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

Tim Weiner, who reports on intelligence for the New York Times, has written an essential but flawed book about an essential but flawed agency. Legacy of Ashes, he declares, is “the first history of the CIA compiled entirely from firsthand reporting and primary documents.” That is the book’s great strength, and its great weakness.

It’s a strength, because the secondary literature on secret intelligence chokes with myth and guesswork. For every good book, such as Thomas Powers’s classic The Man Who Kept the Secrets, scores of bad ones have appeared, alleging, say, that the CIA killed JFK, concocted AIDS to kill black people, or orchestrated the World Trade Center attacks. Because Weiner doesn’t reference even the good books in the field, he doesn’t perpetuate the errors in the bad ones. If, as John Lukacs suggests, the historian’s calling is not just to establish truth, but to reduce untruth, then Tim Weiner has performed a real service.

Yet his reliance on primary sources crimps the value of the work. Weiner has read 50,000 pages of documents, most importantly the CIA’s own declassified oral and internal histories. But as the CIA itself has discovered, the more information one collects, the tougher it is to separate the “signals” from the “noise.” And like the CIA, Weiner is better at collecting the facts than interpreting them.

It’s difficult to see how Weiner derived some of his judgments. “The supreme goal of the CIA during the cold war was to steal Soviet secrets by recruiting spies,” Weiner writes, “but the CIA never possessed a single one who had deep insight into the workings of the Kremlin.” Yet as he notes elsewhere in the book, moles such as Pyotr Popov, Oleg Penkovksy, and Anatoly Golitysn all gave the CIA deep insight into the Kremlin. Weiner also asserts that Allen Dulles, CIA director in the 1950s, “refused to pay attention to anything but covert action,” that is, dirty tricks by human spies. But Dulles persuaded President Eisenhower to approve the high-tech U-2 spy plane project, as Weiner points out. In what Weiner calls “the battle between the spies and the gadgets,” Dulles fought for both sides.

Some of Weiner’s judgments are beyond dispute: “The annals of the Central Intelligence Agency are filled with folly and misfortune, along with acts of bravery and cunning.” That’s a truism few would contest, yet the book lacks the balance implied by that statement. Indeed, Legacy of Ashes is a litany of blunders. Weiner relates the agency’s failures in whole chapters, while he relegates its successes to mere clauses. For instance, he mentions but does not linger over the four crowning achievements of James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s famous counterspy chief, who pilfered Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin; cultivated alliances with British and especially Israeli intelligence; and assessed the Six-Day War correctly. Most critically, Weiner concedes: “As far as anyone knows, the CIA was never penetrated by a traitor or a Soviet spy during the twenty years that Angleton ran counterintelligence.”

By focusing so relentlessly on the agency’s failures, Weiner produces the story of “how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service.” Yet the United States has never actually wanted one true spy service, on the model of England’s MI6. Instead, it has tried to create a first-rate spy community.

That community reflects the character of our culture: it’s a crazy-quilt of checks and balances, division of labor, specialization, decentralization, friendship with free nations, civilian control of the military, and a distrust of secrecy dating to the Salem witch trials. The result is an over-managed yet under-coordinated system, spanning not just dozens of U.S. agencies, but dozens of other governments, and even nongovernmental organizations. It includes not just the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon, but functional partners in British and Israeli intelligence, treaty alliances such as NATO and SEATO, and even information sharing with transnational entities such as the United Nations, the Vatican, and Google.

The CIA’s job is to sit atop the vast system and make sense of it. At the dawn of the new millennium, it didn’t do so–principally, as the 9/11 Commission found, because it didn’t coordinate well with the FBI. “Now the CIA must be rebuilt if it is to survive,” Weiner pronounces. He does not say how this should be done, but two sub-themes in his book are suggestive.

First, the agency needs more men like Angleton. Weiner repeats, uncritically, some CIA officers’ view that “Angleton was unsound” because his presentations were “loose and disjointed” and his theories cut against the grain. One could say the same of Albert Einstein, however, and Angleton’s results have never been equaled.

President Eisenhower, who found the CIA “one of the most peculiar types of operation any government can have,” decided: “It probably takes a strange kind of genius to run it.” Angleton had that genius, as even his detractors admit. Yet over the years, as former CIA Director Robert Gates laments to Weiner, the agency has hesitated to hire “people who are a little different, people who are eccentric.” Former general counsel Jeffrey Smith says the agency’s management “must always worry about finding that extraordinarily rare individual who has the talent to deal in this deceptive and manipulative world and keep his or her own moral ballast.” That’s nothing if not a call for a new Angleton, who once described intelligence as a “wilderness of mirrors,” in which he always “remembered his own lies.”

Second, the CIA’s duel with the Pentagon points toward another course for reform. Weiner alludes to “a battle for control of American intelligence that went on for three generations.” He concludes that “the Pentagon had crushed the CIA, just as it vowed to do sixty years before,” though he neglects to explain why the Pentagon’s intelligence value to policymakers has grown.

The simple answer: the Pentagon’s judgments about the world have generally proved sounder than the CIA’s. In the 1960s, the CIA said that the Soviets wouldn’t put missiles in Cuba; in the 1970s, that their missiles weren’t accurate; in the 1980s, that the missile budget wouldn’t bankrupt Moscow; and in the 1990s, that Russia’s democratic reforms were irreversible. In each case, the Pentagon argued the opposite case, and turned out to be right. Similarly, in the 1980s, the CIA said that the Soviets weren’t sponsoring terrorism, and then, in the 1990s, that Sunni and Shiite terrorists wouldn’t cooperate. In each case, again, the Pentagon rightly claimed otherwise.

Why have the soldiers so often got it right where the spooks have got it wrong? Fifty years ago, political scientist Samuel Huntington offered a clue. In The Soldier and the State, Huntington argued that America’s open society needed a professional military establishment, “steeped in conservative realism.” Generals could not be liberals. To keep the peace, they must prepare for war. They must make the best case for the worst case. They must assume the “irrationality, weakness, and evil in human nature.” Liberals were good at reform, Huntington thought, but not at national security. “Magnificently varied and creative when limited to domestic issues,” he wrote (an assertion we might dispute today), “liberalism faltered when applied to foreign policy and defense.”

The CIA has long been a liberal institution. “There are two kinds of people I never met in the CIA,” quipped retired spy David Atlee Phillips. “One was an assassin, and the other was a Republican.” On the day that the last of the 9/11 hijackers entered the United States, many of the CIA’s officers weren’t at their desks, because they were putting together a quilt to celebrate “Diversity Awareness Day.”

The Pentagon is useful to policymakers because this kind of thing goes on less often there. Defense bureaucracies, notes national security scholar Richard Betts, “are rarely infected with such intellectual vogues as tend to deprecate the possibility of surprise or the eternality of conflict.” Military intelligence officers cannot afford to be celebrators of diversity, utopians, game-theorists, apostles of negotiation, or purveyors of the idea that the Internet will bring us all together.

The military’s disdain for idealism has, admittedly, not earned it good press. The Pentagon’s outlook includes Ronald’s Reagan’s “evil empire,” but excludes his “morning in America.” Yet even if we tire of hearing about evil, evil eventually returns to confirm the warnings. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxim summarizes the dynamic: “There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact.”

To many policy analysts, the rise of military intelligence is cause for alarm. Weiner quotes one worried CIA officer as warning that Pentagon dominance portends a “Kremlin approach.” In fact, the Kremlin never put the military in charge of spying. But until the summer of 1941, the United States did. And when the armed forces did do most of our spying, two things didn’t happen. One was the co-option of foreign policy by the military, which liberals like Tocqueville always feared too much. The other was a catastrophic intelligence failure like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, which the liberals of our own day have never feared enough.

Tim Weiner is no fan of the Bush Administration, which he chastises for pursuing a “faith-based” foreign policy. Yet he’s written what amounts to a brief for the conservative case. As he observes, the Left has typically attacked the CIA “for what it did,” while the Right has attacked it for “what it could not do.” In that sense, Legacy of Ashes is an attack on the CIA from the right.

Weiner hopes that the book will “serve as warning.” He worries that “no republic in history has lasted longer than three hundred years, and this nation may not long endure as a great power unless it finds the eyes to see things as they are in the world.” That’s a melancholy chord, and Weiner rightly lets it echo in the dark.


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