A must-read book for any American interested in geopolitics: Legacy of Ashes

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

While by no means the definitive history of the CIA (which cannot yet be written), or even an objective look at the Agency (probably not yet possible), it is one of the best and most timely accounts of one of the prime instruments in the War on Terror — now the primary strategic concern of the US defense apparatus (see this for evidence).

One contributing factor to the debacle of the Vietnam War was the collapse of the State Department during the commie hunts of the 1950’s (a sub-text found in many accounts of that era, such as David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest).  In this sense, the long and expensive futility of the Iraq War results from the long decay of our intelligence apparatus — which Legacy chronicles.  That leaves a future historian the task of recording the collapse of our military agencies, the only leg so far standing in our geopolitical tripod.

There is no need to review this thoroughly researched and footnoted work.  It can speak for itself, as any excerpt shows its quality.  Here is one such, giving concrete illustrations of the post-9/11 militarization of intelligence and the hollowing-out effect of privatization on our intel agencies.

Bob Gates took over the Pentagon on December 18, 2006 — the only entry-level analyst ever to run the CIA and the only director ever to become secretary of defense. .. When Gates settled in at the Pentagon, he looked around at the American intelligence establishment and he saw stars:  a general was running the CIA, a general was the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, a general was in charge of State Department’s counterterrorism programs, a lieutenant general was the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for intelligence, and a major general was running spies at the CIA.   Every one of these jobs had been held by civilians, going back many years.

Gates saw a world in which the Pentagon had crushed the CIA, just as it had vowed to do sixty years before. … The decline was part of a slow rot undermining the pillars of American national security.  After four years of war in Iraq, the military was exhausted, bled by leaders who had invested far more in futuristic weapons than in uniformed soldiers.  After five years of defending a foreign policy based on born-again faith, the State Department was adrift, unable to give voice to the values of democracy.  And after six years of willful ignorance imposed by know-nothing politicians, congressional oversight of the agency had collapsed.

… the surge of secret spending on national security after 9/11 had created a booming intelligence-industry complex.  Corporate clones of the CIA started sprouting all over the suburbs of Washington and beyond.  Patriotism for profit became a $50-billion-a-year business, by some estimates — a sum about the size of the American intelligence budget itself.

Great chunks of the clandestine service became wholly dependent on contractors who looked like they were in the CIA’s chain of command, but who worked for their corporate masters.  In effect, the agency had two workforces — and the primate one was paid far better.  By 2006 something on the order of half the officers at the Baghdad station and the new National Counterterrorism Center were contract employees, and Lockheed Martin, the nation’s biggest military contractor, was posting help-wanted ads for “counterterrorism analysts” to interrogate suspected terrorists a the Guantanamo prison. 

Fortunes could be made in the intelligence industry.  The money was a powerful attractor, and the result was an ever-accelerating brain drain — the last thing the CIA could afford — and the creation of companies like Total Intelligence Solutions.  Founded in February 2007, Total Intel was run by Cofer Black — the chief of the CIA’s counterterrorist center on 9/11.  His partners were Robert Richer, who had been the number-two man at the clandestine service, and Enrique Prado, Black’s chief of counter operations.  All three had decamped from the Bush administration’s war on terror in 2005 to join Blackwater USA, the politically wired private security company that served, among many other things, as the Praetorian Gurard for Americans in Baghdad.  They learned the tricks of the government-contracting trade at Blackwater, and within little more than a year Black and company were running Total Intel. 

These were among the best of the CIA’s officers.  But the spectacle of jumping ship in the middle of a war to make a killing was unremarkable in 21st century Washington.  Legions of CIA veterans quit their posts to sell their services to the agency by writing analyses, creating cover for overseas officers, setting up communications networks, and running clandestine operations  Following their example, new CIA hires adopted their own five-year plan:  get in, get, out and get paid. …

Weiner gives what might prove to be the best coda for the end of the American empire:

Action without knowledge was a dangerous business, as Americans found to their sorrow.

Legacy provides a damming rebuttal to those — many with deep knowledge and long experience — who attribute the recent failures of US intelligence to interference by senior politicos of the Bush Administration (the same dynamic of blame-shifting occurs in the military).  The many studies of pre-War period provide little support for this.  A cold review of this record should instead build support for a fundamental reform of our foreign intelligence apparatus.  Like the even stronger and larger body of evidence showing State’s inability to function, I suspect it will be ignored — and no meaningful reforms made.  New Administrations do things with immediate impact, not burn vast amounts of political capital on measures that will just provide great and long-term benefits to America.

No book of almost 700 pages is free of errors.  As an Pulitzer-winning journalist at the New York Times, he has displayed the classic failures (update:  perhaps too harsh.  perhaps “features”?) that distinguish journalists from scholars.  The very story of the title is, as shown in the rebuttal by the CIA (see below), a confabulation of multiple, distinct events plus unverified anecdotes into a single powerful narrative. The narrative typically shows only one side of these events (that of the author’s principal sources).   That is how news is made and popular books are sold; but serious history requires higher standards. 

None the less, Legacy of Ashes is an important and useful book for anyone seeking to understand our past and peer into our future. 

Reviews of Legacy


6 thoughts on “A must-read book for any American interested in geopolitics: Legacy of Ashes”

  1. Agree, superb book, both in its breadth and depth, highly recommended, especially for those who want to understand the background and history that have led to this sorry state.

  2. How did the military manage to take over the CIA? The whole point when it was stood up was to have a counterweight to military intelligence, to give the president information not skewed in order to pump up threats to get more bombers, missiles and carriers. If the book answers this question, I’ll read it pronto, if not, it’s already been added to the list.
    Fabius Maximus replies: the book does describe the long war (the real one, between the CIA and DoD). Like the war between State and DOD, DoD won.

  3. Just for flavor I would suggest reading former-CIA worker-cum-Georgetown professor Paul Pillar’s complain against Weiner’s pretty obvious bias (the last in the list of reviews given above). That’s not to say Weiner is automatically wrong and Pillar is automatically right – Pillar has very obvious reasons, despite his own critiques of the Agency (which did not sell as well), for defending his previous employer – but a balanced picture is appropriate.

  4. I agree that the Foreign Affairs review has an interesting flavor. It is very funny. The CIA-alumnus Professor makes some telling blows against Weiner’s book.

    First he trots out the standard CIA defense – just like it was new: “In the intelligence business, failures (and apparent contradictions) make headlines, while successes generally remain secret.” Every critic of the CIA for decades has rebutted this at length. To trot out this old chestnut suggests that he is not serious, but only going through the motions.

    “Second, calling for intelligence reform serves psychological and political purposes that have nothing to do with the intelligence agencies’ successes or failures.” Now that is a powerful defense, like “Yes I burgled his house, but his accusation of me seves psychological purposes…”

    Even more profound: “Finally, intelligence failures are inevitable.” I think we all know that, Professor. It is the CIA’s batting average that worries us.

    Among the nonsense in this review, one line pretty much says all we need to know of Prof Pillar’s thinking: “However, this explanation overlooks the strong bias toward reform among managers inside the intelligence community. Like ambitious managers anywhere, they make their careers not by sitting on the status quo but by championing new initiatives and strategic redirections.” Yep, the US government apparatus has such a strong bias toward reform! Is he a fool, or does he just think we are?

  5. Ralph Hitchens

    I haven’t read this book, but a couple of ex-colleagues still “in the business” were not terribly impressed.

    What I do take exception to is a statement like this: “…the long and expensive futility of the Iraq War results from the long decay of our intelligence apparatus.”

    Yes, intelligence analysis about Iraq was flawed, but I think there’s ample documentation of a runaway circle of policymakers who neither wanted nor needed much good intelligence to support their decision to invade. And Paul Pilar can bitch-slap anyone he pleases in the pages of Foreign Affairs, but the fact is that none of our vaunted mideast specialists in the IC said much to warn those policy hawks that removing the hard hand of Saddam Hussein might unleash long-dormant ethnic tensions. And let’s not even get into the issue of the nonexistent links between Saddam and al-Q, which the IC attempted (futiley) to dispel. From top to bottom, this was a policy disaster. Intelligence played its supporting role, dutifully, but we all know who was in the spotlight.
    Fabius Maximus: yes, there is more than enough blame for everybody in this multi-faceted wreck! That is typical, fo course. Consider the Titanic as the model of a systems failure. Many things had to go wrong to produce such a complete disaster.

  6. you website provides a fascinating variation on the general ignorance – i thank you sir.

    you still regard iraq as a colossal failure, above all of intelligence? seriously? i’m curious if you’ll indulge me one question – maybe this will find you by chance in a receptive mood: what do you make of mass media reports, and condi rice’s public response, of russia’s primakov handing iraq our order of battle on the eve of the invasion?

    i ask not because i have a definitive interpretation of this apparent fact, but because no one seems very interested in understanding that a number of the “failures” – perhaps principally the intelligence – may not have been failures at all. they might have been successful operations – by our enemies. but no one seems to think anyone but the USA even has an intelligence service.

    of course i have no way of knowing if our “failures” were the result of successful enemy operations, although incidents like the one above are surely suggestive of something other than pure innocence. it only fascinates me that this large subject, russia and its kgb government, should be so incredibly uninteresting to everyone. that there should be, as it were, a strange veil of ignorance over the public eye about this. don’t you think it’s interesting?
    Fabius Maximus replies: The FM site has many posts about “hidden history.” 20th Century American history teaches us that much of what we know about events is wrong — and that there is much we do not know.

    It took decades before we learned many key elements about WWII — such as the enigma code-breaking, and the treason Admiral Canaris (who gave the Allies many key NAZI war plans, which we ignored). Who can say what we will learn about the past fifty years… eventually. Perhaps our children will learn who killed President Kennedy, and why.

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