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BOOK REVIEW

An open look at how CIA has failed

Legacy of Ashes The History of the CIA Tim Weiner Doubleday: 702 pp., $27.95

June 29, 2007|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

ANY history of a secret agency is bound to be, in certain important respects, provisional.

Even when you take that real-world caveat into account, however, it still is clear that Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" is about as magisterial an account of "the agency's" 60 years as anyone has yet produced. More than that, it is a timely and vital contribution to one of the most fraught debates now roiling our bitterly divided capital: the correct role of the intelligence agencies and their proper relationship not only to the executive and legislative branches but also to the rule of law itself.

Clearly, Weiner's publisher realizes that: When the CIA announced it would this week release redacted accounts of its misconduct over the years -- the so-called family jewels -- this book's release was advanced to this month, from Aug. 7. It was a shrewd decision. The agency's familial gems turned out to be mostly paste -- at best, additional details concerning things already broadly known -- but "Legacy of Ashes," by contrast, fairly glitters with relevance.

Weiner, a New York Times reporter who covered the CIA for that paper during the 1990s, has been working on this book for at least 20 years. He's a superb reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 at the Philadelphia Inquirer for stories he did on the Pentagon's "black," or secret, budget. He turned that material into his first book, which was followed by what many people consider the definitive book on Soviet mole Aldrich H. Ames' devastating betrayal of the CIA.

The most remarkable and, for that matter, admirable thing about "Legacy of Ashes" is that it is based entirely on primary sources and on-the-record interviews. Nothing goes unattributed, and when the author does draw his conclusions -- which he does frequently and with refreshing clarity -- they have that muscular authority that only facts can create.

Those facts are drawn from multiple sources, including the author's exclusive access to the CIA's own numerous secret histories of its operations, from more than 50,000 documents -- many newly declassified -- in the archives of the agency, White House and State Department, from on-the-record interviews with 10 directors of central intelligence and from more than 300 interviews with current and former CIA agents and officials.

In Weiner's view, the story that emerges is "how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service. That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States.... The annals of the Central Intelligence Agency are filled with folly and misfortune, along with acts of bravery and cunning. They are replete with fleeting successes and long-lasting failures abroad.... The one crime of lasting consequence has been the CIA's inability to carry out its central mission: informing the president of what is happening in the world."

The current war in Iraq is but the most immediate bloody consequence of that failure.

Weiner does a brilliant job of delineating the ambivalence that attended the CIA's creation after World War II. President Truman wanted to know what was going on in the world around him but was reluctant to create an "American Gestapo": He was initially convinced that's what a centralized intelligence agency would become. Indeed, the CIA's predecessor in World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), had a spotty record, studded with heroism and spectacularly costly failures. Its severest critics, however, noted that the OSS' greatest strengths had been analytic rather than operational. Truman initially decided to forgo an intelligence agency, and then he was maneuvered into creating the CIA not only by those in the government who thought spies were needed but also by the increasingly urgent exigencies of the nascent Cold War.

None of that ambivalence would keep Truman or his equally conflicted successors from turning to the CIA for extralegal, clandestine operations at home and abroad. The temptation, right down to the present day, simply has proved too great for any occupant of the executive office to resist. The irony, as Weiner documents, is that the agency never has been more of a failure than when it has been most clandestine.

Even its storied "successes" in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and Afghanistan -- all of which are examined in fresh new light in this book -- turned out to be long-term failures. The agency -- despite the incalculable cost of its technical and analytic component -- has failed to give warning of every significant international event from the onset of the Korean War to 9/11. Along the way, it gave American officials and military officials particularly faulty information on the Balkans and Somalia.

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