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Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 25 August 2013
This is a fascinating book about the workings of the CIA and its relationship with the White House. Not only does it detail the fiascos created by the CIA, it also shows how the Presidents were not informed of what the CIA were doing in the wide world. Furthermore the book shows that every President since 1945 has lied, misinformed and misled the American public and the world at large.
It is a catalogue of Machiavellian machinations carried out in the name of National Security. It is a book that should be read by anyone interested in the truth
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
The CIA was founded in 1947 to brief the President and conduct covert operations overseas. It has no monopoly, coexisting with the State Department, Pentagon and branches of military intelligence, the FBI and a plethora of other agencies. The US "never has had and does not now have a co-ordinated intelligence system." From the immense amount of data, government reports, books and memoirs and allowing for the historical context where the threat (levels of paranoia) and the political environment changed radically, just how do you produce a history of the CIA in 514 pages? The sins of selection, omission, emphasis and over simplification accepted, this book is nothing if not ambitious. It is excellent journalism, a credible work.

Weiner relates the history of the CIA in six parts grouped by presidential office holders (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy/Johnson, Nixon/Ford, Carter/Reagan/Bush Snr, Clinton/ Bush Jnr). The relationship between the President and the CIA is crucial; it has never been solid, always imprecise and often confrontational. The CIA missed the Soviet bomb, the Korean War, misread Eastern Europe, the Cuban crisis (Bay of Pigs and missiles), the Arab Israelis Wars, Kuwait and much more. It was terrible at assessing intentions and strengths of the Soviet Union. In seeking to secure regime change in the third world countries, it has a track record of bringing down bad governments to be replaced by nastier ones. It's often farcical and tragic - for example Saddam Hussein went from close friend through to the Weapons of Mass Destruction. Even in soft intelligence, the CIA often has little more than a newspaper clippings agency collects. "While the Soviet state withered away, the CIA was constantly reporting the Soviet economy was growing" (page 429). The CIA has not gone unchallenged, "The Pentagon (has) moved stealthily and steadily into the fields of overseas covert operations, usurping traditional roles, responsibilities, authorities, and missions.........the militarization of intelligence accelerated as the nation's civilian intelligence service eroded." (page 505). Here we come full circle, at inception the Pentagon wanted the CIA to be still born.

Weiner does not dwell on the ethics of the CIA but essentially catalogues its' incompetence, billons of dollars have been squandered and American interests (it's raison d'etre) very badly served. And millions have died in events in which the CIA played a large part. This book is not a rant; his sources are typically from the establishment. Weiner gives you enough to answer the fundamental question: has the CIA done more harm than good.

Where I found this book engrossing lies in how political intentions (the need to create an espionage entity) translated into a bureaucratic structure, how it defines its goals and is run. The bottom line is the management of, and within the CIA, has been appalling. Government agencies are set up by amateurs (what professional qualifications must politicians obtain before taking office) with imprecise goals that are not measurable (the profit motive in the private sector does have its uses). It does what public servants do best - infighting with each other and rival departments while inflating it's own reputation. Weiner's final page states "For sixty years tens of thousands of clandestine service officers have gathered only the barest threads of truly important intelligence - and that is the CIA's deepest secret (p514).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 July 2014
The book is interesting and informative and at the same time well organised and flowing. But it suffers from a common fault in many books, there's too much opinion. In general, it's easy to fill line after line paraphrasing or slightly altering the main arguements (with occasional cherry-picked data thrown in) than delve years researching and preparing a dense, organised book with no lines wasted which speaks for itself and at the same time lets readers think for themselves.

Here, the author has indeed done the serious work. But he also constantly repeats his arguement/opinion and hammers the point. The book repeats (too) often how the CIA was/is useless, infiltrated by moles, played by its contacts (conmen and doublespies) etc. Yet, sometimes, some level of CIA competence is shown. It's mostly inferred by "narrative accident/necessity", in the stories of CIA failures, which I think is a dishonesty to the reader. For example, experienced spies, successfully bought foreign politicians, valuable defectors, Kremlin insiders (all giving intelligence to the CIA) are usually introduced in the book when some tragi-comical CIA blunder results in their apprehension, imprisonment or execution. If the CIA contacts were that valuable, they must have had years of work behind them, which usually goes unmentioned.

Throughout the book, CIA reports are presented as uninformed and unreliable. But, for example, in the 80s, a Cuban defects to the American embassy, reveals that all CIA Cubans are doublespies for Castro, and the vignette concludes with the line that an investigation showed it was true. Why this investigation was trustworthy and the others not? How come some reports -out of the blue- were valuable in other examples? (Rwanda etc).

Also, every half-generation or every new president, the recurrent theme is that the experienced, capable men have left (the ones implied as useless in the previous chapters), and the CIA has been demoralised (as if previously it wasn't described as such). The president listens to the CIA or funds it well? He falls for demented plans, colossal failures. He ignores the CIA or underfunds it? Lack of intelligence, colossal failures. He pressures the CIA or uses it for his own interest? Biased reports, colossal failures. This relentless negativity of the author, trying to always make a failure out of every story was grating (and I largely agree with the arguement in the first place!). To his credit, he doesn't seem to have tried to tie all the loose ends with huge lies and distortions. Inconvenient or contradictory "details" may not be emphasised but are present in the book.

A few quick other points. There are no numbered references in the text (to refer to the endnotes), very unprofessional. The chapters have headings such as "if we don't do this, people will die", "don't trust anybody", "murder was in style" (from quotes of people involved). They are useless for quickly finding a specific section again. Finally, this is a relatively superficial history, seemingly derived in its entirety from official records and minutes and interviews of officials. There seems little "external" digging or further investigative journalism (and therefore very little on topics such as corruption, conflicts of interests, relationships to manufacturers and suppliers, direct or indirect corporate pressures and interests, shady personal business deals and networks, etc). This is not a judgment, considering the scope of the work, wealth of the data and size of the book, it's understandable a lot had to be omitted.

I was looking forward to reading the author's FBI history also, but after this, I probably won't bother.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2014
In popular tv-series and countless movies, we get brainwashed with the idea that the CIA is an almighty organ of espionage, that could detect anyone, anywhere with the click of a button. This book unveils the actual weakness of the organisation and their numerous failures to predict what was going to happen, since their existence. Well written and easy to read.
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on 6 February 2011
This book should be on everone's `CIA' shelf. It does a good overall job of explaining how the CIA works. Yet, it falls short in failing to explain why no one knows how many employees are in the CIA and where they are at a given time? How much money the CIA spends at a given time until years afterwards? A matter of national security? Is national security an excuse for masking history?

There are other books that capitalize on the 1st Amendment and better represent what the CIA is all about. The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception exploits the use of an inventory of `James Bond' devices we all know to have been employed by the CIA. JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy discloses propaganda techniques employed by the CIA that conditioned American soldiers to hate atheism so much so they would burn Buddhists villages housing women and children to death.

One book written by a former CIA agent Murder in the Vatican: The CIA and the Bolshevik Pontiff presents indisputable proof how the providential coincidence of a democrat in the White House--Jimmy Carter--and a democrat in the Vatican--John Paul I--the powers of money and influence required to enact a redistribution of wealth society in Central America--cost the 33-day Pope his life.

 Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is a good generality but escapes the morbid details. At first, these other books seem like fiction. When one takes the time to read them, one sees the proof--the absolute proof--the true historical record of the CIA.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 31 August 2010
"The Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" is a fascinating read from beginning to end. It seemed a little intimidating at first, as it's 601 pages long excluding the notes.. but don't be put off by this, it's remarkably easy to read. Weiner has an amazing talent for narrative, as a journalist I suppose we should expect this but the information is nicely integrated - I didn't feel utterly bombarded. This is an achievement as it's worth considering just how much is condensed; over 60 years of failings, it's quite the catalogue.

It's so frightening it's almost comic. The gist is - the CIA is so incompetent that it missed all the crucial events and ultimately didn't prevent the kind of disaster it was created to prevent, another Pearl Harbour.

This book is well sourced, and quotes from on the record agents make it almost laughable experience at times - "We'd be delighted to trade those missiles." It's so well written that it reads almost like a story, as readers we are spoilt with atmosphere and get a good idea of what the people were like. This is the best kind of history book. Although It doesn't go into great depth about some events, there are other books for that and there is certainly enough to get a good understanding.

I disagree with what some have said about it being a biased account, in the face of the overwhelming failure that is the CIA I think it would be hard to be anything but critical. But saying this, I think one of the main things this book conveys very effectively is just how difficult it is to create a useful intelligence organisation. The problems are highlighted but also the causes of them - making it largely clear what needs to be done, or rather what should have been done.

I found this to be remarkable read, albeit terrifying (I'm glad I'm not relying on these people) and I'm sure I'll never look at the CIA in the same way. I'd really recommend this book, as something so well researched and written deserves attention.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 14 December 2013
This book is good for people interested in American foreign policy and how it is shaped through intelligence gathering. When I came to the most recent part however surrounding the second Gulf War it places the blame on the CIA for misleading the White House over WMD and in effect causing George Bush Jnr to invade Iraq. All other accounts I have read of this period however place the blame on the White House for warmongering and using 911 as an excuse to overthrow Saddam, with the intelligence services being placed under pressure to come up with a case for war. I am inclined to believe the second version which then casts doubt over the accuracy of the rest of the book. It is still a worthwhile read however.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 9 July 2013
This is a fascinating account of the historical crimes and blunders of the CIA, and these are just the events we know of! It clearly demonstrates that what lies behind our so-called benevolent democracies is purely violence, lies and coercion. It is totalitarianism, colonialism and empire building pure and simple, but done in secret in the name of National Security. You can do what you like, as long as nobody can prove it was you, including murder!

There are a number of disturbing examples of CIA coups, including one in Indonesia, where a CIA pilot was captured after bombing a church and a marketplace, the same pilot later remarked that all the people he attacked were communists, even though they may not have been aware of it.

The book highlights the problem of security service unaccountability. What strikes me as particularly hilarious, is the constant reiteration by Western Governments of the need for transparency, openness and fairness, whilst at the very same time cutting back on all departments that are bound by these principles, in contrast the unaccountable "Secret" areas of the state grow ever larger and more encompassing.

The more I read about these so-called "intelligence services" the clearer it becomes, that ideas like democracy and the rule of law become completely superfluous if they are not exercised in an egalitarian way.

Whenever the schemes of the secret services are exposed in the corporate media, they just find new ways of hiding and rearranging their activities, then carry on like its business as usual. It's a matter of National Security you see!

Definitely worth a read.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
In the James Bond movies, James Bond saves the world virtually single-handedly. He often gets high-tech gear from Q and military backup coordinated by the CIA after the agents follow him until Bond locates the bad guys. Based on Legacy of Ashes, those movies are closer to the truth than I had thought.

In Mr. Weiner's extensive look at recently declassified documents, the CIA has always been the gang that couldn't shoot straight when it came to covert operations. To make up for that, the agency has apparently been quite good at keeping secret its bungles and shameful episodes . . . and proclaiming victory in public. The main problem has been that this gang has usually been pursuing its own agendas, disconnected from American policy and political oversight. And the agency liked covert operations so much that it rarely took intelligence gathering seriously.

The blame isn't only the agency's; there's plenty of blame to go around. Presidents in particular were addicted to the idea of quickly supplying covert efforts when something was happening that they didn't like. When that urge came over them, the CIA was called in.

You probably know some of the story, just from reading the newspapers and watching television (such as when Aldrich Ames was arrested, the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the lack of coordination over paying attention to evidence of the impending 9/11 attack).

What shocked me (and I don't shock easily) was how many thousands of people were sacrificed or harmed in programs that never worked. For instance, the CIA believed for decades that it could send dissidents back to their home countries and set up resistance efforts (as the OSS had done in France during World War II). Essentially everyone who was sent back for this purpose to many countries was quickly found and executed. While there is a wall at CIA headquarters for those who died in the line of duty, these sacrificed agents were largely ignored so that someone could have the stupid idea to do it all over again.

So where are we now in gathering intelligence? We don't have much of an idea of what's going on anywhere except where we buy information from other intelligence services or after we invade the country. That's not good enough in a world where nuclear proliferation is real and loose nukes are a real risk.

And where are we in covert action? We are probably still bribing any politician or military leader who wants our money. We coordinate and run lots of offshore prisons where we and those we hire can torture people who might be terrorists to their heart's content.

It's a discouraging picture. And one that's not likely to be changed any time soon.

I didn't grade the book higher because Mr. Weiner seemed to be skimming the surface in many cases, failing to get into the nuances of why things happened. I compared, for example, his account of Jack and Bobby Kennedy in working with the CIA to what is described in the book, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot. Legacy of Ashes comes across as oversimplified and incomplete by comparison to the Brothers book. For instance, there's no hint of the CIA's possible involvement in the two Kennedy assassinations in Legacy of Ashes.

The book would also have been improved by exploring the organizational theory reasons why the CIA has had problems. You can't change an organization's leadership and charter as often as has happened with the CIA and not make a mess. Combine that with the need to hold many secrets and it's likely that institutional reform will lag behind the rate by which new problems can develop.

I also think this would have been a better book if it had contained the context of how well those who have had good intelligence (such as the old Soviet Union) used what they knew. In the case of Stalin, the intelligence coups didn't do much good because he didn't trust the information or want to act on it . . . except for stealing technological secrets.

What should the United States do now?

It may be a good idea to continue with the current administration's preference for private contractors to gather and interpret intelligence. Then, the role of the CIA could become evaluating the effectiveness of such contractors and foreign intelligence service offerings. That's probably a role it could do reasonably well . . . at least until we have a new president who will inevitably go off in a whole new direction.
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on 24 December 2013
Shows where America has failed and still fails. Funnily enough, a lot boils down to not having employees who speaks foreign languages and understand foreign cultures. There is little hope of Uncle Sam suddenly developing a skill that has historical benne missing in 99.99% of the population.
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