Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

3.8 66
by Tim Weiner

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With shocking revelations that made headlines in papers across the country, Pulitzer-Prize-winner Tim Weiner gets at the truth behind the CIA and uncovers here why nearly every CIA Director has left the agency in worse shape than when he found it; and how these profound failures jeopardize our national security.

From the Trade Paperback edition.  See more details below


With shocking revelations that made headlines in papers across the country, Pulitzer-Prize-winner Tim Weiner gets at the truth behind the CIA and uncovers here why nearly every CIA Director has left the agency in worse shape than when he found it; and how these profound failures jeopardize our national security.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Recently, we've learned that the CIA allowed itself to endorse erroneous intelligence, took part in illegal interrogations, condoned torture, failed to protect a covert agent when her name was revealed to the public, censored the publication of public documents and information, and destroyed several other documents that could be potentially damaging to the agency. All this and more is consistent with Tim Weiner's fascinating, wonderfully written, impressively documented, comprehensive history of the CIA. This National Book Award winner offers a compelling examination of how the agency tasked with understanding the world delivered instead a record of failure and incompetence that has jeopardized national security and increased anti-American sentiment around the globe.

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Legacy of Ashes is the record of the first sixty years of the Central Intelligence Agency. It describes how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service. That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States. Intelligence is secret action aimed at understanding or changing what goes on abroad. President Dwight D. Eisenhower called it “a distasteful but vital necessity.” A nation that wants to project its power beyond its borders needs to see over the horizon, to know what is coming, to prevent attacks against its people. It must anticipate surprise. Without a strong, smart, sharp intelligence service, presidents and generals alike can become blind and crippled. But throughout its history as a superpower, the United States has not had such a service.

History, Edward Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is “little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” The annals of the Central Intelligence Agency are filled with folly and misfortune, along with acts of bravery and cunning. They are replete with fleeting successes and long–lasting failures abroad. They are marked by political battles and power struggles at home. The agency’s triumphs have saved some blood and treasure. Its mistakes have squandered both. They have proved fatal for legions of American soldiers and foreign agents; some three thousand Americans who died in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001; and three thousand more who have died since then in Iraq and Afghanistan. The one crime of lasting consequence has been the CIA’s inability to carry out its central mission: informing the president of what is happening in the world.

The United States had no intelligence to speak of when World War II began, and next to none a few weeks after the war ended. A mad rush to demobilize left behind a few hundred men who had a few years’ experience in the world of secrets and the will to go on fighting a new enemy. “All major powers except the United States have had for a long time past permanent worldwide intelligence services, reporting directly to the highest echelons of their Government,” General William J. Donovan, the commander of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, warned President Truman in August 1945. “Prior to the present war, the United States had no foreign secret intelligence service. It never has had and does not now have a coordinated intelligence system.” Tragically, it still does not have one.

The CIA was supposed to become that system. But the blueprint for the agency was a hasty sketch. It was no cure for a chronic American weakness: secrecy and deception were not our strengths. The collapse of the British Empire left the United States as the sole force able to oppose Soviet communism, and America desperately needed to know those enemies, to provide foresight to presidents, and to fight fire with fire when called upon to light the fuse. The mission of the CIA, above all, was to keep the president forewarned against surprise attack, a second Pearl Harbor.

The agency’s ranks were filled with thousands of patriotic Americans in the 1950s. Many were brave and battle–hardened. Some had wisdom. Few really knew the enemy. Where understanding failed, presidents ordered the CIA to change the course of history through covert action. “The conduct of political and psychological warfare in peacetime was a new art,” wrote Gerald Miller, then the CIA’s covert–operations chief for Western Europe. “Some of the techniques were known but doctrine and experience were lacking.” The CIA’s covert operations were by and large blind stabs in the dark. The agency’s only course was to learn by doing—by making mistakes in battle. The CIA then concealed its failures abroad, lying to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. It told those lies to preserve its standing in Washington. The truth, said Don Gregg, a skilled cold-war station chief, was that the agency at the height of its powers had a great reputation and a terrible record.

Like the American public, the agency dissented at its peril during the Vietnam War. Like the American press, it discovered that its reporting was rejected if it did not fit the preconceptions of presidents. The CIA was rebuked and scorned by Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. None of them understood how the agency worked. They took office “with the expectation that intelligence could solve every problem, or that it could not do anything right, and then moved to the opposite view,” notes a former deputy director of central intelligence, Richard J. Kerr. “Then they settled down and vacillated from one extreme to the other.”

To survive as an institution in Washington, the agency above all had to have the president’s ear. But it soon learned that it was dangerous to tell him what he did not want to hear. The CIA’s analysts learned to march in lockstep, conforming to conventional wisdom. They misapprehended the intentions and capabilities of our enemies, miscalculated the strength of communism, and misjudged the threat of terrorism.

The supreme goal of the CIA during the cold war was to steal Soviet secrets by recruiting spies, but the CIA never possessed a single one who had deep insight into the workings of the Kremlin. The number of Soviet spies with important information to reveal–all of them volunteers, not recruits—could be counted on the fingers of two hands. And all of them died, captured and executed by Moscow. Almost all had been betrayed by officers of the CIA’s Soviet division who were spying for the other side, under Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Under Reagan, the CIA set off on misconceived third–world missions, selling arms to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to finance a war in Central America, breaking the law and squandering what trust remained reposed in it. More grievously, it missed the fatal weakness of its main enemy.

It fell to machines, not men, to understand the other side. As the technology of espionage expanded its horizons, the CIA’s vision grew more and more myopic. Spy satellites enabled it to count Soviet weapons. They did not deliver the crucial information that communism was crumbling. The CIA’s foremost experts never saw the enemy until after the cold war was over. The agency had bled the Soviets by pouring billions of dollars of weapons into Afghanistan to help fight the Red Army’s occupying forces. That was an epic success. But it failed to see that the Islamic warriors it supported would soon take aim at the United States, and when that understanding came, the agency failed to act. That was an epochal failure.

The unity of purpose that held the CIA together during the cold war came undone in the 1990s, under President Clinton. The agency still had people who strove to understand the world, but their ranks were far too thin. There were still talented officers who dedicated themselves to serving the United States abroad, but their numbers were far too few. The FBI had more agents in New York than the CIA had officers abroad. By the end of the century, the agency was no longer a fully functioning and independent intelligence service. It was becoming a second–echelon field office for the Pentagon, weighing tactics for battles that never came, not strategies for the struggle ahead. It was powerless to prevent the second Pearl Harbor.

After the attacks on New York and Washington, the agency sent a small skilled cadre of covert operators into Afghanistan and Pakistan to hunt down the leaders of al Qaeda. It then forfeited its role as a reliable source of secret information when it handed the White House false reports on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It had delivered a ton of reportage based on an ounce of intelligence. President George W. Bush and his administration in turn misused the agency once proudly run by his father, turning it into a paramilitary police force abroad and a paralyzed bureaucracy at headquarters. Bush casually pronounced a political death sentence upon the CIA in 2004 when he said that the agency was “just guessing” about the course of the war in Iraq. No president had ever publicly dismissed the CIA that way.

Its centrality in the American government ended with the dissolution of the office of director of central intelligence in 2005. Now the CIA must be rebuilt if it is to survive. That task will take years. The challenge of understanding the world as it is has overwhelmed three generations of CIA officers. Few among the new generation have mastered the intricacies of foreign lands, much less the political culture of Washington. In turn, almost every president, almost every Congress, and almost every director of central intelligence since the 1960s has proved incapable of grasping the mechanics of the CIA. Most have left the agency in worse shape than they found it. Their failures have handed future generations, in the words of President Eisenhower, “a legacy of ashes.” We are back where we began sixty years ago, in a state of disarray.

Legacy of Ashes sets out to show how it has come to pass that the United States now lacks the intelligence it will need in the years ahead. It is drawn from the words, the ideas, and the deeds set forth in the files of the American national-security establishment. They record what our leaders really said, really wanted, and really did when they projected power abroad. This book is based on my reading of more than fifty thousand documents, primarily from the archives of the CIA, the White House, and the State Department; more than two thousand oral histories of American intelligence officers, soldiers, and diplomats; and more than three hundred interviews conducted since 1987 with CIA officers and veterans, including ten directors of central intelligence. Extensive endnotes amplify the text.

This book is on the record—no anonymous sources, no blind quotations, no hearsay. It is the first history of the CIA compiled entirely from firsthand reporting and primary documents. It is, by its nature, incomplete: no president, no director of central intelligence, and certainly no outsider can know everything about the agency. What I have written here is not the whole truth, but to the best of my ability, it is nothing but the truth.

I hope it may serve as a warning. No republic in history has lasted longer than three hundred years, and this nation may not long endure as a great power unless it finds the eyes to see things as they are in the world. That once was the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Legacy of Ashes 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 67 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Rollo_Moss More than 1 year ago
Weiner sets out to demonize the CIA, and by use of selective incidents and cherry-picking of history, "succeeds." Not a balanced account of an agency that, like all government agencies, is made up of flesh-and-blood humans capable of ingenuity and bravery and, capable, too, of short-sightedness and cowardice. But what do I know? I only spent 5 years in CIA.
B-2 More than 1 year ago
The book is a bird's eye view of the CIA's history, based on the documents declassified in the last decade. It is a very critical view - but not at all in line with Agency's Hollywood's image ( evil devious all-powerful ruthless world conspiracy). The Agency is criticised for it's mediocre performance, inefficiency, poor planning, carrierist mindset, neglect of reliable intelligence in favor of poorly conceived covert projects and , frankly, for bringing more harm than good to US interests ever since Pearl Harbor. If you ( like me) can't really name a single major CIA success during your lifetime, the book is an explanation. Of course, the author could be biased ( I wouldn't know), but even if only half of his facts are only correct, CIA is a hardly a spy service one would expect a mighty superpower to have. I grade the books as Buy and Keep (BK), Read Library book and Return ( RLR) and Once I Put it Down I Couldn't Pick it Up ( OIPD-ICPU). This one is BK .
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wiener's overview of the CIA, at its best and worst, is amazing. A paramilitary organization enthralled by the sophisticated nature of the British spies, Dulles, Donovan, and others went on to find the Agency that has changed the world for better and for ill. At a time when intelligence is at a premium compared to what Rumsfeld says, the history highlights the Agency's brilliant successes--the defection of KGB agents, dismantaling of the AQ Khan network, overthrow of the Chile government and their spectacular failures--overestimating the Soviet's military strength, the numerous attempts on Castro's life, operations in Soviet Russia and Maoist China, and domestic spying. However, the Agency is still facing its own demise.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The best book I have ever read on the CIA, if sometimes a little too hard on the agency. To say that every director has been a failure is difficult to believe. And the Kennedy brothers were not quite the liberal icons that martrydom has made them out to be. This book couldn't come at a better time when good intelligence is so important.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tim Weiner, an American journalist, has written a useful history of the US state¿s Central Intelligence Agency. It has been the president¿s private, secret and illegal army, it does what the president wants, so it is not `a rogue elephant¿, as the Church Committee called it. He shows that from its origin in 1947, the CIA has always been incompetent and incapable. In 1948 the CIA launched a scare about the Russians invading Berlin the next day Congress approved the Marshall Plan. A secret clause let the CIA skim $685 million from Plan funds, what Weiner calls `a global money-laundering scheme¿. In 1948 the CIA set up secret prisons in Germany, Japan and Panama, using torture and drugs on its captives. It carried out 81 major anti-democratic covert operations in Truman¿s second term, 170 in 48 countries under Eisenhower, and 163 in just three years under the liberals¿ hero Kennedy. Its efforts at gathering intelligence from 1948 (`World War Three starting in Berlin¿) to Iraq (`Weapons of Mass Destruction¿) have been consistently wrong. It always said that the Soviet Union was impervious to reason, impossible to reform and understood only force ¿ but this is projection, mirroring the CIA itself. It ran coups overthrowing elected governments and installing tyrants, for example in Iran, Guatemala, Congo, where Eisenhower ordered that Lumumba be `eliminated¿, Chile and Greece. Against Cuba it used biological and chemical weapons, assassination attempts hiring Mafia hit men and a botched invasion. The CIA funded Italy¿s neo-fascist terrorists in the 1970s. It illegally spied on the American people. The CIA lied to Congress, the people and presidents, for example, Weiner notes its director Allen Dulles¿ `practice of deceiving the president¿. To cover for the CIA, presidents lied to Congress and the people. Weiner remarks that the CIA¿s testimony to Congress ¿left the impression that the United States had hired a gang of conmen and thieves to run its foreign affairs.¿ It organised death squads in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and in Afghanistan and Iraq today. It carries out illegal renditions of innocent suspects to its secret prisons in Thailand, Poland, Afghanistan and Iraq. Could a democratic country use such a vicious tool?
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blue_solace More than 1 year ago
There are a few takeaways from this book and despite a lower than perfect score, I would still recommend this book. Here are the reasons why- 1) Tim Weiner does have sources to back up his wildly biased take on the CIA. Some of these were from the very top, others from archives, still others from some lower level CIA employees. This has to be taken into account and much of what he says, despite being delivered with a slant, actually took place. 2) He gets opinions from the top as well. Some of the former directors are not at all shy about being upfront with failures, though I think Weiner does a disservice to them when he doesn't include some other viewpoints than "we messed up" or "we didn't have a clue." 3) His mistakes are easier to spot and his bias clearly shows so it becomes a little bit easier to pull out the good stuff from the book (and there is some good stuff.) Overall, the book was an enthralling read, if not biased as mentioned many times before. His title alone (though sure to be an attention grabber) smacks of a viewpoint that doesn't allow for much good to be shown. Only occasionally does he mention a victory for the CIA. I agree with other readers that the CIA's responsibility is huge and by relying on agents (as is necessary) that mistakes are gonna be made. You can't win all the battles in the intelligence war. Weiner here does a disservice to all the capable and patriotic men and women that we have (and had) in the CIA by not bringing more light to their accomplishments (though a few are present.) It's a well known fact in the intel world that your failures are known 10 times over your accomplishments. Some accomplishments are sometimes never gonna be known (maybe a guy that they took off the streets was gonna be the lead of a next terrorist attack, who knows.) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this book might not be valued for its narrow view of the past but moreover for its telling of the future. It is not so important as to what the CIA did but HOW it came to do it. If we look at how the CIA was managed and how it was a reflection of not only the current time period and threats but also of the president and directors themselves, we can see how better to manage such a huge force for better in the future. Leadership that was too strong and one-armed as during the early Bush years yields certain unintended and unfortunate results but also the lack of caring for the organization under the early Clinton era maligned it as well. A certain balance is needed as well as a certain level of oversight. Along with that, a core mission is most certainly needed as evidenced by the fleeting raison d'etre that vanished when the Cold War ended and left the CIA spinning its rudders without going anywhere. When the CIA is given too much rope, it can easily hang itself as evidenced by too many failed covert ops in the early days (and the deaths of many agents as well.) When it is not given enough, it cannot fully do its job. That balance will remain elusive and hard to grasp. We can only hope to learn from our mistakes and continue to improve. Overall, a very gripping novel-like read and a book that can shine some light on an organization that was, and continues to be, misunderstood and maligned, sometimes not only by its leaders but also by authors like Mr. Weiner himself.
Russell_Kirk More than 1 year ago
After reading Weiner's work on the CIA you wonder how they haven't been disbanded by Congress; educate yourself on power and corruption from the start infected America's intelligence agency with irreparable ignorance.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is so jaded and biased that it renders itself useless.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago