CIA Statement on “Legacy of Ashes”
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.
In 1948, 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.
Those are 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.
Despite its 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:
The book’s first few paragraphs mistakenly assert that President Harry Truman never wanted the CIA to engage in covert action. But he signed National Security Council (NSC) directives assigning responsibility for covert action to the CIA—at a time when CIA officials were skeptical about taking on this mission. Weiner himself notes in the book that Truman’s NSC approved 81 covert CIA actions.
The 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 complicated history.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Even 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.”
The agency 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.