“Legacy of Ashes” – Book Review
By Noel Anderson
Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes is an ambitious history of the Central Intelligence Agency. The project attempts to chronicle the CIA’s history from its origins in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, to the organization’s current day form. Based on more than 50,000 government documents, as well as numerous interviews with high ranking Government and CIA personnel, Weiner tells a surprisingly cohesive story.
Weiner’s central thesis is that the CIA’s history has been one characterized by incompetence. The organization has overseen failure after failure, leaving in its wake a legacy of ashes from administration to administration. The CIA, Weiner argues, has failed repeatedly in carrying out its one central mission: supplying the US with high-quality intelligence on foreign administrations.
Weiner describes the CIA’s early attempts to develop an international spy network after World War II. According to Weiner, this project was largely unsuccessful. The US was unable to obtain quality intelligence and almost entirely unable to infiltrate Soviet Russia.
Weiner also explains how the intelligence gathering operations of the CIA were increasingly put on a side burner as covert operations began to occupy a greater and greater portion of CIA personnel. These covert operations, which included orchestrating coups, carrying out political assassinations, and funding gorilla groups, began to soak up a large portion of the the CIA’s budget.
The focus on covert operations — which were almost entirely unsuccessful, according to Weiner — prevented the CIA from developing the intelligence networks that it should have been focused on. This left the agency unable to gather intelligence. And it was blindsided by major events like the Kennedy assassination as well as the attacks of 9/11. According to Weiner, the CIA’s inability to prevent, or even provide intelligence on, these events proves the agency’s sheer incompetence.
Weiner relies heavily on the interviews he carried out while researching. These interviews are at once the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The quotations taken from these interviews are almost always interesting. Yet Weiner is almost entirely uncritical of the statements made by these high-ranking CIA officials. This uncritical stance comes across most strongly in Weiner’s chapter on the Kennedy assassination.
With so much public discourse around the possible role of the CIA in the Kennedy assassination, it would seem strange if a history of the CIA did not at least mention the possibility. Yet Weiner does just that and never mentions the possibility of CIA involvement. Instead, Weiner criticizes the CIA for not having better intelligence on Lee Harvey Oswald. According to Weiner, the CIA was partially culpable for the Kennedy assassination: because they did not realize in time that Oswald was a dangerous communist and maybe even a Soviet agent.
While Legacy of Ashes is chock-full of interesting interviews and anecdotes, like the plans to attack Japan with incendiary bat bombs during World War II ¹, Weiner’s analysis falls short. Weiner condemns the CIA, but not for overthrowing democratically-elected governments or for the various other crimes the agency has committed. Instead, Weiner accuses the agency of incompetence and not living up to its goals. He frames violent US backed coups as blundering accidents rather than well planned crimes. And he relies uncritically on the statements of CIA officials: people who have spent their lives working for an agency devoted to telling lies.
¹ Yes, the CIA’s precursor, the OSS, spent multiple months researching the possibility of strapping incendiary bombs on to living bats, and dropping the bats in the thousands over Tokyo. The plan was to do this at night, then wait until morning when the bats would find roost, hopefully in the attics of wooden homes. Then the incendiary devices would be detonated and all across Tokyo fires would start and homes would burn. The plans were eventually scrapped and never implemented.
By Noel Anderson Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes is an ambitious history of the Central Intelligence Agency. The project attempts to chronicle the CIA’s history from its origins in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, to the organization’s current day form. Based on more than 50,000 government documents, as well as numerous…