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
- The Amazon page.
- “Counter Intelligence“, Evan Thomas, New York Times (22 July 2007)
- “The C.I.A.’s Missteps, From Past to Present“, Michael Beschloss, New York Times (12 July 2007)
- Review on the CIA website, Nicholas Dujmovic (10 September 207)
- “The secret policemen’s fall“, Chris Petit, The Guardian (11 August 2007)
- “Covert Action“, David Wise, Washington Post (22 July 2007) — “Has the CIA ever been good at intelligence gathering?”
- “The plot thickens“, Richard Dearlove, Financial Times (22 September 2007) –“…the history of the CIA that Legacy of Ashes claims to be should be approached with caution.”
- Intelligent Design? The Unending Saga of Intelligence Reform“, Paul R. Pillar, Foreign Affairs (March/April 2008)
- For links to other works about the Iraq War, both mine and about the under-covered aspects of the war (the air war, and our enduring bases): Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War.
- Links to Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq.