency. (p. 240)

Declassified records allow for similarly detailed understanding of CIA operations in post-war Europe such as support for Christian Democratic politicians in Italy or non-communist leftists in France. Deep CIA involvement in the Greek civil war led to a massive station in Athens that was key not only to internal Greek politics but served as a hub for the whole region. It was a terrific post for the Agency, until suddenly it wasn’t. Despite nearly 30 years of cooperation, the Greek colonels who seized power in 1974 kept the CIA in the dark about their intentions. Further, they successfully misled the Americans about their intentions to invade Cyprus and unify that island with the rest of Greece. “There we were,” [US diplomat Tom] Boyatt said years later, “sitting there with the entire intelligence establishment of the United States in all of its majesty having been conned by a piss-ant Greek brigadier general.” (p. 333)

Later on in the book, Weiner leans on the sources he has developed in his career at the New York Times. Access journalism brings its own problems, and intelligence officials are not the only ones who leave embarrassing facts out of their written accounts. Weiner rightly excoriates the George W. Bush administration for falsifying the intelligence used to launch its 2003 war in Iraq. Not once, however, does he mention the crucial role that the Times played in laundering those fabrications for the general public. Nor does he mention George W. Bush administration’s outing of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent who had served under non-official cover, in retaliation for her husband’s public doubting of the administration’s dubious claims about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. It was an exceptionally personal settling of partisan scores by an administration.

There are some oddities in the book: Weiner seems to share establishment Washington’s warm embrace of the first George Bush and the baseless disdain for Bill Clinton. Weiner shows that Bush was up to his eyeballs in the criminal conspiracy of Iran-Contra, a harebrained scheme that he depicts in detail. Weiner writes scornfully that after several CIA employees were shot while waiting in a turning lane in Arlington, Clinton did not visit personally to pay his respects; “he sent his wife instead.” (p. 443) Nevermind that by the time Weiner wrote Legacy of Ashes Hillary Clinton had been elected a US Senator in her own right, would soon serve as Secretary of State, and had already been a high-ranking envoy numerous times, Weiner reduces her to an unnamed appendage.

This sexism is perhaps also part of his sneaking admiration for “old-school CIA,” white, Protestant, Ivy League and recruited from that milieu to go forth and change the world. While that background might barely have been sufficient for the European theater of World War II and its immediate aftermath, it was utterly inadequate to guide American policy anywhere else. One of the CIA’s consistent failure modes is an inability to understand the societies in which it is working, and an unwillingness to see them as anything but objects to be pulled and manipulated. Drawing large shares of its personnel and an even larger share of its leadership from a very narrow slice of America’s population is surely part of that persistent failure. Institutional sexism undoubtedly played and plays a role as well. I cannot think of any women in Legacy of Ashes who undertake significant action; whether that is an omission of Weiner’s or a reflection of the Agency’s history, I do not know.

Legacy of Ashes makes the case that the relationship between democracy and spying is bound to be fraught. In the best of circumstances, civilian leaders will be open to informed and objective advice from the intelligence services. Those services, in turn, will respect their civilian leaders as representatives of the nation, and will serve the nation rather than their own institutional or — as has happened too often, personal and corrupt — interests. Both will pay attention to long-term interests rather than short-term tactical advantages. They will be aware of the costs of exposure, and of keeping relationships when they are detrimental to the United States. Weiner makes clear that these conditions have almost never existed. Covert operations thinks it should be free of any oversight; presidents only listen to the intelligence that they want to hear. It’s a sobering book, documenting problems that won’t go away.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/11/17/legacy-of-ashes-by-tim-weiner/


  1. One of the things I found striking in this book (and I think I was the one who sent it to you) was the inability of the CIA to provide information that was beyond the reach of most mainstream journalism. Weiner cited how Carter used to wonder why his CIA briefings never told him anything he couldn’t have found in the daily newspapers, and how during the Gulf War the CIA marveled at CNN’s ability to provide on-the-ground coverage from Iraq and reportedly asked, “Why can’t we do that?”

    Regarding another point you made, Weiner did call into question the CIA’s preference for recruiting Ivy League wasps, in his words, people who merely looked good in a suit, or people who fit the James Bond profile of the gentleman spy. I would like to think that in the wake of 9-11 the culture has changed somewhat, but I am hardly in the loop for such things.

    Your reading of this book is much more informed and critical than mine was, which is understandable, given your education and background. I am encouraged that you manage to make such good use of the books I occasionally send you. I would be more encouraged though if people with some influence read your reviews, but maybe there are some wonks and politicos lurking on this site that we are unaware of.

    1. Yes, you sent this one to me, and thank you!

      He does eventually talk about the problems that Ivy League recruiting posed for the CIA, but really as soon as they’re in Iran in ’53 or dealing with Mao versus the Nationalists after the end of WWII they needed to be reaching into diverse communities so whenever Weiner notes it (80s? 90s?) that was waaaayy too late.

      By the way, Djilas, who was Tito’s #2, says that Tehran during the war was essentially a Soviet outpost, so as much grief as toppling Mossadegh eventually brought about, it’s not a completely unreasonable thing to have done. If you’re going to have a covert service at all. I’m not sure where Weiner stands on that question. He certainly catalogues all of the ways that things can and did go wrong, but it may be that the only thing worse than having a covert service is not having one. (Early on in the book Weiner writes about how much more effective Soviet services were than American ones, and I was like, dude, (1) organizational chaos as Cheka becomes OGPU becomes NKVD becomes KGB and probably well over 100% turnover as officers (and directors!) are shot for political reasons; and (2) speaking of operational failures: Barbarossa, hel-lo, easily three orders of magnitude worse than Pearl Harbor.)

      For all that journalists are maligned, doing better than all of them combined is really hard. There’s a fascinating movement now called open-source intelligence. The best (ok, probably only) organization I know doing it is an outfit called Bellingcat. They’ve done things like identify the GRU agents involved with poisonings in Britain, or documented the amount of Russian support in eastern Ukraine and the direct links between Russian units and the downing of the Malaysian airliner. They are also, I think, involved in things like combating human trafficking. The gist of the approach is that with a sufficient number of eyes, problems become transparent. They are able, for example, to identify specific locations in the background of photos because their networks reach people with the necessary local knowledge. It’s a really interesting development.

      You are very kind about my review, though given that the book is 12 years old now, it’s like my poli sci professor said in 1990 of his class in comparative communist systems: “I sold it to the history department.” I do know one person who might well have been on Hillary’s NSC; he’s sharp, experienced, and working in a think tank on Middle East issues these days. The only significant Republican in this realm I know (though I am not connected with him on social media) is also very smart; he is spending the Trump years in a non-partisan financial institution.

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