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Tim Weiner: Legacy Of Ashes

One of the amusing incongruities of The Bourne Ultimatum, in light of Tim Weiner's devastating new book Legacy Of Ashes: The History Of The CIA, is how the agency looks like a formidable adversary—organized, sophisticated, omnipresent, and capable of running complex operations at a moment's notice. A movie based on Weiner's scrupulous account would look more like the Keystone Kops, if those famed bunglers were handed billions in discretionary funds, subjected to limited oversight, and had a key role in every major American catastrophe of the last half-century. The stories of ineptitude are so staggering that readers will have to laugh to keep from crying: waves of paratroopers dropped beyond the Iron Curtain, never to be heard from again; foreign stations so infiltrated by spies that they might as well have been KGB outposts; a "slam dunk" case for WMDs in Iraq based on intelligence gleaned from one tortured "fringe player" and a horde of self-interested defectors. Here's an organization that can barely check its e-mail without causing an international incident.

Constructed from primary sources, many of them only recently declassified, Legacy Of Ashes isn't packed with revelations, but its page-turning litany of abuses and blunders has a cohesive, cumulative force that make it essential reading. Though it was created to prevent another Pearl Harbor from happening, the CIA got sidetracked right from the jump-off point: Rather than laying the groundwork for a sound intelligence-gathering unit, its leaders were seduced by the more romantic possibilities of asserting America's will through covert action. Since the Cold War, the results of that philosophy have been catastrophic; as the CIA was off meddling in global hotspots—influencing elections, spreading propaganda, and installing despots in support of far-right-wing ideology—it lacked any reasonable assessment of the Soviet threat. And the agency's dangerous dysfunction didn't fall with the Iron Curtain.


The chief myth advanced by the CIA is that its successes are secret, while its failures are trumpeted. But time and again, Weiner demonstrates how even those few successes have bred future failures, like how a 1953 coup on a popular (and relatively progressive) Iranian president led to the 1979 hostage crisis, or how supporting the Afghan holy warriors in their fight against the Soviets empowered Osama bin Laden and filled weapons caches that would later be turned against U.S. troops. But poor execution doesn't account for the agency's fundamental contradiction. Weiner asks, "How do you run a secret intelligence service in an open democracy?" The CIA, in its hubris, has tried haplessly to answer that rhetorical question.

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