Book Review — Legacy of Ashes

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner, Doubleday, 2007

This was a very depressing book to read.  According to Weiner’s account, all the horror stories you’ve heard about the CIA are true, and then some.  Apparently the Agency has never been good at what I thought its main mission was — collection and analysis of intelligence.  The CIA never foresaw many of the historic events of the later 20th Century, including the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union,  wars in the Middle East, and India’s nuclear bomb.  The Agency’s focus has been more on covert action, meddling in the internal affairs of dozens of countries and helping to overthrow some governments.  How many of those regime changes advanced our cause in the world? And on a number of occasions, the Agency has ignored the law, including spying on U.S. citizens.

Few people come off well in this account.  More than one president has lied about the Agency’s activities, and some of its directors have done more harm than good; effective leadership from the upper echelons has always been a scarce commodity.  The book is copyrighted in 2007, so there is little insight into the Agency’s current condition, but according to the author, the CIA was at a nadir in 2006.  If I were president, I would never base a decision solely on a CIA analysis.

There are 50 chapters with 514 pages of narrative.  Each chapter has subsections, and they all are titled with a descriptive quote.  The chapter titles give a strong clue as to content: “We Have No Plan”, “Nobody Knew What To Do”, “We Are Going To Catch A Lot of Hell”, and “A Grave Mistake” are some examples.

Is this a believable synopsis?  Tim Weiner is a former New York Times reporter and, according to the biography on the dust jacket, had written on American intelligence for twenty years, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process.  This work has 399 customer reviews on with an average rating of 4.1 stars out of 5, so I’d consider that as a sign of accuracy.  Another indication is 155 pages of notes.

I just wish it wasn’t so.

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