The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, June 23, 2008


The first purchase I made with my Christmas-gift subscription to Audible was Tim Weiner's history of the CIA, LEGACY OF ASHES. It certainly won its share of recognition--the National Book Award, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, and one of the "Best Books of 2007" on countless national lists. It deserves it. There is no shortage of books on the CIA, and in fact Weiner makes that a constituent part of his thesis--American conservatives have lionized the agency and leftists across the world have seen the agency as the very embodiment of evil in the world, but (Weiner argues) this is due to a grave misunderstanding. We think, he says, that we only know about their failures (Bay of Pigs, the Afghan mujahedeen "blowback", the Guatemalan and Salvadoran disasters, and the "slam dunk" Iraq intelligence) and that their "successes"--whether we see them as sinister or inspired--remain secret, but, Weiner insists, the reason that the only things we know about are failures is because that's pretty much the only thing they've accomplished. Weiner draws on all of the previously published sources in his book, but he also accessed a bunch of materials that were declassified only in 2006 as well as interviewing almost every principal in the story. (He was a NEW YORK TIMES national security reporter, so that helps in getting people to return your calls.)

Weiner's thesis is, of course, that the CIA has been a failure from the beginning, due to infighting, bad decision-making, a lack of understanding on the part of the executive branch, and, probably most important, due to the rivalry of the intelligence-gathering services of the Defense Department and the National Security Agency, which have tried constantly to undermine CIA. Weiner is surprisingly sympathetic to the agency, almost to a fault at points, but his criticism doesn't spare the agency's shortsightedness. It's Presidents who don't know how to use the agency, though, that he really attacks. George W certainly is the worst of these, and Weiner starts with the Nixon administration to show how Cheney and Rumsfeld developed their hate and mistrust of the agency back in those days, but Weiner faults everyone for not understanding the agency. George H.W. Bush is perhaps the least culpable of these in Weiner's eyes--he ran the agency briefly and gained a great deal of respect for its work, probably another reason behind Rumsfeld and Cheney's orientation against CIA. If there's one worst figure in this book, it's probably Bill Casey, who ran the agency under Reagan. He was, according to Weiner, a precursor to the current Bush administration, for rather than trying to learn from facts he selectively heard only those facts that confirmed the things he wanted to believe--or, rather, had already decided were true. People with facts that didn't confirm his preconceptions were terrorist Communist sympathizers. One thing I learned from this book that surprised me was just how gung-ho of a covert enthusiast Bobby Kennedy was--JFK considered having him run the agency, and throughout RFK thought that covert actions, assassinations included, weren't being used enough.



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