Converse's Reviews > Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
by Tim Weiner (Goodreads Author)
Weiner, a journalist, has written a history of the Central Intelligence Agency from its origins up to 2007. More of the narrative is devoted to the earlier decades, which makes sense when one realizes from the asides in the text that sources on say, the Cuban Missile Crisis, were declassified only after the year 2000. The organization that is described is less a spy agency than a filibustering organization, devoted to overthrowing weak governments in poor companies, buying up politicians, setting up secret police organizations in poor countries with friendly governments such as Jordan and Haiti, and organizing rebellions against unfriendly governments in poor countries, as in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Successive presidents wanted the agency to do all of the abov e. Attempts to set up large spy or sabotage networks in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, and north Korea invariably failed often due to communist penetration. The agents the agency did have in the communist world were volunteers, often working for allied governments. Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer, betrayed those Soviet agents the agency had in the last years of the cold war. Although often uninformed about non-state terrorism, as demonstrated in Lebanon in the 1980s, it did sometimes show skill in subverting terrorist networks as in the case of Abu Nidal. It also showed some skill in cyberwarfare, using the Soviet need for western software and computer equipment to provide them with software that destroyed a gas pipeline. The agency did have some success in technical intelligence, developing the U-2 spy plane and spy satelites.
The agency's ability to analyze intelligence has generally been poor, with the agency usually being surprised by events such as the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the fall of the Soviet Union. As political leaders generally only wanted to hear things that confirmed their pre-existing beliefs, its debatable how much this mattered. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the agency fell into a prolonged period in which its mission was unclear.
The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency had another task, which was to lead the "intelligence community" the various other information gathering organizations, mostly in the Pentagon. This task was mission impossible. The defense department controls the budgets of most of the agencies and there was no way the CIA director could coordinate the activities of organizations with independent budgets. This task went away with the changes in the laws governing intelligence in the aftermath of 9/11. It has now been given to the director of national intelligence, which has no more prospect than the CIA director of coordinating the work of these organizations.