When you think of the CIA, you may envision an elite squad of the brightest and most daring individuals in the country equipped with state-of-the-art gadgets and weapons. You may imagine them penetrating into the highest echelons of terrorist groups and working deep undercover in the most hostile foreign nations. You may see them defending America’s national security by reporting invaluable intelligence procured by deftly cultivating relationships with defectors and suavely deceiving the unsuspecting.
Forget whatever image of the CIA that Hollywood or Tom Clancy portray. The truth is a lot less glamorous and a whole lot more disturbing.
Tim Weiner collected and analyzed more than 50,000 documents from the CIA archives; more than 2 000 oral histories of American intelligence officers, soldiers, and diplomats; and more than 300 interviews with those who’ve worked at the Agency. The result was his latest book, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (200).
Weiner begins with the creation of the CIA in 1947 as a civilian intelligence agency whose main objective was to check the spread of communism during the Cold War. In the long run, the CIA was meant to be the eyes and ears of the President, an intelligence organization informing executive decision-making by collecting and analyzing intelligence of foreign events, politics, cultures, and people. In short, it was supposed to speak truth to power. Weiner argues the CIA has failed to live up to its mission from its very inception. It has left in its wake of failures, in the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a “legacy of ashes.”
The CIA’s track record is quite appalling. It has a great reputation (well, maybe it once did) but a terrible record. Abroad, they planned coups and assassinations, rigged elections, and negligently left their own agents to be captured, interrogated, and executed by the regimes of Stalin and Mao. Domestically, they told bald-faced lies presidents and, when they did tell the truth, persuaded the Commander in Chief to lie to Congress to cover its ass. With all the billions of dollars laundered to them through various means, you’d think they’d provide somewhat decent intelligence on major world events. But the CIA was caught with their pants down for the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Soviet Union, and much more.
One of the Agency’s biggest problems is attracting and recruiting the right kind of talent for its work. All too often, incompetent careerists, provincial old boys who attended Groton then Yale then Harvard Law, and vainglorious but myopic leaders are calling the shots whose stakes include thousands of lives, disgusting amounts of tax-payer dollars, and America’s reputation and values. Eisenhower said it takes a “strange kind of genius” to run the CIA. Weiner writes this genius requires, at the very least,
men and women with the discipline and self-sacrifice of the nation’s best military officers, the cultural awareness and historical knowledge of the nation’s best diplomats, and the sense of curiosity and adventure possessed by the nation’s best foreign correspondents.
We have yet to consistently see officers of this caliber at the CIA.
The end of Legacy of Ashes is extremely infuriating and upsetting to read. It is about the years leading up to September 11, 2001. Top leaders of the American intelligence community knew on September 11, 1998 that if they didn’t fix the CIA, they would have a “catastrophic systemic intelligence failure.” That failure came exactly three years later. Weiner writes,
It was a systemic failure of American government – the White House, the National Security Council, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the congressional intelligence committees. It was a failure of policy and diplomacy. It was a failure of the reporters who covered the government to understand and convey its disarray to their reade But above all it was a failure to know the enemy. It was the Pearl Harbor that the CIA had been created to prevent.
It is so frustrating to learn the CIA had numerous chances to kill Bin Laden before the day his men steered their planes into the Twin Towers. But the CIA director at the time, George Tenet, had lost confidence in his agency’s ability to be right (for good reason too), so he called off the strikes every time. Since 2001, the CIA has degenerated into the President’s extra-constitutional international police, arresting without warrants, setting up illegal prisons in third-world countries, and committing acts of torture.
Weiner does not have an ax to grind with the CIA. He states he wants to see the CIA reformed so that it can do its job correctly.
I hope it may serve as a warning. No republic in history has lasted longer than three hundred years [Actually, the Republic of San Marino has been around since 301. Sorry, Mr. Weiner, you can’t always be right], 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 once was the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency.