Friday, March 4, 2016
Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner
Tim Weiner deserves enormous credit for amassing such a huge and detailed body of information for us to look at and judge the CIA. He writes history the way I prefer to read it: chronologically. When characters appear before or after their moment in the limelight, Weiner tries to keep them in context of events happening contemporaneously. This is a huge aid to both our understanding and to our judgment. That having been said, this was a difficult book to read/listen to because of the poor assessment of the Agency, because of the accretion of evidence of mistakes and incompetence, because of the massive amount of information readers get about how the Agency operated at different times under different leaders with different mandates.
The easy solutions to repairing or overhauling the Agency when they have done something spectacularly inept--or not done something, like prepare us for 9/11--have all been tried, each unsuccessful in its own way. Weiner has given us the material with which to begin to understand what we as citizens have tasked (and funded) the Agency to do and to ask ourselves if this is still a valid and do-able goal.
Soliciting secrets held by foreign governments can be very difficult work. Most of the time those secrets are revealed because individuals have a reason for wanting to impart the information, a reason that may have little to do with money, though money often does grease the wheels. The information could be disinformation. It takes an unusual person who is willing to use their language skills and familiarity with other countries to live overseas undercover, to deceive, steal, and manipulate their way to secrets. “It’s a dirty business.” [Richard Helms] It would seem the very nature of the work would predicate a small clandestine field arm, therefore limiting the size of the analyst arm.
Weiner starts with the genesis of the Agency, an outgrowth of the Office of Strategic Services which parachuted agents behind enemy lines in WWII Europe to sabotage the enemy and influence the course of the war. While it was put about when speaking with the American public that an Agency that could understand the intent of hostile nations would be better prepared against attack by those nations, really its model was not merely listening, but acting. Immediately upon its conception, a result of the predilection of Agency leaders and because powerful men, including presidents, found the secrecy aspect of the Agency irresistible, the Agency became an instrument, not simply of “intelligence” but of covert action. And every president sought to change (even wanted to abolish) the Agency when its failures became politically unbearable.
The truth is that a spy agency that operates in secret has also often withheld their secrets from the president and his council of advisors. Worse than that, sometimes they tailored the information they gave to the president to suit his predilections.
Weiner gives examples of successes amidst the roster of failures of intelligence. The CIA muscled the Taiwan government into abandoning its plan to develop a nuclear weapon; they managed to cripple the Abu Nidal organization through disinformation; the CIA stymied Soviet attempts to steal corporate software by implanting bugs into targeted software. And Weiner seems to admire, or at least not coruscate, certain CIA officers like Robert Ames, the Arabist scholar-spy memorialized by Kai Bird in The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames and who was killed in the Beirut embassy bombing in 1984. Weiner also gives a pass to Robert Gates, former CIA director and Secretary of Defense under two presidents. Weiner acknowledges the extraordinary patriotism and selflessness of certain agents in the field, who tried to accomplish their missions despite the dysfunction at home.
It is easy for us to forget that the Agency was only started after WWII, in 1947. Before that, we used to get intelligence through journalists, businesspeople, and embassies. We did not usually attempt to influence events except through pressure at national levels, among statesmen. When it began, the Agency was obsessed with Soviet power around the world and a balance of that power. Even then our intelligence was faulty, subject to political jostling, and influenced by the fears of our government. Although revolting to learn, it does us no good to turn away from Weiner’s assessment of these years, since millions of Americans before us have made their indignation known and demanded better. It forced changes in an Agency decimated after the fall of the Soviet Union, an event which caught the vast arsenal of analysts completely by surprise.
The Agency underwent several RIFs in its history, and it was even thought that outsourcing to private contractors would provide better intelligence. The result was higher prices for intelligence and less control over agents. Weiner talks us through the failures of several directors, and their determination to make the Agency great again: Charges of too big, too small, too old, too young, too restrained, too wild have all been dealt with in the way one might expect a large bureaucracy might try to change its image. None of the changes have really worked. Finally, because presidents have had difficulty relying on the CIA for accurate information, they now call on a plethora of different agencies for intelligence which are run mostly by current or former military men, and much of the CIA's capabilities are outsourced.
What is undeniable is the secrecy of the organization has come close several times in its history to ruining us. Outside threats are one thing, but many times the Agency was operating to contain threats we created through fear-mongering. The reason our democracy has succeeded as long as it has is because we have managed to maintain some kind of public accountability through transparency. Weiner asserts that Soviet leaders knew before the Berlin Wall fell that the lies and secrets their government kept from their people ultimately ruined them. A large and secret bureaucracy takes on a life of its own that cannot have adequate oversight. It becomes a danger rather than an aid.
Despite his dire assessment of the Agency and its current capabilities, Weiner does not advocate its abolition. He acknowledges it may have an important role to play in spite of the difficulty of its mission and the difficulty of finding the right personnel. He suggests that it may one day be refashioned to fit the needs we have with a leadership that can shape and control it. Until then, however, it is a liability we rely upon at our peril.
The fact that we now experience violence and terror from non-state actors might predicate more changes for the CIA. More agents has been the simplistic solution loudly proposed by at least one presidential candidate (Marco Rubio), but we already know that is hardly likely to produce the desired results. The CIA has always been plagued by its inability to recruit and retain good personnel because of its image and history but also because covert work is very hard to accomplish successfully. It may be time to reduce the size of the Agency once again, which may seem counterintuitive in this time of diverse threats. Getting vast numbers of analysts or agents unsuited to the task is probably not going to yield the kind of information we wish we had.
I remain skeptical that a large bureaucracy can produce intelligence beyond what a large news organization can organize and analyze. I wonder that we have the hubris to influence events in allied countries, or to organize the defeat of leadership in countries with which we are not allied. I have no argument with obtaining information, as long as that information serves to better prepare us for changes which affect us. I note that the largest changes which are bound to affect us profoundly in immediate years, e.g., climate change, do not seem to have registered a blip on the government radar while we scurry to contain events which will not have as great an impact on us. It looks like a kind of overheated masculine-style delusion predicated on fear rather than the rational measure of risk.
Therefore, before eliminating the organization entirely, perhaps we should bring it back to its earliest roots during this time of terrorist insurgency. Keep the organization small and flexible and covert, like our enemies’ organization. Covert undercover work may have been useful during WWII, but it didn’t work well after that. The CIA did real damage to countries around the world by involving themselves with regime change predicated on fear whipped up by our leaders. Surely the American people have progressed beyond that, even if some of their self-proclaimed leaders are still caught in the dark ages.
Weiner told us nearly everything, but he didn’t tell us what became of the analyst(s) who were responsible for the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, reporting that it was a weapons cache.
I listened to the Blackstone audio production of this book, read by Stefan Rudnicki. It was beautifully produced and read, and though Rudnicki mispronounced some people and place names, those mistakes did not obscure understanding. This is a real masterpiece of journalism.
You can buy this book here: Tweet