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In his new book, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner punctures claims by the spymasters at the Central Intelligence Agency that they have stopped enemy threats and otherwise served their nation well. Weiner, a reporter for The New York Times, bases his book on 60 years of CIA internal documents, obtained legally through perseverance, so that nobody within the agency can argue that he is biased. In fact, Weiner believes fervently in the importance of an effective spy agency, and thus presents his expos� in the spirit of building up, rather than tearing down. And he takes pains to illustrate what he calls “acts of bravery and cunning.” But at the same time, he says, the CIA’s ineptness “constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States.” The CIA’s own documents provide a saga of “folly and misfortune,” causing Weiner’s expos� to feel both devastating and depressing. Only the most xenophobic patriots will be able to finish this massively sourced book without a sense of shame for the bad behavior of a U.S. bureaucracy on the global stage, and without a sense of anger at the misuse of resources. The consequences are not abstract. Weiner says CIA mistakes “have proved fatal for legions of American soldiers and foreign agents; some 3,000 Americans who died in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001; and 3,000 more who have died since then in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Top-notch journalists like Weiner are often so busy with the daily deadlines that they cannot devote their talent to placing those deadline stories in context. Fortunately, as he has done before, Weiner stepped back from his daily coverage of the so-called government “intelligence” agencies to look at the big picture. When Weiner did that previously, for Blank Check: The Pentagon’s Black Budget, a book about defense spending as mishandled by military and civilian personnel in the Pentagon, he gave readers a searing portrait of a weapons establishment out of control as it wasted taxpayer dollars on ineffective tools of war. Before World War II, the United States stood as the only world power without a long history of spying on alleged international enemies through a central agency. A hastily pulled together group of men and women labored mightily during World War II, but received little incentive to remain after the armistice. During the late 1940s, as the legislative and executive branches of government negotiated to form what became known as the CIA, a few wise observers predicted problems. For example, how could spies spread throughout the world and analysts headquartered in the Washington, D.C., area understand other cultures without speaking their non-English languages? How could operatives learn covert action in a laboratory, without practiced trainers? How could presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy develop channels within the White House to detect the lies told by CIA officials to cover up their failures? On the other end of the information pipeline, how could CIA agents with useful information persuade presidents to act on reports that stood in the way of political ambition? Weiner demonstrates over and over how CIA officials “learned it was dangerous to tell [a president] what he did not want to hear. The CIA’s analysts learned to march in lock step, conforming to conventional wisdom.” Presidents who hear reports they dislike sometimes impetuously and unwisely seek scapegoats, and nobody, in the CIA or any other agency, wants to be pushed out of a job. As a result of personal insecurities, language barriers, and overall incompetence, Weiner says, the agency “misapprehended the intentions and capabilities of our enemies, miscalculated the strength of communism, and misjudged the threat of terrorism.” An agency created to ensure that the U.S. government would never again suffer a surprise like Pearl Harbor unwittingly led to other national security disasters. Weiner brings the history to the present day, criticizing President George W. Bush for compromising any remaining shreds of credibility at the CIA, an agency once directed by his own father. Readers will be able to choose their own “greatest hits” from the huge number of CIA misadventures Weiner documents. One important suggestion: Read the approximately 150 pages of endnotes along with the text. The endnotes in this book do not consist merely of citations. Instead, many of them are narratives that explain the documents Weiner has used, and add both substance and color to the main text. Legacy of Ashes is recent history at its best, and its most dismaying.
Steve Weinberg is a former Washington correspondent for newspapers and magazines who has practiced investigative reporting for 40 years.

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