The CIA Gets an F

Reviewed by Shmuel Rosner

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner
Anchor Books, 2007, 812 pages.

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ormer president Richard Nixon was probably overstating the case when he said, “The CIA isn’t worth a damn.” Perhaps he was simply venting his frustrations, but if one accepts the basic thesis proffered by author Tim Weiner in his celebrated book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, he was not altogether far from the truth.
Weiner, a New York Times reporter who has spent years covering the CIA, read 50,000 pages of documents—including the declassified oral and internal histories of the CIA—before writing his history of the agency or, to be more accurate, his history of the CIA’s failures. From a political perspective, his point of view is somewhat surprising. Weiner appears to be a man of the center-left, and he is very critical of the George W. Bush administration, which he blames for running a “faith-based” foreign policy. And yet, his book could easily qualify as an essentially right-wing indictment of the intelligence community.
The political left has always tended to complain about the CIA’s secrecy and its abuses of power—its ostensibly immoral involvement in orchestrating political coups in Latin America, its relationships with thugs and despots, and its lack of respect for democratic institutions. The American right, by contrast, has tended to question the CIA’s capabilities and grumble about its incompetence. Weiner, for the most part, gives more ammunition to the second of the two camps. Indeed, many Bush aides—including some long-departed neo-conservatives—will find their misgivings echoed in Weiner’s book. The same criticisms they could not voice in public without being accused of politicizing intelligence are readily found in this lengthy and detailed tome.

Shmuel Rosner is a journalist and blogger.

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