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.

This was hardly the last time an American president felt, and rightly so, that he wasn’t getting what he needed from the CIA. “In his wrath after the Bay of Pigs,” Weiner writes, “John Kennedy first wanted to destroy the CIA.” He didn’t. When Lyndon Johnson discovered that a CIA report claiming that Cuba was behind a coup in the Dominican Republic was baseless, he “took no further counsel from his new director of Central Intelligence.” “It was no secret that I was dissatisfied with the CIA,” Richard Nixon replied when he was asked if the agency helped bring down his presidency. For his part, Jimmy Carter “pronounced himself puzzled at the fact that the CIA’s daily brief recapitulated what he read in the newspapers.”
According to Weiner, various officials have attempted to deal with the CIA’s shortcomings, but these efforts were made with no clear goal in mind and no strategy for success, and they were thus doomed to failure. From the Church Committee of the 1970s, “remembered today chiefly for its chairman’s statement that the agency had been ‘a rogue elephant’—a pronouncement that badly missed the point by absolving the presidents who had driven the elephant,” to the 9/11 Commission, which succeeded only in adding more layers of bureaucracy to America’s already byzantine conglomerate of intelligence services, all attempts at reforming the CIA have fallen well short of the goal.
A new president will be taking office in January of 2009, and the indications are that even though the issue has not been central to the presidential campaign—it is too complicated and risky for such high-stakes politicking—both candidates understand that reforming the intelligence community is a challenge that must be faced by any new and ambitious administration. Weiner, hoping his book will serve as a warning, advises future presidents to “give immediate and sustained attention to the heart and soul of the CIA.” It is not clear, however, that “sustained attention” will be enough. Judging by this book and the many others dealing with the American intelligence community which have emerged in the wake of 9/11, it seems clear that more profound changes may be necessary.
Can the CIA be saved? In the final analysis, this may not be the most important question. The question Americans should be asking themselves is: How can we get better intelligence? For U.S. presidents, the question is even more pressing, and if the CIA cannot be relied upon, they will turn to other sources to get their answers. One option is military intelligence. Not long ago, an article appeared in Mother Jones in which a civilian intelligence officer criticized John McCain and his aides for relying on military intelligence information rather than the CIA. “They think the CIA is a hotbed of liberals,” he said. “Right-wing, nutty paranoia stuff. They all love the military and hate the CIA. Because the CIA tells them stuff they don’t want to hear.”
Indeed, as Weiner recounts in his book, there was an ongoing “battle for control of American intelligence” between civilian and military agencies “that went on for three generations.” He concludes that, in the end, “the Pentagon… crushed the CIA, just as it vowed to do sixty years before.” Weiner appears to find this more troubling than comforting, and many Americans share his sentiments. Such critics blame the military for being complacent in the months leading up to the Iraq war, and for outdoing the CIA in its efforts to provide a pretext for the Bush administration’s war of choice.
In truth, however, there is a convincing case to be made for relying on the Pentagon over the CIA. For many years now, intelligence officers working at the Pentagon have proved more reliable than the CIA, delivering correct assessments of almost every major crisis. Examples are plentiful: When the CIA said that the Soviets were not going to position missiles in Cuba, the Pentagon made the opposite case. When the CIA said that the arms race would not bankrupt the Soviet Union, the Pentagon begged to differ. The CIA doubted that Sunni and Shi’ite terrorists could collaborate, but the Pentagon took the more alarmist view and got it right. In fact, the Pentagon has gotten it right most of the time precisely because it has tended to take the more alarmist view. 
To the foreign observer, it sometimes seems as if American culture itself is the primary cause of the miserable state of its intelligence agencies. Clearly, changing a country’s basic culture is not a viable method of reforming its clandestine apparatus—and probably not an advisable one. And indeed, there is something morally commendable in the fact that a country like the United States has difficulties sustaining its clandestine operations. America’s problems with intelligence seem to derive from certain fundamental values—resistance to institutionalized secrecy, fear of government lawlessness, and distaste for political deceit—which have always been part of the American consensus.
Unfortunately, such objectionable practices as secrecy and deceit are often the stock and trade of good intelligence work. As a result, Americans’ relationship with their own intelligence services is often deeply ambivalent. Indeed, on the first page of Legacy of Ashes, Weiner quotes Eisenhower’s statement that having a spy agency is a “distasteful but vital necessity.” There is reason to suspect that America still treats the necessity of spying with the kind of distaste that makes it difficult for an intelligence agency to thrive. Aware of the necessity but unwilling to lower the bar of moral expectations—the recent controversy over the Bush administration’s eavesdropping programs are a good example—American society continues to place many obstacles in the way of its intelligence agencies, so as to ensure that they do not interfere with the American way of life.
Of course, there are many good reasons for limiting the authority of clandestine government actions. The power given to the CIA has been abused many times at the hands of over-eager operatives, and no less by lawful politicians such as Johnson, Nixon, and, some would certainly say, Bush as well. These abuses have contributed mightily to the problems of the CIA: They have eroded public support for the agency and all the benefits one gets from such support, and they have given the CIA an excuse for its own incompetence.
In Against All Enemies, his account of the war on terror, former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke writes that former secretary of state Madeleine Albright once told him “it was easy to understand why [the CIA] was risk-averse: It acts in a passive-aggressive way, she said, as if ‘it has battered-child syndrome.’”
Legacy of Ashes more than confirms this description. In fact, it shows in great detail how the agency tends to swing between extremes of behavior: It is either too cautious or too reckless; too reluctant to take risks and put real spies on the ground, or too quick to send cash and ammunition to dubious allies, hoping for quick fixes in the form of coups and rebellions; it either drags its feet when the president asks for help, or acts rashly without properly warning the commander-in-chief of possible, even probable consequences.
Worse still, the agency can always hide behind the thick walls of its own bureaucracy, claiming to be doing a purely “professional” job, even as it tries to set the national agenda and dictate what it considers a desirable outcome. Indeed, if there is any flaw in this excellent volume, it is that Weiner pays an undue amount of attention to the ways the CIA has been used by various presidents in order to achieve their predetermined goals. Not enough attention is paid, however, to the intelligence community’s manipulation of the president, often by giving him only a fraction of the information he needs and thus limiting his options.
If there is to be a sequel to Legacy of Ashes, Weiner would be well advised to address this aspect of the CIA’s problematic legacy. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran that was ceremoniously submitted last year—announcing to an astonished world that Iran’s military nuclear program was halted four years ago—is a good place to start.
The NIE report—issued out of the CIA’s eagerness to eliminate the possibility of violent action by the Bush administration and to calm the debate over Tehran’s intentions—blatantly employed intelligence means in order to achieve political ends. Whether Iran had actually halted its nuclear program was beside the point, because the country’s long-term plan of achieving nuclear capabilities remained unchanged. Seven years after 9/11, the CIA was correcting one mistake—its overselling of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program—by making another: underselling Iran’s weapons of mass destruction program. In doing so, it was laying the groundwork for its next predictable failure. The legacy of ashes continues, and there is no end in sight.

Shmuel Rosner is a journalist and blogger.

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