August 6, 2007
The CIA is no stranger to criticism. Intelligence work, focused as it is on the
uncertain, the unknown, and the deliberately hidden, comes with great
difficulty and risk. There will be
shortcomings and unpleasant surprises. That
said, Tim Weiner’s recently published book, Legacy
of Ashes, paints far too dark a picture of the agency’s past. Backed by selective citations, sweeping
assertions, and a fascination with the negative, Weiner overlooks, minimizes,
or distorts agency achievements.
the CIA accurately assessed the chances of war with the Soviets as nil. According to Weiner, that was a failure
“because no one listened.” The
development of the U-2 spyplane was a stunning technological achievement that offered
a unique look behind the Iron Curtain. To Weiner, it is tied to failure, because the CIA should have had better
human sources inside the Soviet Union. Through analytic rigor, the agency made a
near-perfect forecast of the 1967 Mideast War. Weiner attributes it wholly to information from a foreign intelligence
service. The CIA offered accurate and
timely warning of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, a fact Weiner
obscures in his narrative.
but a few examples. The story of Pyotr Popov,
the CIA’s first major Soviet spy, gets very short shrift. Weiner rightly speaks of the Soviet sources
killed by the treachery of Aldrich Ames, yet never mentions the skill it took
to recruit those sources or the intelligence they provided the United States. Time and again, Weiner takes things to the
darkest corner of the room. He knows
better. In promoting his book, he says
the design and deployment of intelligence satellites and the study of imagery
from them “helped keep the Cold War cold.” That in itself was no minor achievement.
claims to be “the” history of the CIA, the book is marked by errors great and
small. Here is a relatively brief, and
admittedly incomplete, catalogue:
book points out that covert actions are undertaken at the behest of the
President to achieve specific ends at specific times. To Weiner, those objectives are illegitimate,
to be viewed solely through the prism of events decades later, as though
you can draw a simple, straight, decisive line of causation through years of
book states that a 1952 operation in Manchuria
undertaken by two CIA officers, Dick Fecteau and Jack Downey, was a
personnel rescue mission. In fact,
the purpose of the operation was to recover documents.
book charges that Frank Wisner, a pioneer of the agency’s covert
operations, successfully resisted Director of Central Intelligence Walter
Bedell Smith’s order to cancel ineffective ones. But a major Asian program was shut down
in 1953—on Wisner’s watch as the head of CIA’s covert operations.
book states that the National Security Agency (NSA) was created in response
to an interception and decryption program that was compromised in
1949. In fact, the NSA was
established in 1952 to correct serious problems with military signals
intelligence during the Korean War.
book alleges that the CIA used Radio Free Europe to spark the 1956
Hungarian uprising. But Weiner’s
main source for this idea is a Radio Free Europe memo that was written after the uprising.
book suggests that the CIA didn’t predict the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As a number of prominent outside observers have noted, the agency
had warned of trouble signs in the Soviet Union
on regular occasions since the 1970s.
book states that current CIA Director Michael Hayden is the first active
duty military officer to lead the agency since Walter Bedell Smith in the
1950s. But Stansfield Turner was an
active duty admiral in the U.S. Navy during the first two years of his
tenure as Director of Central Intelligence.
Weiner’s telling of his juiciest tale, involving the American ambassador to Guatemala,
is gravely flawed. There is much less to
this than Weiner suggests—for starters, the supposed intelligence on which it
is based did not even come from the CIA or a CIA source. As is so often the case, there is more than
one side to the story. But you would not
know that from Weiner’s book.
What of the
CIA today? This is the agency that did
much to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan
after 9/11 and collapse the Al-Qa’ida safe haven there. This is the agency that unraveled the A.Q.
Khan proliferation network and learned enough about Libya’s
nuclear program to persuade Tripoli
to step back from it. And the agency
that has helped foil terrorist plots and erode the structure and leadership of
a terrorist movement that is extremely dangerous and highly adaptable. Weiner’s verdict: These skilled and dedicated officers are “the
weakest cadre of spies and analysts in the history of the CIA.”
makes no claims to perfection—far from it. We strive each day to learn from our successes and failures. Not even Weiner can claim that the CIA
shrinks from its past. The huge volume
of material we have declassified, rare for an intelligence service, underscores
the point. With a strong range of
sources, Tim Weiner had an opportunity to write a balanced history of a
complex, important subject. But he did
not. His bias overwhelms his
scholarship. One cannot learn the true
story of the CIA from Legacy of Ashes.