Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

By Tim Weiner | Doubleday Publishing | $27.95 | 448 pages | 2007

Reviewed by Gary C. Shockley

In his exhaustive history of the Central Intelligence Agency, New York Times intelligence reporter and Pulitzer prize-winner Tim Weiner contends that the CIA has failed throughout its 60-year history in its core mission to protect against another Pearl Harbor and to divine the intentions of America's enemies.

According to Weiner, an emphasis on misguided and often disastrous clandestine operations has supplanted the Agency's role of serving as the president's classified daily newspaper. Caught in the dilemma of serving an open, democratic society by covert and undemocratic means, the CIA has often cast its lot with strongmen and adventurers, leading to a long-term loss of American influence. The Agency's sad history in Iran, South Vietnam, the Congo, and Guatemala are used effectively to illustrate Weiner's point. With the end of the Cold War, the CIA lost much of its reason for being and many of its most experienced agents. Searching for a new role in a changing world, the Agency missed the signals of a new threat, leading to the 9/11 attacks. Its reaction " kidnappings, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, alleged torture " has, in Weiner's view, hardly repaired the damage.

Weiner's book is filled with tales of unsuccessful missions and missed opportunities. Among the CIA's mistakes, he lists the failure to predict the Soviet atomic bomb in 1949, the Northern invasion of South Korea in 1950, the 1957 Hungarian revolt, and the fall of the Shah and rise of Khomeini in Iran, as well as the Bay of Pigs invasion and subsequent slapstick efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro, bungled coup-plotting in Chile, failure to accurately assess and combat Communist forces in Southeast Asia, domestic spying under LBJ, and, of course, predictions of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In this long litany of the Agency's failures, Weiner praises CIA director John McCone for his role in discovering and then defusing the Cuban missile crisis. Other than the accurate prediction of the 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East, however, there are few CIA successes revealed in Weiner's history.

Weiner's book is based on his own intelligence reporting over the last 20 years, as well as extensive research in the CIA's archives, other formerly classified documents, and numerous interviews with former directors and agents. Through these primary sources, he is able to paint detailed portraits of many legendary figures in the CIA's history, including William "Wild Bill" Donovan, James J. Angleton, Richard Helms, and William Colby. Perhaps not surprisingly in view of his thesis, the reputations of very few of these are burnished by his work.

Even in a long and well-documented book filled with misadventures, one often wonders if the CIA's successes are being overlooked or downplayed. After all, the United States has remained largely at peace and its homeland secure since the end of World War II. Even with such suspicions, however, Weiner presents a sobering portrait of a half-century's worth of intelligence and political failures. His book, which won the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, raises troubling questions about the proper role of an intelligence service in a nation committed to the rule of law in a world in which that remains a minority view.


GARY C. SHOCKLEY is a lawyer with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC in Nashville.