Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner
|Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: An in-depth look at the history of the CIA from 1947 to 2007. It's frightening, all on the record and highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 704||Date: August 2007|
|Publisher: Allen Lane|
After the Second World War it became obvious that America was in dire need of an intelligence system which would gather information, analyse it and feed it to government and primarily to the President. The Central Intelligence Agency, founded in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman, was supposed to be that system but in the intervening sixty years it has failed to live up to its purpose.
Gathering information - valuable information - is tricky. You need people who are in place and largely invisible but committed to providing what you need. You also have to be aware that they could be double agents and are feeding you disinformation. Given that the coverage needs to be just about worldwide - you can only exclude close, long-term allies - it's easy to see that the task of recruiting these people is monumental. The CIA has never achieved this. It soon became obvious that more could be achieved by covert operations - illegal actions in other countries which were outside its charter. Legacy of Ashes is the history of the CIA, warts and all from 1947 to 2007.
Tim Weiner, Pulitzer Prize winner, is a journalist with the New York Times and he's reported from around the world, including such hotspots as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. He spent ten years in Washington and part of his job was to cover the CIA. It's difficult to think of anyone better-placed to write this book. He's close enough to have the insight but distant enough to be objective. The most important point for me though is that the book is that it is written from the record. This not a book of speculation touted as fact, or rumour re-circulated. Every word is on the record and the source is quoted.
As you read you could well be forgiven for hoping that some, at least of what you're seeing is speculation, but I'm afraid it isn't. The CIA has been glorified in films and books and is generally assumed to be a successful arm of government. The truth is that whilst its reputation is good, its record is appalling. There's a temptation to see the failure to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, the invasion of Kuwait, 9/11 and most notoriously of all, Saddam's weapons of mass destruction as failures which stand out against an overall record of success, but this isn't the case. These failures were entirely consistent with the Agency's record over the preceding years and thieir reputation of being arrogant abroad and ignorant at home. President Clinton didn't bother with the intelligence provided by the agency, preferring CNN.
The use made by just about every U S President of the covert services offered by the CIA is frightening. A regime which didn't fit in with American ideals could find that elections were rigged or the economy in a downward spiral. A foreign leader might end up dead. After reading the book I came to the conclusion that the only U S President with basic honesty was Jimmy Carter.
I have one minor quibble with the book and that is that it does concentrate on the Agency's failures almost to the exclusion of anything else. They were legion, but there were some successes, such as dismantling secret weapons programmes in Pakistan and Libya which merited only a mention.
That's a minor quibble though. I won't describe the book as an easy read, but it's one where a little effort is well repaid and you may learn enough to stop you sleeping easily at night.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.
For another in-depth look at recent American history you might enjoy The Brothers by David Talbot although you might wonder why the theories advanced in Talbot's book about possible CIA involvement in Jack Kennedy's death don't feature in the Weiner book.
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