Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes

I really enjoyed Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. I’ve read quite a few good indictments of CIA operations, especially in Latin America (read anything by Stephen Kinzer, whose Bitter Fruit remains a classic, but for other regions All the Shah’s Men and Overthrow also merit mention). The devastation wrought on any number of different countries is well documented. What Weiner does, however, is demonstrate how these operations also show longstanding failure.

Starting with the old OSS in World War II, key decision makers have been obsessed with covert operations, which have consistently come at the expense of analysis. In short, the CIA is almost never able to provide insight into what’s going on in the world. It was clueless about the Soviet Union, North Korea, Iran, and later, of course, also Al Qaeda and Iraq. And in so many ways, covert operations made some of those situations worse. Presidents are also obviously responsible. In a reference to Lyndon Johnson, Weiner gives a quote that at times has fit all post-World War II presidents: “The only path between war and diplomacy was covert action” (p. 237). Time after time, it seems like the easy answer.

The CIA routinely portrayed the 1954 Guatemalan invasion and overthrow as a victory for covert operations. Yet as Weiner points out—and which has been widely analyzed elsewhere--it was largely bungled and “succeeded” only because of dumb luck. It also set a precedent for hiding errors and even lying to the president about the details. This, in turn, contributed to the Bay of Pigs debacle which, of course, was a boon to Fidel Castro.

The Contra War is just painful to read. On the illegal mining of Nicaragua’s harbors:

“I was sitting home one night—frankly, having a glass of gin—and I said, you know, the mines has [sic] got to be the solution!” Clarridge said. The agency made them on the cheap, out of sewer pipe. Casey had notified Congress about the mining with an inaudible mumble. When Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, raised a ruckus about it, CIA officers defamed him as a muddleheaded drunk” (p. 399).

Over time, the CIA lied constantly, in large part simply because it was failing so often that the truth would quite possibly lead to its dissolution. Presidents also lied about covert ops many times, not to save the CIA but rather their own political skins, and consequently took enormous heat when their lies were revealed as such.

What’s really fascinating, though, is that the CIA’s own unclassified in-house journal published a lengthy and critical review of the book as well, written by a CIA historian. He raises some very interesting points about accuracy, and I’d love to see Weiner’s response to the review. But I think the review’s accusations of bias discount Weiner’s expertise too much. The book is extremely critical, yes, but the author’s knowledge and years of extensive interviews with high level officials give him credibility. I also take issue with the latter part of the CIA book review:

In his preface, Weiner claims to believe that the intelligence profession is critical to national security, but he is likely to have done considerable damage, as the people who take up the profession will, I fear, have to deal with his inaccuracies and skewed perspectives for years to come.

This logic is part of the problem. “Bad” books will damage the CIA’s credibility and therefore affect national security. I don’t buy it. The CIA’s failures hurt its credibility more than anything anyone writes about it.


Justin Delacour 9:37 AM  

The CIA routinely portrayed the 1954 Guatemalan invasion and overthrow as a victory for covert operations. Yet as Weiner points out—and which has been widely analyzed elsewhere--it was largely bungled and “succeeded” only because of dumb luck.

I think the more important issue is the awful and bloody legacy the coup ushered in for several generations of Guatemalans afterward.

Anonymous,  2:47 PM  

No, the CIA historian was not saying that "bad" books are those that damage CIA and therefore national security. He was saying that UNTRUE books are bad per se and that this will affect whether people want to work for CIA.

Greg Weeks 4:02 PM  

Fair enough. I would invite everyone to read both the book and review. As I said, given the length and source of the review, I'd love to see a rebuttal.

My own opinion is that the review commits some of the same sins attributed to the book. Just one example: I think the review cherry picks Weiner's discussion about Truman, and mocks him for arguments he doesn't make.

Anonymous,  7:59 PM  

How can a serious Latin Americanist call Bitter Fruit a classic? Are you saying it was a classic at the time it was written or that it's a classic in Guatemala? I only ask because, as I'm sure you know, Bitter Fruit has been largely discredited by Immerman's The CIA in Guatemala and Gleijeses' Shattered Hope. The historiography of Operation Success adds ammunition to the Agency's point that serious history should be written by historians who at least attempt to be objective rather than journalists like Kinzer and Weiner who write with an agenda.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP