Tim Weiner's lengthy but quick-reading history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, is not only a great introduction to the "secret wars" conducted by the United States over the past sixty years; it's also a compelling survey of the continued failure of an organization and the errors-upon-errors damage this has caused the foreign policy of the United State. While Weiner never explicitly says so, a legitimate conclusion from reading about the agency's decades of bungling and wrong-headedness is that our current standing in world opinion is a direct result of CIA misreading the geopolitical landscape on scales both large and small. (Weiner never says quite this, although the word "incompetent" appears quite often.)
Weiner's approach is standard chronological journalistic history. He lets economy of style and the fascinating saga of failed coups, assassination attempts, and duplicity carry the reader along, and regardless of your level of nationalism, it's hard to listen to some of the more mangled covert operations and not recognize why some people (even reasonable people) would have legitimate cause to view the United States through brown-colored glasses. Even "successful" missions (like the optimistically named Operation Success, which overthrew the government of Guatemala in 1953) was more a happy accident that succeeded in spite of CIA interference than because of it.
Simultaneously, Weiner builds a history not just of the external manifestations of the agency, but of its internal machinations, which are key to understanding its extraordinary failures and even more extraordinary (and often accidental) successes. Weiner presents not a monolithic picture of the CIA but a nuanced mosaic of an organization defined by the individuals within it, their varying skills and worldviews. He's particularly good at providing biographical sketches of the Agency's directors, pointing to their backgrounds and potential motivations without sinking into armchair psychologizing.
He also paints a portrait, necessarily, of each administration's view towards covert action and their support of and belief in intelligence operations. Even those with a good grasp of post-World War Two history may be surprised by a few things: Jimmy Carter's passionate use of the CIA to run covert operations in the name of human rights around the world, for example.
The book has a teleological quality, scouring through the past en route to help us better understand a particular recent event: CIA director George Tenet's "slam dunk" in Iraq, the completely and utterly mistaken assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Weiner not only breaks down the sequence of events leading up to that fateful decision, but he has spent the previous six hundred pages showing the reader that the politicization of intelligence and the pressures upon the agency to get the facts right was part of a process that extended back to the agency's birth. The CIA got many things wrong. Anyone who spent a childhood in the 80s and remembers the sheer dread associated with Red Dawn-like pictures of Soviet soldiers parachuting into their hometown will certainly not be pleased to read of the routine and obscene exaggeration of the Soviet threat from Presidents Nixon to Reagan.
Towards the end, when the chronology shifts to the post-9/11 world, Weiner breaks into the occasional first person, shedding some light on his own attitudes towards intelligence operations. Weiner is a good and smart writer, properly pointing out the machismo, cronyism and mystique-seeking that often cloud the world of intelligence, and he rightly gives lie to the Hollywood picture of the American spy service. And while he never sets out to make recommendations, he seems to believe that intelligence operations and covert action (such as harsh interrogations) are justified in the name of national security, and at times he seems to imply that the book's argument is that we need to do it right. (This is supposition and I could be wrong about Weiner's views; editorializing is refreshingly minimal in this exhaustively researched historical work.)
But the idea of "doing it right" is problematic, since we have never done so, as his book amply demonstrates, and it begs the question of whether it can be done. Intelligence gathering and analysis is clearly a fundamental part of any modern government's arsenal, and properly used, good intelligence could and should avert violence, not only directed towards us but directed towards others as well. Weiner furnishes a perfect example: the aluminum tubes purchased by Saddam Hussein. The aluminum tubes were real, but quality intelligence could have uncovered the fact that they were to be used for purely conventional industrial means and in fact were not of the quality required for bomb-making. To swear off illicit information-gathering would be naive, but what about covert operations? The assassinations, the coups... to what end? One only has to look at a country we've been "fixing" through covert action for decades, Iran (which Weiner renders vividly) to recognize that the short-sighted visions and geopolitical fantasies of the United States government has been a disaster. If there is a clash of civilizations between Muslim and the West, it is one that we helped create through our myopic belief that the only real clash was between the economic systems of capitalism and communism. (If you don't already know that the United States routinely propped up dictatorial governments just because they paid lip service to capitalism, then you don't just want to read this book, you need to.)
From Weiner's book, it is easy to connect the dots that an overhaul of the fundamental approach to intelligence and foreign policy is key to a future of smart, quality intelligence-gathering. Weiner chronicles the continued problems with personnel at the CIA, the consistent lack of determined, brave, intelligent agents. Jason Bourne is, after all, just fiction; the reality is that operatives are often desk jockeys with no connection to the outside world or mystique-seekers, and even quality agents are still at the mercy of shifting priorities and approaches from on high. Perhaps if there were a reasoned and non-jingoistic approach to establishing America's presence in the world, continuing Carter's crusade to use covert action for human rights, using the CIA as a dispassionate tool of geopolitical analysis, there would be a chance of recruiting top students for these posts, Arab-Americans as well (who, we learn, have been routinely barred from joining if they have any family in the Middle East, surely another disastrous component of our current institutionalized xenophobia).
However, these are my assertions, not Weiner's, who takes as his job to serve up facts and perspective from the people who were there. The power of Legacy of Ashes is the depth and breadth of his sources, some of which are classified documents not made available until this year. Whatever your view of the value or necessity of covert government action or the CIA, this book is an invaluable introduction to the largely untold history of the United States in the world in the second half of the twentieth century, and a sobering analysis of what it has left us (for a hint, refer to the title of the book).