The legacy of the Central Intelligence Agency is one not simply of an omnipotent spy agency which can learn anything from anyone and pull off covert operations with ease. The true legacy of the CIA, according to a new book, is its sheer incompetence.
Even today, most people think of the CIA as a well-oiled intelligence machine which can go behind enemy lines and bring back critical information or execute well-planned covert operations to influence world events. Neither is quite accurate.
Veteran New York Times intelligence reporter Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, chronicles the CIA’s many failures, from its inauspicious start when it sent hundreds of agents behind the Iron Curtain, almost all of whom were captured or killed, to its most recent failures, such as mistakenly saying that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
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. — New York Times
I can’t wait to read this.
Also worth reading on this topic is James Bamford’s A Pretext for War, which documents how during the Clinton administration an alcoholic CIA station chief bungled his assignment to spy on Al-Qaeda, capture Osama bin Laden, and prevent what we now know as the September 11, 2001, attacks. Bamford is also the author of the two definitive works on the National Security Agency, The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets.