Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tim Weiner talk

Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes, came to campus for a talk, which was fascinating. He is a very smart guy and a really engaging speaker. I reviewed his book way back in January, and some commenters came down very hard on him. I also noted in the review that the CIA's declassified in-house journal had slammed the book. I noted that and asked him, therefore, what reactions he had personally received from the CIA. He said he truly believed that he had written a book based on facts rather than any ideological slant, and that he had received quite a bit of feedback from people in the CIA, to the effect that the book was not easy for them to read because of the criticism, but that "it was true."

In fact, if anything his talk was very pro-CIA, in the sense of believing in it as a potentially positive contributor to U.S. foreign policy (certainly not in the sense that it is doing a great job). He argued that we should blame presidents much more than the CIA itself, which is following presidential orders--I felt he was much harder on the CIA in the book, and so in this regard I agreed more with the book than the talk. He argued that poor intelligence hurts everyone, so we need more experienced people with language skills to take intelligence jobs. This, however, requires restoring the credibility of the U.S. and the government by stopping torture, respecting constitutional rights, etc.

It was a fascinating talk, with some great questions and much food for thought. With popular opinion of government in general at abysmal levels, we all should be thinking about not only who to blame (which is indeed a critical issue) but also how to move forward and create a national strategy that doesn't just end up screwing ourselves in the long run and killing people with no thought of either morality or consequence.


Anonymous,  9:49 AM  

I was dissuaded from picking up Legacy of Ashes based on the criticism I read of the book. However, The CIA and the Culture of Failure, which I believe addresses some of the same themes as Ashes, looks to be a more promising alternative.

Greg Weeks 10:05 AM  

It is unfortunate that you allowed others to stop you following your own curiosity.

Anonymous,  11:33 AM  

I almost always read reviews before making a decision to buy a book. Some times I buy on impulse, but usually I buy a book because of the reviews. Its all about maximizing limited resources....

Greg Weeks 11:39 AM  

I mostly note that as well because it got many positive reviews. In your defense, however, it is a long book and so requires a time commitment you may not want if you're not sure.

Anonymous,  12:01 PM  

Well, that's exactly it. It's the time commitment issue. I tend to be really sure I want to read a book before I buy it (unless I'm rummaging through a used book sale in which case the cost differential adds a new dynamic). In this case, since the reviews were mixed I decided against it. My decision, though, was aided by the persuasiveness of the negative criticism.

Greg Weeks 12:03 PM  

Well, in this case you missed out.

Anonymous,  8:05 PM  

So they say.... I'll wait until I find it a used book sale.... In the mean time, Culture of Failure might hold me over. Thanks for reporting on Tim Weiner presentation.

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