February 22, 2008

Book Review: “Legacy of Ashes” by Tim Weiner, 514 pages almost 200 pages of notes

Filed under: Book Review — Gerry Fern @ 7:10 am

If this book had been written by Jimmy Breslin, it would be, “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight Part Deux.” Only this book was not written by Jimmy Breslin and the consequences to our prestige as a nation, respect in the world and national security are much more serious. However it is a very interesting read, at many times incredible in the audacity of some missions sometimes just shocking in the stupidity displayed by what are supposed to be our nation’s best.

Mr. Weiner lays out the history of the CIA from the very beginning until our very recent history. In the process through extensive interviews and research of declassified documents, he tells a very unnerving story of what our CIA is, what it was meant to be and what it thinks it is. It is a damning indictment of the agency, the various directors and many of the presidents in power during its existence.

Towards the end of the book, he pretty clearly sums up what the book is about, “Nineteen men had served as director of central intelligence. Not one met the high Standards Eisenhower had set. The agency’s founders had been defeated by their ignorance in Korea and Vietnam and undone by their arrogance in Washington. Their successors were set adrift when the Soviet Union died and caught unaware when terror struck at the heart of American power. Their attempts to make sense of the world had generated heat but little light. As it was in the beginning, the warriors of the pentagon and diplomats at State held them in disdain. For more than half a century, presidents had been frustrated or furious when they turned to the directors for insight and knowledge.” Well that is what the book is about but before you get to that point, there is history, poignant stories, incredible blunders, and one of the best actual spy stories ever written. A true opus.

Politically, the book is straight down the middle. You will find out that neo-cons were attracted to the agency from the beginning are were wrong from the beginning. I guess we could have seen it coming. They claimed 500 Soviet Missiles aimed at the US when there were only 4 and that is just the beginning. A featured character is Mr. Paul Wolfowitz who has managed to fail upwards for many years now.

On the other side of the spectrum, the book paints President Eisenhower as perhaps our sharpest president in this entire era. However the idea of some guy putting on his underwear in the morning is a little disturbing. In today’s times it’s hard to remember the red menace and how that colored their thinking of the time, but it is shocking to learn how right wing and secretive Robert Kennedy was. An icon of liberalism definitely not portrayed that way in this book. The entire account of the Bay of Pigs invasion very much syncs with other accounts I have read so I have no reason to doubt the Robert Kennedy reporting.

Other presidents: LBJ is an insecure mess. RMN is a drunken hawk. GRF, though having served in the Senate Intelligence committee for many years was surprised to find out he knew nothing of what the CIA was doing. JEC is a nice man, but not entirely as innocent as most people thought. RWR is out of the loop entirely, with a dark side and a cast of incredible characters to carry out some of the most disastrous missions in the entire agency history. Bill Casey definitely is not portrayed in gushing terms as Valerie Plame described him in her book. WJC was not a hands-on manager when it came to intelligence and was distrusted by the CIA and all the military. GWB, the worst period, as much of a nightmare to the agency as the rest of the United States. He would be the one to eventually undo the CIA and turn into ashes.

Nobody comes off unscathed. A fair, fascinating look into the annals of the CIA and our presidents policies and relationship with the agency. A must read.

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