Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA


If you want to be really afraid, read Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, a prize-winning history of the CIA based heavily on recently declassified internal documents and hundreds of interviews with former and current agents, including most living directors and some dead ones (the author has been covering the intelligence beat for quite a while). Legacy is a tragic and depressing read, but a good read for any citizen. It’s what I would call a “managerial” or “administrative” history of the CIA in the sense that it floats mostly on the level of policy and general direction and doesn’t get deeply into the details of CIA operations. In some way that’s disappointing, but it’s an eye-opening overview of the CIA.

I always knew that the CIA’s “successes” had deeply damaged American security (I mean Iran, Iraq, Guatemala, Chile, Honduras, and so forth), but I never realized how many catastrophic and damaging failures there were that they managed to keep under wraps during the Cold War. Nor did I fully understand the structural reasons for the idiocy of overthrowing governments and installing dictatorships (i.e. it goes beyond Cold War ideology and to the fact that the CIA was incapable of producing any useful intelligence on the Soviets or the Chinese, who had much more disciplined spy agencies).

The Bay of Pigs is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also Indonesia, abysmal intelligence on the Soviets and the Chinese (worse than worthless). Not to mention fact that the CIA inadvertently supplied much of the operating budget for the Italian communist party for over a decade!
The book gives little hope that the CIA has gotten better or even can as currently structured. Virtually every president has asked the CIA to operate illegally and spy on US citizens within the US in direct violation of its mandate.

That said, Nicholas Dujmovic has a very long review of Legacy of Ashes that calls into question many of Weiner’s basic assertions and has some compelling demonstrations of Weiner’s fast and loose style that mistrepresents facts and quite often simple gets them wrong. In other words, these errors concern not complex matters of interpretation where careful scholars might reasonably disagree, but simple, verifiable facts like what year the president made a given speech. Carelessness is one of the cardinals sins of a historian and Dujmovic’s corrections are constitute an important critique of Weiner’s work.

Dujmovic is a CIA historian and his review appears on the CIA site. Despite the obvious bias inherent in that position, I do think there is a difference between a historian and a journalist, no matter how serious the journalist is. The standard for proof and how far one is willing to go from the facts, and the level of immersion in the specialty are different. In general, this is what makes historians more accurate and more boring than journalists. Of course, there are good historians and bad, good journalists and bad, but historians write primarily for other historians, so the impulse is to get it right even at the cost of being complex, boring and perhaps difficult to follow. Journalist write for non-specialists readers, so the impulse is to make the story compelling and readable and have an interesting narrative arc. Often scrupulous adherence to the facts suffers.

Being only a casual reader here, I can only guess at who to believe, but when it comes to basic facts, I would bet on Dujmovic. When it comes to broader interpretation, though, it’s an open question that I don’t feel qualified to answer. And thought Dujmovic quibbles with Weiner’s facts and his blanket judgements, in between is what I think are the essential conclusions of the book:

  • the CIA was generally poor at intelligence, especially human intelligence and that was not just a recent failing. It has always been true. The US was never able to get decent intelligence on what was happening within the Soviet Union or China. Dujmovic would add that the CIA was good at surveillance intelligence (satellites and spy planes).
  • Presidents need good, ideologically neutral intelligence and need to act on it, but that has never happened either because of the CIA’s inability to provide it or because of the president’s unwillingness to accept it. I think both authors agree on that.
  • The CIA has been a weak institution, adept at creating mayhem, but not at keeping operations secret, except from the American public. I think they more or less agree on that, but would put it in starkly different terms and lay the blame in very different places.
  • covert ops have, overwhelmingly been damaging to the United States and have achieved little of value. Perhaps the one exception, the ultimate outcome of which remains debatable of course, is arming the Afghanis, which played a significant role in bankrupting the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. Since neither the future of Russia nor Afghanistan has been worked out, we can’t really know the legacy of those operations. Clearly, the covert ops in Iran, Chile, Indonesia, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were deeply damaging both to the people of those nations and to the long-term interests of the US. Dujmovic would disagree, no doubt, but then that conclusion is as much a matter of philosophy and the long view versus short view as it is a matter of fact in any way.

When it gets down to more specifics, Dujmovic certainly gives me pause to question many of Weiner’s assertions and, me being in journalist mode, or even worse, “journaling mode” here, this is from memory… so caveat lector. But here are some of Weiner’s other assertions as I recall them:

  • Until Nixon, every president says he’s opposed to the covert service and just wants intelligence, and then quickly becomes drunk on the power of overthrowing governments and throwing elections and they all behave pretty much the same. With Johnson, and then with Nixon, intelligence, however, becomes entirely subservient to politics, a trend that of course had tragic consequences during the Bush admin. Dujmovic has some quibbles about Weiner’s assertions that the CIA more or less conned presidents into covert ops, but that critique, I think, supports the idea that the presidents could not resist the thrill of covert ops.
  • The US overthrew governments and controlled or attempted to control elections in more countries than you can count: Guatemala, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Chile, all the ones you know about. But the US also controlled the elections in Italy for twenty years through cash infusions and propaganda. Johnson actually spent more per voter on the elections in Chile than he did on his own presidential campaign. I’m not sure how one can prove that the US controlled democratic elections, but certainly money has its influence.
  • Through the 1960s, the CIA had few intelligence successes. They predicted that the Soviets were at least three years from an atomic weapon and probably more like seven. Within the week the Soviets exploded a nuclear warhead. They said that the Indonesian government would not respond militarily to the CIA coup attempt for at least six months. As they were giving that briefing to the president, the president received a cable saying that the Indonesian army, [b]with intelligence help from the US military who still regarded Indonesia as a valued ally[/b], had bombed the CIA proxy forces to smithereens. Dujmovic particularly takes issue with the idea that the CIA intelligence was worthless and notes that Weiner gets some of his basic facts wrong, like saying that a CIA report from 1960 grossly understimated the number fo Soviet ICBMs, when in fact the report was from 1957, projecting ICBM levels for 1961.
  • The CIA was full of loose canons and for many years the head of covert ops did not even report to the head of the CIA, but straight to our beloved Attourney General Bobby Kennedy. Dujmovic takes issue with many of the claims here as well though not specifically with regard to Kennedy.
  • After failing utterly to gather intelligence on the Soviets (fact partly disputed by Dujmovic), the CIA got its act together in SE Asia and started getting good, actionable intelligence. Unfortunately, what their intelligence said, as early as 1964, was that the war was not winnable and we should get out. This was completely unacceptable to the hawks in the Kennedy and Johnson admins (Bobby, MacNamara, Bundy, all those). At one point, the CIA estimated there were at least 500,000 VC in South Viet Nam and probably more. The response from the White House and the Pentagon was that number was unacceptable and needed to be below 400,000 or the entire hiearchy of the CIA would be on the chopping block. The report was rewritten to say that there were only 399,000 VC in SVN.
    With Nixon it just gets worse and intelligence is put to political purposes to a degree previously unseen, at least in Weiner’s account.
  • And Dujmovic essentially agrees with the tragic account of US intelligence in the Clinton and Bush years, that we all know too well.
  • And then there’s the legendary incompetence and bumbling of the CIA (and Dujmovic would say that Weiner exaggerates). For decades, the covert ops service sent agents into Eastern Europe, North Korea and China with money and guns to organize local cells. Every one was rounded up and executed. During the 1950s, Kim Philby was passing coordinates of the drops to the Soviets. They rounded up these hapless “commandos”, had them radio back reporting a successful rendez-vous with the partisans, then executed them and took the gold bars and sent them to the Italian Communist Party. For over a decade, most of the funding for the ICP came from CIA gold.

One thing Weiner’s book brought home and Dujmovic’s review did little to dissuade was the feeling that Bobby Kennedy was an evil man. Of course, we know that he got his political start as a lawyer for HUAC hunting communists with another young, ambitious attourney, Richard M. Nixon. Bobby was also, of course, a foot dragger and obstructionist on civil rights issues who got religion on that issue late as well. Now, from Weiner’s book, one can see Bobby really coming into his own as Attourney General when he gets into his elbows with running covert ops, knocking off foreign leaders, throwing elections and generally usurping the power of the Director of Central Intelligence. I don’t know what was in JFK’s mind regarding Viet Nam, but I think this thing about how great the world would have been if John had lived or Bobby had gotten elected is a canard and the one thing the CIA got right is that we didn’t belong in Viet Nam and we weren’t going to win.

Meanwhile, every president ordered the CIA to conduct missions that were illegal by the terms of the CIA charter – spying domestically on peace activists, black civil rights leaders and so on. All the files on the CIA secret drug programs tested on Americans were destroyed because Helms felt that if released they would destroy the agency. Secret prisons and torture have always been a part of the CIA.

Anyway, as I said at the outset, and I am little dissuaded by Dujmovic’s critique, I always knew the “successes” of the CIA had had tragic consequences for the world, but I had never realized that their failures had done so much damage. And finally, I never realized that when they finally did have some intelligence successes, as in Viet Nam, it made no difference because the politicians didn’t want to get out.

4 Responses to “Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA”

  1. Nicholas Dujmovic

    Why do you think I would have an “obvious bias” and that such bias would be “inherent” in my position? When I took the job of CIA historian, I certainly was not briefed on any bias that came with the position, and I haven’t found any with it. I have been critical of the Agency, and I have praised it, but either way, I think I’ve been fair.

    It’s interesting being cast as “biased” in such a forum. I see nothing to suggest balance here at all.

  2. First of all, thank you for commenting and visiting.

    More importantly, I think you quite misunderstand my meaning. As far as I’m concerned, everything I have said about you is complimentary, not critical. I consider your work as a historian more careful than Weiner’s work as a journalist, and I find that to be almost universally the case, regardless of biases inherent in any given historian’s position. For example, I said

    I can only guess at who to believe, but when it comes to basic facts, I would bet on Dujmovic. When it comes to broader interpretation, though, it’s an open question that I don’t feel qualified to answer.

    As an utterly casual, non-professional reader in the area, I can do no more than say that these two sets of facts/opinions exist, one (yours) seems more careful, and it is up to others to read both and judge. I am not qualified to answer.

    As a professional scholar myself, a comment like that regarding my research would please me, not get a bee in my bonnet. Your review calls into question much of his data and several of his conclusions. His book must be read in the light of your critique, no question. I have, for the record, also greatly enjoyed your article on Downey and Fecteau. The latter was a friend of my father’s and I have heard the oral version of the story many times. I read that article with interest and sent it to my dad. It is unfortunate that his story is not more well-known.

    You will also see that I have suggested the Weiner book elsewhere (forums) but always and only with the proviso that it should be read in light of your review.

    That said, I don’t think his book is without value and much of your critique does not dispute (or at least does not address) some of the aspects of the book that I found most intriguing and enlightening for me, a casual reader in the area with no expertise.

    As for your “obvious bias”, your salary is paid by the CIA. If you don’t think that has an influence on you, you may consider reading That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession but Peter Novick. Every historian has biases. Any historian who denies that is ipso facto a liar or self-delusional. To say that a historian has biases is tautological, not an insult that must be answered.

    What separates you from Weiner (aside from the fact already mentioned that he is a journalist and you a historian, a difference journalists often underestimate) is that at least one major source of your bias is evident and obvious – your employer. I don’t know what Weiner’s biases are and can only divine them based on his writing and your fine review of his work. I did not mean to imply that you had biases and he did not, but that yours are obvious and his are not.

    Mine, for what it is worth, should be abundantly obvious based on the tag slogan for the site and the other diatribe I write here (which, by the way, is meant to be free and over the top as a release from the all-too-stayed writing I do as an academic – it’s a place to blow off steam as it were).

    Being biased and being fair are not incompatible. No historian can be unbiased or objective. The very fact of the human condition renders that impossible. It is, however, every historian’s duty to be careful, fair and honest to the best of his ability. That means, for example, double-checking your sources before going to press, separating hypothesis from data and not covering up evidence that disagrees with one’s arguments. It is in the interest of honesty, not objectivity, that I link to your review and suggest people read it.

    No historian is free of bias and all good historians spend time reflecting on what the sources and consequences of those biases are. In my much more serious work, I am a non-Christian whose academic research is on the history of Christianity. I try to be fair and honest. But unbiased? Don’t be absurd. I would never claim such a thing.

  3. Nicholas Dujmovic

    Tom, I’m going to surprise even myself by saying this, but I agree with just about everything you’ve said. You are absolutely right: every historian has biases; it’s the human condition and inescapable. A terrific discussion of this is John Lewis Gaddis’s reflective work, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2002). I haven’t read the Novick work but I assume the thesis is about the same.

    I erred, and I apologize to you for this, in not perceiving that you were using “bias” in a nonjudgmental, objective (as it were) and professional way: your use of “bias” is without the usual bias. I’m used to people calling me biased, ipso facto because of where my paycheck comes from, and by that they mean I am a propagandist for CIA, completely, 100 percent in the tank, shilling for the Agency, with no hope of a pretense of professionalism. And, to paint with a broad brush, I get that more from the Left than from the Right (though it comes from there, too).

    I’m preparing a paper about the functions of the CIA History Staff and I intend to address the issue of our objectivity and perceived bias. I think our work, if it has any value at all, succeeds when we strive to present the truth as we find it, “warts and all.”

    The second thing I’d like to apologize for is not sufficiently appreciating the credit you were giving me. So, I’m sorry, and, hey, thanks.

    I wish I came across more thoughtful commentary such as yours; though I think we would disagree on much, it would be a civil and probably even friendly discourse–something much needed these days.

    Nick Dujmovic

  4. Ahh, yes, I can see that you are a target in a way that I had not considered and that might make you touchy on that point.

    Anyway, I’m glad you came back. I can assure disagree as we may (or may not), we would be able to have a civil and friendly debate. I simply don’t believe that screaming at people is an effective way to exchange ideas.

    It is unfortunate that Legacy of Ashes is not more accurate. Bias is unavoidable, but carelessness can be fixed by double-checking citations before going to press.

    By the way Nick, I have two questions that I am very curious about. There were two theses in the Weiner book that I foudn most interesting and, if anything, I took your review as further proof, rather than a refutation.

    1. The CIA was frequently and consistently pushed into covert action, sometimes against its better judgement and sometimes complicitly, by presidents who insisted that the CIA “do something”. As I read Weiner, presidents often came into office saying they didn’t want any of this covert stuff, but then drunk on the power it gave them, soon were drawn by the temptation to use it as a foreign policy tool, regardless of what more sober diplomats and intelligence agents might advise.
    2. Despite the charter against the CIA using its power domestically, almost every president eventually asked the CIA to violate that charter and to spy domestically, sometimes over the objections of the CIA sometimes with their complicity.

    Would you agree or disagree with those statements?

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