Tim Weiner

Legacy of Ashes


Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

In a comment by someone who is certainly not a fan of the CIA, Aftergood, Secrecy News (from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy), 13 Jul. 2007, notes the author's contention that "the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service.... The implication here is that the standard for excellence has been set by another intelligence agency, one that unlike CIA is 'first rate.' If so, it would be interesting to know which agency that is. (Not the KGB, certainly, nor the SIS or Mossad.) If not, and if there is no consistently 'first rate' intelligence service, then the problem may lie in an exaggerated expectation that any secret intelligence service can reliably 'see things as they are in the world.'"

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, "[Press Release:] CIA Statement on 'Legacy of Ashes'" (6 Aug. 2007). [https://www.cia.gov/news-information/press-releases-statements/press-release-archive-2007/legacy-of-ashes.html] The Agency statement is reprinted in AFIO WIN 31-07 (13 Aug. 2007). In a rare event, the CIA has chosen to respond publicly to Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes (2007). Among other criticisms, the press release states that the author "paints far too dark a picture of the agency's past. Backed by selective citations, sweeping assertions, and a fascination with the negative, Weiner overlooks, minimizes, or distorts agency achievements." The statement notes that the book "is marked by errors great and small," and provides an "incomplete[] catalogue" of some of the errors. In the end, Weiner's "bias overwhelm[ed] his scholarship."

Dujmovic, Studies 51.3 (Sep. 2007) [https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol51no3/legacy-of-ashes-the-history-of-cia.html] [the opening pages of this review are reprinted in Intelligencer 15.3 (Summer-Fall 2007)], says that this "book is a 600-page op-ed piece masquerading as serious history; it is the advocacy of a particularly dark point of view under the guise of scholarship.... What could have been a serious historical critique illuminating the lessons of the past is undermined by dubious assertions, sweeping judgments based on too few examples, selective or outright misuse of citations, a drama-driven narrative, and a tendentious and nearly exclusive focus on failure that overlooks, downplays, or explains away significant successes.... [A]nyone who wants a balanced perspective of CIA and its history should steer well clear of Legacy of Ashes."

To Richelson, Washington DeCoded (11 Sep. 2007) [http://www.washingtondecoded.com] [reprinted in Intelligencer 15.3 (Summer-Fall 2007)], "[t]he near-universal praise [of Legacy of Ashes] is perplexing, if only because Tim Weiner’s book cannot be even remotely characterized as a history of the CIA." The book devotes "the lion’s share" of its attention to only one of the CIA’s multiple functions -- covert action operations. In addition, the author "is very parsimonious when it comes to describing successful CIA endeavors.... As stunted as Weiner’s history is, he does not shy away from raising all kinds of criticisms, some of which are quite curious upon close examination.... Weiner is quick to quote any former intelligence official who now has something negative to say..., but never asks whether those views are reasonable, or whether other officials have differing views in hindsight.... The numerous errors of omission and commission in Legacy of Ashes make it a profoundly tendentious and unreliable guide to the overall history of the CIA."

Gathman, American-Statesman (Austin, TX), 8 Jul. 2007, comments that although "the book purports to be a history of the CIA to the present day, it's stronger on the Kennedy years than the Clinton years." In addition, the author "leans less toward the marmoreal distance of a Gibbon and more towards the hanging judge's summation of points. The CIA doesn't stand a chance in Wiener's courtroom.... The last chapters of Weiner's book are devoted to the period just before and after Sept. 11, 2001. Here, one feels that his schematic sense of the history of the CIA leads him to give a less than fair reading of events."

For Beschloss, New York Times, 12 Jul. 2007, the "chief target" of the author's anger "is not C.I.A. immorality but C.I.A. incompetence.... Weiner provides new insights and details on famous intelligence failures." As Weiner "tells it, part of the problem has been misguided orders from presidents." He "is scathing about the current state of the agency, writing that George W. Bush has turned the institution... into 'a paramilitary police force abroad and a paralyzed bureaucracy at headquarters.'" See also, review by Evan Thomas, New York Times, 22 Jul. 2007.

Wise, Washington Post, 22 Jul. 2007, sees this as a "highly caustic, corrosive study ... based on a prodigious amount of research into thousands of documents that have been declassified or otherwise uncovered, as well as oral histories and interviews." On the basis of "personal observation and conversations," the reviewer takes issue with Weiner's portrait of Allen Dulles as "a doddering old man," but, rather, continues to see him as "a shrewd professional spy." The author's "scorn for the old boys who ran the place is so unrelenting and pervasive that it tends to detract from his overall argument. He is unwilling to concede that the agency's leaders may have acted from patriotic motives or that the CIA ever did anything right." Caveats aside, this work "succeeds as both journalism and history, and it is must reading for anyone interested in the CIA or American intelligence since World War II."

In a similar vein, Epstein, Wall Street Journal, 14 Jul. 2007, finds that the author "has written a powerful exposé of a secret arm of the American government without using anonymous sources, off-the-record interviews or blind quotes." This "is the best book I've yet read on the CIA's covert actions." As might be expected, Epstein notes that he does not agree with Weiner's "portrayal of James Angleton as an incompetent and an alcoholic." Such an image is "at odds with the trust that Angleton won over many years from six CIA directors" who "kept Angleton in key positions and valued his work."

Hulnick, IJI&C 21.2 (Summer 2008), notes that the author "has assembled a comprehensive list of source materials," but "has used these documents selectively, picking out the evil while ignoring the good." Weiner's is a "seriously flawed work" in which "honesty seems to have lost out to avarice." Another negative comment comes from Weisman, Intelligencer 15.3 (Summer-Fall 2007), who characterizes the author's version of the CIA's history as "passionate, malevolent, and often misguided." The book "is filled with factual errors. Some are just careless," but others "are more dangerous.... There are also some astonishing gaps." Simply put, "Weiner just doesn't get it."

After noting that Legacy of Ashes won the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, Pillar, FA 87.2 (Mar.-Apr. 2008), suggests that the book "probably would have been a better candidate in the category of fiction." Weiner's "history of the CIA is a selective and haphazard treatment.... This highly tendentious book should be viewed the same way as a good novel: a lively read not to be trusted as history."

Shugrue, CIRA Newsletter 32.4 (Winter 2007), observes that "Weiner writes interestingly and obviously employs substantial industry and keen talent in utilizing detailed and time-demanding research. But he is too little concerned with balance and too much concerned with his spoiler's message for Legacy of Ashes to be the useful book it might otherwise have been." For Nolte, AIJ 25.2 (Winter 2007-2008), Legacy of Ashes "is not [emphasis in original] a history of the CIA.... [H]istory should be about context and balance, and [this work] demonstrates neither." In addition, "nuance would be helpful.... Too often,... rhetoric gets in the way of analysis."

Richard Dearlove [Sir Richard Dearlove was director of MI6 from 1999 to 2004], Financial Times, 22 Sep 2007: "If you are disposed to think badly of the CIA then Tim Weiner's book is for you.... However, if your interest is in serious intelligence history,... Legacy of Ashes ... should be approached with caution.... [T]he work lacks subtlety of interpretation or analysis and risks losing what merit it has on account of its uncompromising bias.... Weiner's book is not really about CIA espionage.... What Weiner chronicles, and thoroughly, is the chequered history of US covert action.... However, to write off the CIA's espionage performance as poor and irrelevant historically is misleading."

See Jeff Stein, "Celebrated History of the CIA Comes Under Belated Fire," CQ Politics, 15 Mar. 2008. Stein writes: "Weiner’s handling of documents and sources [in Legacy of Ashes], not to mention [the] book's theme that the CIA's record is one of almost abysmal failure,... has come under serious question by a growing cadre of critics.... [E]ven some of Weiner's many admirers think he overreached, and not just with the grandiose subtitle," The History of the CIA [emphasis added]. Weiner "is angry": "'I am not going to sit still and have my integrity insulted or assaulted by people who don’t know me, who have axes to grind.'"

For a must-read article with broader implications, see R. Gerald Hughes, "Of Revelatory Histories and Hatchet Jobs: Propaganda and Method in Intelligence History," Intelligence and National Security 23, no. 6 (Dec. 2008): 842-877.

To anyone with a scholarly bent, particularly historians, this is an important article. Its fulcrum point is Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes (2007), a work that purports to be "The" history of the CIA. Hughes argues that "much of the praise directed at Weiner's book results from misconceptions about what the discipline of history is and how an understanding of the evolution of historical method can assist those who read history, as well as those who write it."

This article is filled with such high-level and thought-provoking analysis that attempting to capture it in brief is futile. What follows are some "one-liners" that particularly caught this reader's fancy: "[T]he idea that rectitude of analysis automatically follows exhaustive research is entirely [italics in original] fallacious"; "[b]ias lies at the heart of [Weiner's] critique of the CIA and his selective use of material further reinforces those prejudices"; [t]he belief [by reviewers] that Weiner's book contained a large number of revelations betrayed an ignorance of the wealth of CIA material that had been available for many years"; and it is "clear to scholars that a more rigorous methology would have ameliorated many of the book's worst failings."

Clark comment: In the interest of truth in reviewing, please note that this bibliography (Intellit) and its author are cited by name and internet address at page 874, footnote 135.

Two intelligence historians offer their opinions in Loch K. Johnson and Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, "Review Roundtable: Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," Intelligence and National Security 23, no. 6 (Dec. 2008): 878-891.

Johnson finds that Weiner's "close attention ... to errant covert actions is the book's strong suit." However, "those who have carefully read the literature that precedes his work know that little he presents here is new.... Even the portions ... that deal with covert actions, though, are deeply marred by a lack of balance.... What is most unfortunate about Weiner's book is that ... millions of readers will take away from it a decidedly distorted history of the CIA."

Although no fan of the CIA, Jeffreys-Jones also finds much not to like about Legacy of Ashes. He notes that "[w]hile allowances can be made for authors who write in sensationalist mode to increase their sales, the employment of the definite article in the title of the book is unwarranted. Weiner is insufficiently acquainted with the issues and debates in his field.... The book is muddled and self-contradictory."

Andrew, Times (London), 1 Sep. 2007, comments that "[a] balanced understanding of the CIA's record ... requires a serious examination of the KGB operations that it set out to defeat. Legacy of Ashes does not provide it." The book "fails to do justice to the CIA's role, despite its excessive use of covert action, in preventing the Cold War turning hot.... In sum, Legacy of Ashes is a readable but disappointing book by a writer of obvious talent."


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