four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
30-Sept-Oct-2007
By: 
Tim Weiner
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0

The History of the CIA

A-Legacy of AshesCIA. The acronym conjures images of poison pens, double agents, and clandestine battles of wits. But reality, Tim Weiner claims, differs. Starting with its creation during the Truman administration, the agency has treaded a fine line between effective intelligence gathering and political expedience (witness the run-up to the war in Iraq, only one of many examples Weiner offers), often with disastrous consequences. Even during the height of the Cold War, the CIA could not get the upper hand on the Soviets, and feared the Evil Empire to its last days. Along the way, the agency "somehow missed the fact that its main enemy was dying." That response would become something of a mantra, replayed again and again as the CIA tried to live up to its reputation as the world’s leading intelligence agency.
Doubleday. 702 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 038551445X

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[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." Tim Rutten

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[Weiner] has written a fascinating yet scathing history of America’s spy service, which, almost since its inception six decades ago, has rarely accomplished its central mission: to gather and analyze intelligence that informs the president of what is happening in the world. … Legacy of Ashes should be must-reading for every presidential candidate—and every American who wants to understand why the nation repeatedly stumbles into one disaster abroad after another." Ann Blackman

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Tim Weiner’s engrossing, comprehensive Legacy of Ashes is a litany of failure. … [B]y using tens of thousands of declassified documents and on-the-record recollections of dozens of chagrined spymasters, Weiner paints what may be the most disturbing picture yet of C.I.A. ineptitude." Evan Thomas

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Weiner chronicles the CIA’s willful ignorance, arrogance and so-called intelligence measured in quantity rather than quality, and poor judgment with anecdotes that often sound like plots invented by an evilly comic John le Carré." Elizabeth Grossman

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Weiner punctures claims by the spymasters at the Central Intelligence Agency that they have a track record of thwarting enemy threats and serving their nation well. … Legacy of Ashes is recent history at its best, and its most dismaying." Steve Weinberg

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[Mr. Weiner] lays out the agency’s 60 years of operation, unearthing many newly declassified reports—and he details exactly where he found them. … Legacy of Ashes is the best book I’ve yet read on the CIA’s covert actions." Edward Jay Epstein

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although most of Weiner’s research is superb, he unfortunately perpetuates the legend that CIA director Richard Helms stood firm against Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up. … If there is a flaw in Legacy of Ashes, it is that Weiner’s scorn for the old boys who ran the place is so unrelenting and pervasive that it tends to detract from his overall argument." David Wise

Critical Summary

Tim Weiner, multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, longtime New York Times reporter, and the author of Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, American Spy (1995) and Blank Check: The Pentagon’s Black Budget (1991) hits his marks in Legacy of Ashes. Drawing on more than 50,000 documents and 300 on-the-record interviews with key players (10 of them former directors of the agency; all of the book’s many notes and quotations are attributed), Weiner treats his subject with a ruthless, journalistic eye, skewering Republican and Democratic administrations alike for the CIA’s slide into mediocrity. One critic finds a weakness in Weiner’s exuberant dismantling of the old guard at the expense of more contemporary analysis. Still, this is an important book that will capture the attention of anyone interested in the CIA’s checkered history.