By EVAN THOMAS
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LEGACY OF ASHES
The History of the CIA.
By Tim Weiner.
Illustrated. 702 pp. Doubleday. $27.95.
America’s foes and rivals have long overrated the Central Intelligence Agency. When Henry Kissinger traveled to China in 1971, Prime Minister Chou En-lai asked about C.I.A. subversion. Kissinger told Chou that he “vastly overestimates the competence of the C.I.A.” Chou persisted that “whenever something happens in the world they are always thought of.” Kissinger acknowledged, “That is true, and it flatters them, but they don’t deserve it.”
A few years later, in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the American embassy in Tehran. They captured a C.I.A. case officer named William Daugherty and accused him of running the agency’s entire Middle Eastern spy network while plotting to assassinate Ayatollah Khomeini. Daugherty, who had been in the C.I.A. for only nine months, tried to explain that he didn’t even speak the native tongue, Persian. The Iranians seemed offended that the Americans would send such an inexperienced spy. It was “beyond insult,” Daugherty later recalled, “for that officer not to speak the language or know the customs, culture and history of their country.”
The C.I.A. never did have much luck operating inside Communist China, and it failed to predict the Iranian revolution of 1979. “We were just plain asleep,” said the former C.I.A. director Adm. Stansfield Turner. The agency also did not foresee the explosion of an atom bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949, the invasion of South Korea in 1950, the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the explosion of an atom bomb by India in 1998 — the list goes on and on, culminating in the agency’s wrong call on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 2002-3.
Tim Weiner’s engrossing, comprehensive “Legacy of Ashes” is a litany of failure, from the C.I.A.’s early days, when hundreds of agents were dropped behind the Iron Curtain to be killed or doubled (almost without exception), to more recent humiliations, like George Tenet’s now infamous “slam dunk” line. Over the years, the agency threw around a lot of money and adopted a certain swagger. “We went all over the world and we did what we wanted,” said Al Ulmer, the C.I.A.’s Far East division chief in the 1950s. “God, we had fun.” But even their successes turned out to be failures. In 1963, the C.I.A. backed a coup to install the Baath Party in Iraq. “We came to power on a C.I.A. train,” said Ali Saleh Saadi, the Baath Party interior minister. One of the train’s passengers, Weiner notes, was a young assassin named Saddam Hussein. Weiner quotes Donald Gregg, a former C.I.A. station chief in South Korea, later the national security adviser to Vice President George H. W. Bush: “The record in Europe was bad. The record in Asia was bad. The agency had a terrible record in its early days — a great reputation and a terrible record.”
And yet the myth of the C.I.A. as an all-knowing, all-powerful spy agency persisted for years, not just in the minds of America’s enemies but in the imagination of many American television-watchers and moviegoers. Among those fooled, at least initially, were most modern presidents of the United States. The promise of a secret intelligence organization that could not only spy on America’s enemies but also influence events abroad, by sleight of hand and at relatively low cost, was just too alluring.
When presidents finally faced the reality that the agency was bumbling, they could be bitter. Reviewing the C.I.A.’s record after his two terms in office, Dwight Eisenhower told the director, Allen Dulles, “I have suffered an eight-year defeat on this.” He would “leave a legacy of ashes” for his successor. A fan of Ian Fleming’s spy stories, John F. Kennedy was shocked to be introduced to the man described by C.I.A. higher-ups as their James Bond — the fat, alcoholic, unstable William Harvey, who ran a botched attempt to eliminate Fidel Castro by hiring the Mafia. Ronald Reagan went along with the desire of his C.I.A. director, William Casey, to bring back the mythical glory days by “unleashing” the agency — and his presidency was badly undermined by the Iran-contra affair.
In Weiner’s telling, a president trying to use the C.I.A. resembles Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. The role of Lucy is played by scheming or inept directors. Dulles is particularly egregious, a lazy, vain con artist who watches baseball games on television while half-listening to top-secret briefings (he assesses written briefings by their weight). Casey mumbles and lies and may have been almost mad from a brain tumor by the end. Even the more honorable directors, like Richard Helms, can’t resist telling presidents what they want to hear. To fit the policy needs of the Nixon White House in 1969, Helms doctored a C.I.A. estimate of Soviet nuclear forces. In a draft of the report, analysts had doubted the Soviet will or capacity to launch a nuclear strike. Helms erased this crucial passage — and for years thereafter, until the end of the cold war, the C.I.A. overstated the rate at which the Soviets were modernizing their arsenal. The C.I.A.’s bogus intelligence on Iraq in 2002-3, based on the deceits of dubious sources like the one known as Curveball, was hardly unprecedented. To justify the Johnson administration’s desire for a pro-war Congressional resolution on Vietnam in 1964, the intelligence community manufactured evidence of a Communist attack on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Weiner, a reporter for The Times who has covered intelligence for many years, has a good eye for embarrassing detail. High-ranking officials, it appears, were often the last to know. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Robert M. Gates, who is now the secretary of defense but at the time was the first President Bush’s deputy national security adviser, was at a family picnic. A friend of his wife’s joined the picnic and asked him, “What are you doing here?” Gates asked, “What are you talking about?” “The invasion,” she said. “What invasion?” he asked. A year earlier, when the Berlin Wall fell, Milt Bearden, the leader of the C.I.A.’s Soviet division, was reduced to watching CNN and deflecting urgent calls from White House officials who wanted to know what the agency’s spies were saying. “It was hard to confess that there were no Soviet spies worth a damn — they all had been rounded up and killed, and no one at the C.I.A. knew why,” Weiner writes. (The American agents in Moscow had been betrayed by the C.I.A. mole Aldrich Ames.)
Weiner is not the first reporter to see that the C.I.A.’s golden era was an illusion. After the 1975 Church Committee hearings exposed the agency as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” various authors began to deconstruct the myth of the C.I.A., most notably Thomas Powers in “The Man Who Kept the Secrets.” But by using tens of thousands of declassified documents and on-the-record recollections of dozens of chagrined spymasters, Weiner paints what may be the most disturbing picture yet of C.I.A. ineptitude. After following along Weiner’s march of folly, readers may wonder: Is an open democracy capable of building and sustaining an effective secret intelligence service? Maybe not. But with Islamic terrorists vowing to set off a nuclear device in an American city, there isn’t much choice but to keep on trying.
Evan Thomas, an editor at large at Newsweek, is the author of “The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the C.I.A.”
Correction: August 5, 2007
A review on July 22 about “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” by Tim Weiner, referred incorrectly to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Gates was George H. W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser, not his “top intelligence adviser”; he did not became the director of central intelligence until November 1991.