Brief Reflections on 'Legacy of Ashes' by Tim Weiner

Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is now about fifteen years old, but it has so much to teach about America's past. Given the repetitious nature of the failures revealed and outlined in the book, it also has much to teach us about our possible future as well. Let me blunt about my experience with this book: it was an eye opening and challenging read that taught me many things about 20th century American history I genuinely was unaware of and didn't really want to know about it. This short be on any short list for someone seeking to understand American foreign policy after the second World War and for anyone seeking to understand history as it was. Weiner's history is drawn primarily from interviews with former CIA directors/employees and de-classified CIA studies, commissions, and histories. I dreamed of writing a deep and complex reflection article with loads of quotes and stories to support it, but the truth it, I just don't have the time. The book is a 600 page behemoth (a real page turner though!) and I underlined like every other line. Waiting to write something in depth would take another year or two I think. In lie of that I wanted to share my more running thoughts - the kind of seeds of that article I don't have time to nurture into fullness. Forgive me if the points lack a lot of support and citations. If you want more - let's grab a coffee and chat!

The Goal of the CIA: What is the CIA actually supposed to do? That's a great question and before the CIA was founded this was a hotly contested question (it actually still is within the service). After World War II, America was a world power that had interests around the entire globe. President Harry Truman was often handed stacks and stacks of intelligence assessments and cables for daily reading and he found it all overwhelming and inefficient. He initially wanted an intelligence service to essentially become the President's own CNN - to sift through world news and help the President understand what was going on in every country, what they wanted, how they thought, and most importantly, what they were most likely to do. If we were going to project our power over the horizon then we should be able to see over it. Others in Washington saw the goal of the CIA differently, rather than understanding the enemy, they wanted an agency that messed with the enemy. They wanted a service that wasn't official that could go in and do the dirty deeds that needed to be done: fix elections, topple governments, influence/corrupt officials, support rebels, etc.

President Truman with Admiral Sidney Souers the first CIA Director

You have to put the birth of the CIA in the context of the stakes of the world at the time. The globe was just devastated by the worst armed conflict in human history with hundreds of millions affected. It was increasingly clear that the Soviet nation was not retreating in Eastern Europe and had plans on pushing their communist ideology through expansion not just evangelism. The Soviets had the largest land army every assembled on this earth at the time. Now throw into this mix the rise of atomic and nuclear weapons. The stakes of winning and losing the game between the Soviet Union put untold amounts of pressure on those in positions of leadership in this country. When the threat against you is existential, almost anything seems justified in the face of it. The spy services of countries could be the unofficial diplomats when official diplomacy failed. Additionally, spy services could be the unofficial military when official military could not be deployed.

Two Sides of Intelligence: The argument over what should be the spy services main goal led to a bifurcated intelligence service. The side that tried to learn about foreign countries (what they thought, what they wanted, what they will do) became known as intelligence and this is where your basic spy work would get done. To know your enemy you have to talk to them and that required getting people who spoke their language, and either planting them in positions throughout their government or turning and running those who will do it against their own countries. This is hard work, but vital to the goal of intelligence. The other side of the agency was known as operations and this meant not talking with the country by acting against it. This could be as simple as propaganda (we installed large radio stations all over Eastern Europe and broadcast propaganda 24/7), influencing elections by monetarily supporting candidates (or removing support for some), providing training to security services, and various other worse operations like coups. Good intelligence work takes generations of effort, learning foreign languages, building lasting relationships and protecting that information from other countries spies. In a cold war where our very existence was on the line, intelligence was often give the short end of the stick over and over again in favor of the promise of short term solutions an operation would have. It's the classic short term benefit vs. long term benefit argument and when existence is on the line who could blame those in the service for not thinking the long term would ever come around without doing the short term operation first?

President Eisenhower Giving His Farewell Address

Worse Than We Thought: The title Legacy of Ashes comes from a quote by President Dwight D. Eisnhower at the end of his term. Eisenhower had fought to reform the excesses of the CIA (particuarly in operations) and turn it into an intelligence first operation but lamented that he did not get the job done. He remarked that he was handing his successor, John F. Kennedy, a legacy of ashes in regarding the CIA. As I read through the events of the 20th century and the history of failures by the agency I was struck by just how much the agency had failed and just how unethically they had acted. I mean, I'm no rube, and I was certain there was some "off the books" bad stuff being done here and there, but I wasn't quite prepared for the record I waded through. I'll try to keep this short, but let me quickly run through the failures of the CIA. As you read this, remember that the goal of the CIA is to be the eyes of the President advising him on what is happening and what will happen in the world so that he can make wise decisions.

The CIA failed to recognize that North Korea was going to war against South Korea. They advised the President that China was not entering the conflict. After troops marked as Mao's personal soldiers were found on the battlefield, the CIA still stood by their opinion and the next week over 300,000 Chinese troops poured over the border. The CIA dropped thousands of South Korean and Chinese agents behind the lines of the Korean War and lost every single one. Every spy base and agent they ran in the Korean war had been compromised, killed, or fed them back back information as a double agent. When it comes to the Soviets, the CIA was never able to develop one single spy who infiltrated to any high level. Our handful of best Soviet spies were Soviets who betrayed their country on their own whim. Every single one ended up exposed by a mole and killed. The CIA over and over again overestimated the Soviet nuclear arsenals, often just parroting reports from CNN or other news services. The CIA failed failed to see the Afghan invasion and the fall of the Berlin wall. With all of the "Soviet Experts" they had, they never realized the fundamental flaws of the Soviet economy (the largest immediate reason for their collapse and never fully understood the inner workings of the government.
Soviet Military Parade in 1977

The CIA predicted Saddam would not invade Kuwait right before he did. Despite years and dozens of operations they could not take out Bin Laden in the 90's and early 00's. They were not able to put the intelligence together to stop 9/11. They sold the President that it was a "slam dunk" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The CIA paid for and abetted countless dictators around the world whose security services and military oppressed their people and killed thousands as long as the government was anti-communist. When aid would not work, they would often finance and field coups. We all know that "Bay of Pigs" was a fiasco, but you might not know that is was being planned under Eisenhower and was largely shoved on Kennedy. When it didn't work, covert operations were then largely headed up by Bobby Kennedy (out of the Attorney General's office) who (with JFK's approval) sought methods to remove Castro that included his assassination. Several methods were sought out, including the use of a mob hitman. After JFK's assassination, the CIA then withheld information from the Warren report fearing that news of other operations would become known and undermine the CIA.

What kind of news might get out? The CIA had run a series of prisons throughout the world where they would use various drugs and torture techniques to increase interrogation methods. Fearing it's exposure, they shut it down and tried to bury much of the evidence. Perhaps the news that the CIA had once run wiretaps on a sitting Senator? Joe McCarthy was convinced there were communists in the CIA and seeing him as a threat they tapped his offices and fed him fake information about possible communists to discredit him. Most of all, they didn't want the news of CIA's attempts to overthrow and assassinate Castro out there. Some believe to this day that Kennedy's murder was in some way orchestrated by Castro in response. The CIA was heavily used as a secret paramilitary program during the Vietnam war to in countries we were not supposed to be, to organize and aid rebellions, and oversee prison camps and interrogations (Operation Phoenix). Domestic tapping also continued under Nixon who wanted the CIA to weed out communist influences in the anti-war movement. Watergate was one of the least of Nixon's egregious uses of the agency.
Robert Kennedy with his brother President John Kennedy

It Could Have Been Worse: What strikes me about all these failures and abuses is that much of this could have been worse. Yes, the CIA went well beyond its charter and crossed actual legal lines and unwritten legal lines, but they COULD have gone so much further. Thankfully, congress and others in the executive branch did have some oversight - though how much they used it would vary. We know of the failings of the CIA, we have official histories and reports, largely because of the efforts of congressman and moments like the Church Committee to provide oversight. In fact, the much of the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980's was due to restrictions congress had set on the CIA, forcing them to try and come up with complex and indirect schemes to do the operations they had always done and felt were vital. This is not a pass on wrongdoing, but an acknowledgement that things could have been much different.

No Country Is Immune to Failure: As much as I'd like to strike my chest and say "I'm a proud American therefore I must support the CIA and treat them as if they were the best and most ethical spy service on Earth" - I just can't. All humans are prone to misjudgment, failures, and bias. Americans are humans. To expect our clandestine services (be they CIA, NSA, or FBI) to be filled only with noble people acting always perfectly and ethically is naïve. Presidents, police, fireman, doctors, teachers, pastors, constructions workers, taxi drivers, whatever - are filled with imperfect humans. The history of the CIA shows that we must understand it operates under the same "it's filled with human beings" issue. This is why we so badly need transparency and oversight in these institutions - despite their sensitivity and our national security. It is not a question of IF someone will abuse the power the CIA has, it is a question of when, how much, and how long? What could be more American than recognizing the need for checks, balances, and oversight to overcome our human depravity?

Senator Church Led a Commission in the 1970s Investigating CIA Overreach

The Contradiction of a Clandestine Service in an Open Democracy: The above point naturally provoked an interesting problem that kept coming up over and over again in the book. How can an open democracy that prides itself on its own sovereignty, honoring the rights of citizens here, pushing for democratic freedoms abroad, and posturing as a moral country HAVE a clandestine service? The moral high ground requires openness, black and white moral lines, and transparency while clandestine services live in the grey areas. Isn't their something of a contradiction here? Do we not setup our clandestine services for eventual conflict by tasking them with intelligence gathering and operations that inherently require moral compromise and partnering with unsavory people? It even means hiring unsavory people who are willing to go to the countries and do the things we need done. In an open democracy and capitalist society how do we recruit people with multiple languages, knowledge of different cultures, and willingness to operate sometimes in moral grey zones. This is a fascinating point and one we should keep in mind when we complain, as I have done, that we have gone too far. Their response is, "Why do you even have a clandestine service?" If a clandestine service has transparency and openness, is it even clandestine?

No Free Lunch / Unintended Consequences: My final point, and one of the more obvious things that we can see happening in 20th century American foreign policy is that no one can predict how things will turn it. Sometimes a turn of events can seem like a blessing, but are soon followed by a curse and vice versa. The Iranian coup is a great example. The CIA's installation of the Shah in the 50's was seen as a huge success. For a little bit of money and some grunt work on the ground, the CIA was able to gain a vital ally in the Middle East and block Soviet influence. However, the CIA's efforts quickly became known and America was seen as allied with a cruel and hedonistic ruler. When the Shah was overthrown in 197, Anti-American feelings ran high. In their efforts to later counter Iran the CIA supported Saddam Hussein. To this very day, America has a poor relationship with Iran and we all know what happened with Saddam. This isn't always the story though and I'm not saying we shouldn't ever get involved. The American CIA also greatly influenced and funded the politicians who ran Japan after World War II. Japan is a free democratic ally to this day. We just have to recognize that the "success" of foreign policy isn't just a short term game, but should always have the long term in mind because there are always unintended consequences (Afghanistan is a mine field of unintended consequences!)

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

In the film Charlie Wilson's War about American support for Afghan rebels against the Soviet invasion, Philip Seymour Hoffman's CIA agent tells Tom Hanks' Senator an important story. Their exchange is one of my favorite film moments and a perfect embodiment of doing clandestine work IMO:
Gust Avrakotos : There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, "how wonderful. The boy got a horse" And the Zen master says, "we'll see." Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "How terrible." And the Zen master says, "We'll see." Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can't cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful."
Charlie Wilson : Now the Zen master says, "We'll see."
Oh there is so much more I want to write about! How should a Christian view foreign policy and the role of a clandestine service within it? What do you do with what is so often the lesser of two evils? Is it really a lesser of two evils? What if the long term view can't be sustained in the short term, is there even a choice? Can you believe that's the seeds version of I wanted to write? Yeah...that's why I decided to just get it out. If you enjoyed some of my points, are a fan of history, or would just like to learn more about how governments work behind the scenes then this is a must read book! Check it out.

(I don't earn money off this!)

Here's a the thesis of the book by the author: “Legacy of Ashes is the record of the first sixty years of the Central Intelligence Agency. It describes how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service. That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States. Intelligence is secret action aimed at understanding or changing what goes on abroad. President Dwight D. Eisenhower called it ‘a distasteful but vital necessity.’ A nation that wants to project its power beyond its borders needs to see over the horizon, to know what is coming, to prevent attacks against its people. It must anticipate surprise. Without a strong, smart, sharp intelligence service, presidents and generals alike can become blind and crippled. But throughout its history as a superpower, the United States has not had such a service.” (xvi)