motherwell (motherwell) wrote,
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By Request: Hasty Review of a Book I Probably Won't Finish

I'm currently reading Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, by New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Tim Weiner, who has, apparently, written several other books on intelligence issues.

From the very beginning, this book is a long litany, not only of the CIA's many inexcusable failures and tragically bungled (and in many cases, counterproductive) sabotage, subversion and regime-change operations, but also of its "leaders'" unblinking unwillingness to learn from mistakes, change priorities, or even fess up to elected officials and their country for their actions.

The basic template of the CIA's failures (according to Weiner at least) is the same overall:

  1. Policy-makers freak out about our country's total lack of any reliable intel about the Communist Threat and our inability to know when the Reds are gonna nuke us.
  2. Policy-makers cobble up an organization and charge it with getting secret intel out of the USSR. Oh, and rolling back the tide of international Communism.
  3. Organization is packed with naive, self-absorbed amateur adventurers who think America is #1, God is on our side, and no one else matters.
  4. Adventurers get infected with anti-Communist religious fervor and the desire to see the world, meet new and interesting people, and kill 'em 'cause they might be Commies (and 'cause it's fun). Intelligence-gathering quickly loses out to active subversion on the priority scale.
  5. Infiltrations, insurgencies, rebellions and coups are hastily planned based on ideology, wishful thinking, and inadequate, unreliable, totally made-up or nonexistent information, 'cause they all neglected the intelligence-gathering part of their mandate.
  6. Operation fails miserably, if not farcically, at tragic cost in both gold and blood, due to the above-mentioned lack of good intelligence -- and a lot of disinformation that came from enemy spies who were setting a trap the whole time.
  7. Spy-bosses make excuses to justify doing more of the same: things were complex, circumstances were difficult, we didn't have enough information, we're all new at this, and we gotta use all the tools we have, even the ones that don't work, 'cause if we don't the Commies will take over the world!
  8. Clueless, spineless politicians (all the way up to Eiwenhower), unable to stand up to anti-Communist hysteria, bend over and let the same hacks make the same mistakes in other parts of the world.
  9. Go back to step 1 and repeat until they're safely retired and a new generation can come in to clean up the mess and take the blame.


While I have no reason to doubt any of the factual and historical statements made in this book, I do feel I have reason to doubt the overall credibility of the book, for two reasons.

First, the book discusses each chapter of the CIA's history, and its actions abroad, in a near-total vacuum, as if intelligence events were the only significant events happening at all. In many cases, there is virtually no mention of the economic or political climate in the country where a certain op took place; the relationships of the government to the various interest-groups; the alignment of interest-groups on current issues, or the reasons for such alignments; the place of various key government or military officials relative to their people or institutions; or even the actions of other countries' spy agencies. Major players in CIA ops -- including generals, high-level politicians and heads of state -- are described as if they never did anything significant unless, until, and solely because they had been bribed by the CIA; nowhere (so far at least) is any lip-service paid to the possibility that some people, rulers or interest-groups may have had home-grown reasons to support a certain CIA op that had nothing at all to do with CIA money, the USA, or the Cold War.

One startling example of this tunnel-vision comes when the author discusses the entire Marshall Plan, and even the creation of a new German currency in 1948, as if it had no purpose or effect but to start a fight with the USSR and give the CIA a pretext to something stupid that it was about to do anyway. But the most egregious example of this narrow focus comes in the chapter dealing with the CIA's 1953 coup in Iran, in which it is very hastily mentioned that the Ayatollah Khomeini participated in pro-Shah, anti-Mossadegh agitation leading up to the coup. Why, I immediately asked, would Khomeini have done such a thing? Was he bribed by the CIA too? Had he been deceived as to what cause he was supporting? Did he consider the fledgling secular republican institutions of Iran to be un-Islamic? Was the Shah more friendly to Shiite Islam then than he was later? Was Khomeini for the coup before he was against it? Enquiring minds want to know; but this author apparently doesn't want to explain, but only to drop names in order to make his story sound more relevant to present-day readers. (Another name-drop: "an up-and-coming assassin named Saddam Hussein." Details (or more teasers) after the commercial-break, I guess.)

The biggest mistake all of these cowboy-spies and wannabees made -- the mistake that drove and enabled nearly all of their other mistakes -- was their mindless belief that their actions mattered more than anything else in the world, and that they had to do what they did regardless of any other factors on the ground (including their own past failures), factors they never understood and considered insignificant. I find it sad and ironic that such a promising author-journalist as Weiner appears to fall into exactly the same trap, apparently unawares. He may have admitted or compensated for this lapse somewhere in the book, in which case I apologize for missing it; but I really don't feel like plooding through this book looking for it.

The second reason I've come to doubt this book pertains to the author's sources: documents released from the CIA's archives and interviews with former CIA officers, including ten former DCIs. In other words, he's relying on what the CIA chose to let him see. And that brings us to a very important question of an intelligence agency's motives and reasons for releasing previously-secret material.

Here's my own personal speculation, based on my broad-but-shallow study of the intelligence business overall: disclosing details of failed operations -- after the perpetrators are safely dead, of course -- gives the enemy nothing useful, because they only reveal bad strategy and tactics that the enemy probably already knew anyway; and any agents thus exposed were already captured or dead. But spy agencies are much less willing to discuss successful ops, even long-concluded ones, because to do so would give the enemy insight into successful assets and tactics, which the agency may still be using. Kim Philby defected/retired from spying in 1963, but twenty-five years later, he was still refusing to answer some questions about his past work because they involved "information of an operational nature." In other words, he couldn't talk about his past tactics because the KGB were still using them.

I therefore find it perfectly plausible that the CIA would tell the whole truth about their past disgraceful failures, thus pretending to "reveal all," while keeping their successes out of the light. Furthermore, I find it highly improbable that even the most corrupt and incompetent organization could have a perfect record of unmitigated failure. Even George W. Bush got a few things right, so it's a safe bet that the more mature people who ran the CIA would have got something right here and there too, if only by sheer dumb luck.

Sun Tsu wrote: "Your surviving spy must be a man of keen intellect, though in outward appearance a fool; of shabby exterior, but with a will of iron..." Spy agencies depend on subterfuge and surprise -- and what better cover could one ask for than the appearance of being a bunch of blind, ignorant, deranged, drunk, corrupt, complacent, simpleminded wannabee-cowboy-ideologues, incapable of learning from even the most tragic mistakes? (And if the shabby exterior only hides an even shabbier interior, just call it "deep cover" and let's talk about something else.) And in this instance, the CIA not only preserved its cover, but also manipulated one if its harshest critics to damage his own credibility.

So all in all, I'll probably just give this book a miss and go back to reading the second volume of the Mitrokhin Archive (for which many thanks to peaceful_fox and kevinrtaylor). It's heavier in the backpack, but it's also heavier on both successful KGB ops and the political-economic context in which they operated. If we want an equally good treatment of our own CIA, I guess we'll have to wait for a disgruntled civil servant to steal it, one handwritten page at a time.
Tags: intelligence
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