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Too opinionated but still informative
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.