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Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by…
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Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007)

by Tim Weiner

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This is a very mixed book. On one hand, it is very-well researched and very easy to read. On the other hand, it is pretty much a hack job on the CIA. That isn't hard to do, but he accentuates the negative aspects and glosses over the rare successes. I enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn't use it as a textbook. It reads like someone with an ax to grind rather than a scholarly book, which is a shame because of the sources he had access to.

His basic point is that CIA has never been any good at its job. He blames this on the extremely vague mission it had, poor leadership and political pressure. He goes leader by leader and basically says what each did wrong. The most alarming parts are from the early Cold War, when he discusses infiltration teams dropped into China or the Soviet Union, all of whom were quickly discovered, which lead to capture and/or death. He goes on to show how different presidents and DCIs worked together or against each other, but rarely to good effect.

Among the frustrating parts of Weiner's omissions is the near-complete lack of discussion of promoting youth groups to fight communism. He only mentions them when the CIA funding is discovered, not mentioning the successes they had before that. He also shows how the CIA was never able to penetrate Moscow, except when he gets to the 1980's and 1990's, he says how the network there fell apart. The problem with his narrative is that it only barely mentioned how such a network was built. He left the impression that the CIA had no assets in Moscow except now one is built and being destroyed by a mole.

Another problem is that he also sometimes talks about individuals in the CIA and sometimes talks about it acting as a unified institution ("the CIA did..."). Grouping it together is convenient and many scholars of international relations have done it when discussing countries, but since he discusses the inner workings of the CIA, it would be much better if he were able (or willing) to say who drafted the briefings for WMD or on Bin Laden rather than falling back on the CIA as a whole and attributing unified motives to its actions.

Even with those problems, it is worth a read. He has lots of good stories and occasional good men who get overridden in a bad system. And the CIA has proven that it was not particularly competent, so this is a good subject for a hatchet job. It isn't comprehensive and it isn't balanced, but it is interesting and informative. Just take it with a grain of salt. ( )
  Scapegoats | Feb 13, 2014 |
A five star topic, with five star research, does not a five star book make. I give Mr. Weiner one star for this 'book,' which is not a book at all. It is a collection of research notes that would be better titled "What the CIA did after the second world war to ruin the world for most people, including its own agents."

Though Weiner has done a great job of bringing them together, there's no 'organization' to the facts. The title of each chapter is a quote from someone taken from that chapter; each chapter is split up into oodles of 1-2 page sections that are, again, headed by a quote from someone in from that section. In other words, this is one-damn-thing-after-another history. That's great if you're doing research, but is a torturous read; a friend of mine summed it up nicely: he can write great sentences, but he has no idea how to put sentences together into paragraphs. And the same thing goes for his sections/chapters/book sections/the book's narrative. The general narrative is meant to be "The CIA does too much covert operating and not enough collection and analyzing of data." Which might be true, but given the immense pressure that ever more idiotic American presidents have applied to the Agency, it's hardly the big cause for concern. Maybe *not* trying to murder everyone to the left of Goldwater in South American/Asian/African/Middle Eastern/European politics would be a good idea?

Anyway, this is less a review than a warning: I'd advise you to buy this book, and dip into it every now and then. There's no reason to read it cover to cover when you could be reading good, depressing spy novels instead. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
This is an extensive, exhaustive history of the CIA. It does not portray the agency in the slightest favorable light. Since it's inception the CIA has failed in almost every aspect of its mission. It has not provided good intelligence to policy makers; it missed the mark on Castro and Cuba, failed in understanding eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, got it completely wrong about WMD's in Iraq and more.

Most damning, however, is the CIA's failures at covert operations around the world. When it failed in a public view like the Bay of Pigs it was devastating to our nation's interests. When it "succeeded" like Guatamala and Iran, it sowed the seeds of future foreign policy disaster. More troubling than these well-known events, however, is its obsession with small-scale covert operations in Europe and Asia which almost entirely resulted in loss of life of agents. If ever there was an example of national hubris and over reach it was the CIA's attempts to influence world affairs through its schemes.

The agency seemed to be staffed in the main by amateurs or incompetents, many times drawn from the eastern elite universities. Throughout its history the CIA has struggled to recruit and retain truly professional skilled staff.

The book mentions the misuse of the agency through violation of its charter by various presidents; the most notorious being Nixon, but also Johnson and Kennedy.

What were the causes of such misguided actions and failed strategies and tactics? I think the national paranoia about the perceived threat of communism is the root cause. While no doubt the aims and behavior of the Soviet Union were against our interests, our reactionary endeavors to thwart the communists manifested almost delusional and over the top responses by our government. One must ask whether instead of subversion and malice a policy of good will that exemplified to the world our ideals would have served us better in the long run. ( )
  stevesmits | Jun 22, 2013 |
A truly depressing, yet enlightening read. If you have a romantic idea of the CIA, I highly recommend you read this. ( )
  dgmillo | Jun 2, 2013 |
I don't really know how to evaluate the veracity of this history. On the one hand, it appears to be very well researched and referenced; on the other, the CIA has made arguments to refute it in its book review. To the extent that I've read about the CIA, this appears to coordinate generally with other accounts. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Tim Weinerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Berg, Corrie van denTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307389006, Paperback)

With shocking revelations that made headlines in papers across the country, Pulitzer-Prize-winner Tim Weiner gets at the truth behind the CIA and uncovers here why nearly every CIA Director has left the agency in worse shape than when he found it; and how these profound failures jeopardize our national security.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:31 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Traces the history of the CIA, drawing on thousands of documents to explore how the agency was created, why it has so often failed in its missions, how it is viewed by Americans and the rest of the world, and other related topics.

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