Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dave Palmer's review of Legacy of Ashes

Dave Palmer recently finished reading Tim Weiner's book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, and sent the following review to the SKEPTIC list on May 23. I liked it so much that I asked him if I could republish it here, and he agreed.


So back in April, I was in a bookshop, and my eyes fell on a meaty, red-covered book called Legacy of Ashes, the History of the CIA. "Huh, that looks interesting," sez I. Then a more rational voice in my head pops up. "Are you frakking nuts? You already know a bit about that spook house, reading a book like that will only piss you off." But it was my birthday, so I HAD to have me a little something.

Man, does it get tiresome being right ALL the time...

This is an appalling, sickening, infuriating book, particularly since its impeccable scholarship requires one to take it seriously. Unlike your average innuendo-and-hearsay CIA book, this one is based entirely on historical and declassified government documents and on-the-record interviews with named (and heavily-footnoted) sources, usually with the most senior personnel. The author, Tim Weiner, is a Pulitzer-winning NY Times reporter who has been covering US intelligence agencies for 20 years. He's the kind of guy who just pops out for lunch with current and past CIA Directors.

Like a lot of people, I had always assumed that the CIA might have a few massive public screwups (such as the Bay of Pigs), and there were surely times when Presidents ignored or twisted the CIA's intelligence to political ends (witness the current misadventure in Iraq), but underneath it all, there was at least SOME small bit of competence at work in the agency; there were people there who at least knew how to gather useful intelligence. Like the old quote about the CIA goes, their failures are all public, their successes are all secret.

OK, so maybe I'm not right ALL the time.

Turns out, the CIA is in fact a Mongolian clusterfuck of staggering, breathtaking proportions. And they always have been, all the way back to their founding in 1947 (and even the OSS, the agency's WWII precursor, wasn't quite as swift as they're made out to be on The History Channel). If the guy who coined the term "epic fail" had read this book, he wouldn't have bothered, there is no point in describing the ocean with teaspoon-sized words. As far as I can tell, they have had NO significant successes at all. Ever.

From the very start, they were constructed for failure. The main idea in founding the CIA was "to prevent another Pearl Harbor" by keeping a close eye on other nations and to distill those observations into a keen understanding of what those nations were actually up to. That notion (or at least, the actual practice of it) was pretty much tossed in the dumpster the day the doors opened. Instead, they jumped on the anti-Commie bandwagon like the rest of the government, and there they stayed until chunks of the Berlin Wall actually started falling on their heads some 30 years later. The black-or-white thinking that so characterizes the neocons of today was the CIA's one and only mode of thought. The rules that set the entire tone for the CIA were simple:

-There is ONE enemy in the world: the Commies.
-The Commies want to destroy us.
-If you're not with us, you're against us, and hence a Commie.
-The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

And that's it. No shades of gray, no questioning of those basic principles, no consideration of other possibilities (apparently, not even that the recently-defeated Axis powers might be a threat again). This thinking would blind the intelligence-gathering division almost until the 1990s.

Then it got worse. Almost immediately, the veterans of Wild Bill Donovan's he-man OSS corps elbowed their way to the table and decreed that clandestine operations should be the REAL focus of the CIA. Screw this reading other people's mail stuff, we've got to go and blow shit up, shoot people and sabotage the spread of communism wherever it shows its head. From that day on, the intelligence-gathering division was relegated to a barely-tolerated afterthought.

The major problem with this plan was that the CIA really sucked at it. No, I mean REALLY sucked...and I mean both the clandestine and the intelligence-gathering. From the start, the agency was run by smugger-than-thou Yalies and uppercrust preppies who felt they didn't need to actually KNOW about any of this stuff they were blowing up, it was Commie stuff, so it just needed blowing up. The willful ignorance and stupidity practiced by the CIA was just staggering.

Over and over and over again, the book lays out details of CIA foreign stations where not a single officer there spoke the local language, knew anything about the history of the region, or ever made any effort to learn anything that was going on outside of what could be picked up over cocktails at the country club. The CIA guys in Laos who were arming and training Hmong tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese didn't even know the name "Hmong." They called them by a term that the author says was somewhere between "barbarian" and "nigger." In the 70s-80s, the agency's TOP Soviet expert spoke not a single word of Russian. And he had never even set foot there. The way the CIA learned that the Berlin Wall was falling--and I'm NOT making this up--was when somebody at headquarters happened to tune into CNN.

Over and over and over again, the book tells of CIA directors and top officers who were drunks, liars, con men. One CIA director was eventually committed to the happy home, and the guy who ran the counterintelligence division for years was widely regarded to be certifiable for most of his tenure.

Over and over and over again, the author details clandestine operations that went horribly, disastrously wrong. Massive clusterfucks like the Bay of Pigs were far more the rule than the exception. For years, the CIA was supplying money and weapons to a Polish resistance group fighting the Soviets. The only problem was, it didn't exist. It had been wiped out years earlier by the KGB, and the whole operation was just a scam on the CIA run by the Soviets. They even donated some of the CIA's money to the Italian Communist Party as a final dig.

One side aspect of the story is that any JFK conspiracy theories that claim the CIA planned the assassination have had a stake decisively hammered through them. If the CIA had planned the JFK assassination, the only result would have been that a goatherd in a small Congolese village would have become the village's head man when all seven other contenders for the job suddenly perished in a freak bobsled accident. And a baker in Skipros, Greece would have received a shipment of German anti-tank missiles in crates labeled in Linear B, and an envelope with 2 million Romanian Lei inside.

And speaking of presidents and murder plots, the book suggests that the famous plot by Saddam to kill Papa Bush might not have been what it appeared. The "confession" of the plotters that they were working for Saddam was tortured out of them by the Kuwaitis, and the author notes that the alleged conspirators were really just a bunch of hash smugglers and other low-level criminal types.

Meanwhile, over in the intelligence-gathering division (and of course, the two divisions did frequently overlap), things weren't going any better. Over and over and over again, we read of utter and complete failure to plant spies in Commie countries. Not a single one of the dozens and dozens of spies dropped into North Korea during the Korean war was ever heard from again. The same was true for just about every other spy dropped into every other country. In one case, after dozens of spies disappeared without a trace, it was discovered later that the clerk who typed up the orders for the insertion was working for the Commies, so the KGB was there to meet them when they hit the ground. Although the CIA managed to recruit a handful of low-level spies in the Soviet Union (one was a high school teacher, another a roofer), in the entire cold war, they only ever managed to recruit three--count em--THREE spies of any consequence. All were arrested and shot.

When they did gather intelligence, it was ludicrously wrong FAR more often than it was right. Indeed, I don't think the book details a single case where the CIA got its intelligence right on a major issue. In 1961, they reported that the Soviets had 500 nukes pointed at the US. They were just a tad high. 496 high, to be precise. The Soviets had a grand total of FOUR nukes pointed at us. Nonetheless, that report set of a frenzy of weapons building that brought us to the brink of nuclear war and economic collapse. Over and over again, the book tells of the CIA reporting that <X> will never do <Y>. And then two days later, <X> doing <Y> was on the front page of the daily paper. They confidently predicted the Russians wouldn't have a nuke for years just about 2 weeks before the Russians tested their first one. They said that Saddam was just bluffing when he massed tens of thousands of troops on the Kuwaiti border.

The few times they did score on a piece of correct intelligence, they got it from the spy agencies of other countries. In a 1956 speech to the Congress of the Communist Party, Khruschchev delivered a scathing denunciation of Stalin. The CIA had to get a copy of the speech from the Israeli secret service.

Even the things that the CIA defined as "successes" were questionable at best, particularly in the long run. What the CIA did have a fair record at was overthrowing democratically-elected governments and replacing them with right-wing despots. When the democratically-elected PM of Iran suggested to the Brits and Americans that maybe Iran should get a little more of all that oil money that they were taking out of his country, they laughed and told him to STFU/GBTW. So he suggested that maybe he might just nationalize the oil fields. WELL, that's your actual commie talk, of course, so the CIA overthrew him and put a puppet Shah in his place...and then trained and outfitted a brutal secret police to keep the sheeple in line. That is the chief reason why a lot of Iranians hate our guts today. The CIA considered their arming and training of Afghan Muslim fanatics to kill Russians to be a *spectacular* success...and I think we all know how that turned out in the third act.

That was the norm for the CIA. That "enemy of my enemy is my friend" thing led them into bed with every kind of lying, thieving, murdering drunken thug in the sewer, just as long as they were anti-Commie.The CIA cheerfully funded openly unrepentant Nazis just after the end of WWII, and actually went downhill from there. I can't think of any case where the CIA helped overthrow a government and then replaced it with a fair, lawful one.

And the thing is, they weren't even any good at overthrowing governments, they were just lucky. It wasn't a case of skillful psychological warfare and precisely-timed black ops, they basically just paid goons to start shooting people in the streets. At least one operation, an attempted coup in Indonesia, ended with the US military shooting at the CIA's own hired thugs.

Now, even though no President in the CIA's history comes off looking very good in this book, it wasn't as if nobody noticed how bad the CIA's record was. Over and over and over again, blue-ribbon panels, inspectors general, and even internal CIA reviewers were commissioned to report on the effectiveness of the agency, and like the reports were Xeroxed, they all reached the same conclusion: the CIA is seriously, SERIOUSLY broken, and probably the best thing we could do is just torch the place. These reports were all either just buried, or tut-tutted over in the press for a couple weeks, and then everything returned to incompetence as usual.

The punchline to all this is it really appears now that the Commies just weren't that much of a threat, even when Stalin was in power. Khruschchev himself wrote that the concept of an all-out war with the west terrified Stalin, and then later Khruschchev was making tentative peace feelers with the US when the CIA sent "just one more" U2 flight into Russian airspace, and that slammed the door for years. Sure, the Soviets were out to flatter, bribe, steal, or bully influence in countries all around the world that had oil, minerals, or a strategic location. Just as we were. Just as every other world power has done in history. I think that a great deal of the fault for the cold war has to be laid at the CIA's feet.

And since "the only enemy in the world" up and vanished, the rudderless ship of the CIA has been even more adrift. After the 9/11 attacks, the command structure of the agency was changed (think re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic), and the former position of CIA director was more-or-less replaced by the position of Director of National Intelligence. The last actual CIA director was Porter Goss, and his main contribution to the fun was to systematically sack everybody in the agency who disagreed with Dubya's policies. That got rid of the last people who might actually know something useful. After that, some 50% of the employees were so new as to be classified as "trainees." And then it got worse. Today, a number of private intelligence agencies have sprung up like weeds, and they all pay much better than the CIA. So the current career track there is to join the CIA, get the training, put in five years or so, quit, join Spooks R Us for double the pay...and then show up for work the next day at the CIA wearing a contractor badge instead of an employee badge.

Reading this book was a gut-wrenching, eye-opening experience. For the first couple hundred pages, I was outraged. Then, it just kept coming, it didn't let up, and I was eventually left with just a numb shock, and even a kind of disgust at being an American. The book really gives you a better perspective of what's been going on in the world for the last 60 years, and why we are where we are and why the people who hate us came to that opinion. The book has just been released in paperback, and it should be required reading in high school.

My opinion now (and I mean this with almost no sarcasm) is that one of the greatest threats--perhaps THE greatest threat--to America since 1947 has in fact been the CIA. They have spent uncounted billions of dollars, caused uncounted thousands, hundreds of thousands, of deaths, put America in bed with a staggeringly long list of murderers, liars, goons, rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, ...well, lots of bad guys. And through all that, they failed to predict even a SINGLE event of significance to the US (there have been a couple of cases where they got something right, but nobody listened because they were usually wrong). Instead, they tarnished our reputation around the world, and led us to the brink of both nuclear and conventional war too many times to comfortably recount. And so far, every single President has gotten disgusted with them, decided they weren't worth the powder and shot to put them down, and then increased their budget and left them as a mess for the next President to clean up. But the CIA HAS demonstrated a cheerful willingness to spy on Americans (they've been doing it at least since the 60s), and to do any vile thing they're called upon to do. So with the current neocon push for an Imperial President and a Big Brother state, they are in a perfect position to step up and become our very own KGB or Gestapo...but minus the competence.

[Previously at this blog on Weiner's book:
"Abolish the CIA"
"A Brief History of the CIA: 1945-1953 (Truman)"
"A Brief History of the CIA: 1953-1961 (Eisenhower)"
"The CIA in Venezuela in 2002"
Also Rottin' in Denmark has a review of the Weiner book similar in some respects to Dave's.]


Vinny said...

It is a stunning story. I listened to the audiobook and I kept thinking to myself how much better off this country would have been if the CIA had devoted it's efforts to gathering information rather than covert operations."

zkacicmovric said...