Tim Weiner. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Anchor Books, 2008.
This is both an illuminating and frustrating book. Tim Weiner is a long-time reporter for the New York Times whose beat has been the American intelligence community. This book won numerous rewards, is engagingly written, and draws on a remarkable selection of sources—including direct interviews with many involved in intelligence work and wide-ranging examination of archival materials.
Weiner probably is uniquely qualified to write this book. To his credit, he names names, cites his sources, lays the materials openly on the table. I think we should, to a large extend at least, believe the tales he tells. And hair-raising tales they are. Weiner shows us that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Central Intelligence Agency has from its beginning in the aftermath of World War II been a force for incredible evil in the world.
At the same time as we learn of the CIA’s mostly uninhibited zeal for murder and mayhem, generally in the context of the denial of self-determination for innumerable peoples around the world, we also learn of the extraordinary failures of the Agency. Most notably, the CIA utterly failed to gain understanding of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. In the first couple of decades, the CIA left the American government pretty much completely in the dark concerning Soviet activities and intentions. It’s amazing and extremely distressing to realize that the entire first generation of American cold warriors, who shaped our nation in tragic ways toward domination by militarism, beat the drums of warning against the Soviet threat with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of what was actually going on with the Soviets. It truly boggles the mind.
Then, at the end of the Cold War, with the CIA continuing to feed its political masters the analyses that were desired to sustain the Cold War that had become so profitable for the American Military-Industrial Complex, our “intelligence” service complete missed the signs of the impending collapse of the Soviet system.
However, sadly, the book is not nearly as good as it could have been. Weiner is a good storyteller, and he treats us to some extraordinary stories—most profoundly distressing. The sum is less than the parts, though. We mostly just get one story after another, numbing and troubling details one on top of the other. But Weiner does little to put it all in perspective. Part of the problem is how Weiner gives us some swashbuckling details about various nefarious projects such as the overthrow of governments in Iran and Guatemala, the attempt to overthrow the government of Indonesia, and involvement in the overthrow of Chile’s government—but he doesn’t give us much followup on the long-term devastation wrought by these actions. And he does little to connect the dots between the CIA’s original violence and the blowback over time in terms of ensuing wars and conflicts (seen, most obviously, in Iran and Afghanistan).
Weiner doesn’t himself seem to accept the logic of the account he gives. Simply based on this book, we would have to conclude that the CIA has been hopelessly flawed from the start, embarking upon one disastrous mission after another, combining incompetence with malevolence. But in the end, inexplicably, Weiner leaves us with a pretty benign conclusion—the U.S. needs the kind of intelligence the CIA could provide for the well-being of our nation, so let’s hope for constructive reform. Strangely, as he recounts the demise of the CIA in the 21st century, Weiner acts as if the earlier history included many successes—even though he has not told us of those and in fact tells stories of one failure after another.
With all the shortcomings of this book, Legacy of Ashes nonetheless paints a devastating picture of American foreign policy. From its beginnings, the CIA has constantly subverted democracy both within the US and around the world.
The story of its involvement in Iran captures the utter corruption of America’s ways in the world. First of all, in the years immediately following World War II, Iran was being blatantly robbed by British and American oil companies as the global petroleum economy took off. Understandably, the Iranians desired to exercise some self-determination in the use of their nation’s natural resources. This was unacceptable. So, the ball got rolling when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed flatly the desire that the moderate, democratically established Iranian government be overthrown. For various reasons, the task of accomplishing this overthrow fell to the CIA. The CIA bumbled and stumbled, but did manage in the end violently to get rid of the democratic government, to install the Shah as Iran’s dictator, and stand behind what became an extraordinarily repressive government that fed millions of petro-dollars to Western oil companies. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the Shah ultimately was overthrown and Iran became part of what came to be known as the “Axis of Evil.”
Even though Weiner does not give us a lot of direct help in making sense of present-day Iran in relation to this terrible history, he gives us enough information to undermine completely any alleged moral high ground that American might take vis-a-vis the “Islamicist regime” in Iran. If we go to war on Iran, it will simply be a continuation of the destructive imperialism we have been practicing there for more than half a century.
Weiner also makes it clear, though with too little elaboration, that all post-World War II American presidents have been utterly disdainful of the ideals of democracy and self-determination whenever it suited their interests to “turn the CIA loose” in messing with other countries. One story I was unfamiliar with was President Eisenhower’s orders that the CIA overthrow the government of Indonesia in the 1950s. Due to incompetence, the Americans failed initially; but the stage was set for one of this centuries worse bloodbaths several years later when General Suharto came into power and under his leadership (and with CIA complicity) hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were slaughtered. Weiner doesn’t give us much on the followup, and doesn’t mention at all a later directly related bloodbath when Indonesia massacred hundreds of thousands of Timorese.
The big irony of Weiner’s story, which he completely misses, is that with all its malevolence and incompetence, the CIA utterly failed in its stated task of serving American national security—yet, the sky did not fall! America didn’t need the kind of “intelligence” the CIA was supposed to provide after all. The CIA’s is indeed a “legacy of ashes,” but its extraordinary failures did not result in severe damage to the United States. We more or less managed just fine without the CIA’s “product.” In fact, to the extent that America’s genuine national interests have been at risk in the past sixty years, it has not been because of the failures of the CIA to protect us from our “enemies,” but because of how the CIA has created enemies due to its violent and destructive deeds (see Chalmers Johnson’s excellent recent books for more on this point).