Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review: Legacy of Ashes; The History of The CIA by Tim Weiner

This is probably one of the most important history books to come out in recent memory though it has certainly been overshadowed by the immensely popular John Adams and Team of Rivals. Legacy of Ashes is a readable, engaging book that contains loads of information crucial to understanding twentieth century American and world history. That being said, Wiener’s biases are so patently obvious at times that he sometimes borders on silliness. However what his biases are is instantly obvious (the book is part op-ed piece) so that you can just read past them. His biases and dramatics can, in the end, be forgiven because they make the book that much more interesting and readable. Weiner combines countless firsthand interviews of the most significant figures in American intelligence with mounds of declassified documents into a compelling and disturbing narrative.

Wiener has the tendency to be a bit overdramatic. This makes for weaker history but more interesting reading. When this dramaticism combines with his biases he often makes points that are outright ridiculous. For example one of these occurs when he is discussing the CIA sabotage of the Line X espionage group. Line X was set up by the KGB as a way to steal American technological innovations; including even the Apollo Space Program. When the CIA discovered Line X they set up a complex network to systematically feed the Soviets faulty technology. The CIA even gave the KGB defective pressure monitoring software that caused a Soviet gas pipeline to explode. Weiner concludes his discussion of this program by noting on page 387: “had the tables been turned, it could have been seen as an act of terror.” Really? I guess he is trying to make the point that America considers any effort against it an act of terror. But really? The Soviets were stealing American technology so we simply sent the spies bad information. We didn’t blow that pipeline up. The Soviets did by not doing their own research and relying on what they had stolen from others.

Occasionally Weiner omits his sources where he shouldn’t, like this statement on page 412 about former director Bill Casey “After he died on May 6, at age seventy-four, his own bishop denounced him from the pulpit at his funeral, as Presidents Reagan and Nixon listened in silence.” Here is another classic example of Weiner’s dramatic (perhaps overly so) writhing style. This is absolutely fascinating. I wonder what the bishop actually said. Unfortunately, in my edition at least, there is no source or footnote as to what the bishop actually said in his funereal. The bit about Reagan and Nixon sitting in silence certainly makes for good drama but it is perhaps a bit unfair. The point that Wiener is trying to make is that much of the evil associated with Casey was really their fault and he was a sort of ‘fall guy’ for their decisions. The author condemms their silence simply from the fact that they attended his funeral (of course they sat in silence during the sermon, it would be unbelievably rude to speak up at any time). I can’t help but wonder if Carter or Ford were also there and, if so, why Weiner didn’t include them as well. I’m probably being overly critical here because he does include over 150 pages of sources and he can’t be expected to include it all. I just have the haunting suspicion that maybe the bishop’s words weren’t quite as damning as Weiner suggests.

One more criticism and then I’m done, I promise. Sometimes Weiner is a bit too harsh on the CIA’s analysis. Take for example the faulty intelligence concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass-destruction. Weiner recounts the defection of Saddam’s son-in-law who informed the agency that Saddam had destroyed his weapons of mass-destruction. Weiner states “The CIA disregarded what he said, judging it as deception. The fact that [the son-in-law] went back to Iraq and was assassinated by his father-in-law did not alter the agency’s belief.” Weiner is making the point that the CIA was blind to evidence that went against the conclusions that it had already arrived at. This point indeed has a lot of validity. But in this case it is not fair. The KGB used this tactic of assassinating and pretending to assassinate or imprison its own disinformation agents all the time in order to try and convince the CIA that these disinformation agents were genuine. It would certainly be consistent for Saddam to use this same tactic in order to convince the Agency that he had in fact destroyed his weapons of mass-destruction.

I was fascinated by Weiner’s suggestion that the CIA is becoming an “intelligence-industrial complex” alluding to the military-industrial complex warned against by Eisenhower. I hope that he will explore this idea more in a follow up book. Another interesting revelation form this book is how different the real CIA is from the one that everyone imagines. I had always assumed that the CIA was this quasi-omnipotent-omnipresent-all-knowing organization that had a good handle on world affairs. Nothing could be further from the truth. The agency was almost completely blind to anything happening inside the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In fact when the Ayatollah’s revolutionaries seized the CIA station in Tehran they were shocked by how impotent the agency had been. The radical Islamists had jus assumed that the CIA had almost complete control of Iran. But in fact the agency had only a handful of inexperienced agents with extremely limited information and almost no knowledge of the culture and language of Iran. In fact the Tehran station was so weak that the revolutionaries were offended.

Legacy of Ashes got me thinking about the fundamental paradox at the heart of the CIA (something that Weiner discusses with great insight): How do you engage in intelligence and espionage, which are absolutely dependent on secrecy and limited oversight, in a free and open society? Most of the terrible things that happened as a result of the CIA were due to this paradox. Directors lied to the presidents that oversaw them. The CIA lied to the American public. The agency constantly broke the law almost with impunity. Weiner quotes General Magruder on page 12: “Clandestine operations involve a constant breaking of all the rules…To put it baldly, such operations are necessarily extra-legal and sometimes illegal.” The core of the American democracy is the rule of law. In a democratic society all people must be subject to the law. I find it telling that the highest authority in the land is not an individual or even a body of government officials but is a law. The Constitution is the supreme authority over the U.S. Government. It is incompatible with our democratic system that officials or anyone for that matter be permitted to break the laws of our land. It is absolutely essential that the people of the nation accurately know what the government that rules them is up to in order to make sure that they are following the law. And when it comes to the CIA you have a serious problem because if the public knows what the CIA is up to the agency’s purpose is completely undermined.

This was not a problem, at least not in the same way, for the KGB. The government that they operated under was already by its nature secret. In America the public has always had a good deal of information about what its government is up to. For example the federal government as well as all state governments have freedom of information acts or public records laws. These statutes compel government officials to surrender information to any citizen that requests it with few exceptions (there are exceptions for national security reasons that do protect most of the intelligence info). Even aside from FOIA laws and the effective domestic media our government has more leaks than a colander. One of the reasons that the KGB was often more successful in espionage and intelligence than the CIA stems from the fact that KGB secrets remained secrets.

In our democracy ultimately the CIA must be accountable to the American people. This is virtually impossible to do with out compromising all legitimate missions the CIA is caring out. I can quickly get the names and contact information on just about any government official. If it were this easy to do this with the members of the intelligence community they would all be killed. Furthermore, the American people may not fully understand the reasons for certain operations that may on the face seem expensive, pointless, futile, or even abhorrent. The apparent answer to this is that you have elected officials do the monitoring. But these same problems exist with elected officials. Furthermore, these elected officials can not be held accountable for their oversight of covert operations if these operations remain secret from the public. Where do you draw the line? Certainly you can’t have the CIA meddling around the world as if it were a toy with zero accountability. But in order to have accountability you must have accurate knowledge. But if knowledge of intelligence activities is widespread they losses all effectiveness. In essence; intelligence ceases to be intelligence.

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