The Booksnob’s Blog

Books… the best, worst, & weirdest…

Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA

Legacy of Ashes This book, by Pulitzer prize winning journalist Tim Weiner is a devastating critique of six decades of the CIA’s operations, from the agency’s beginnings in the 1940s as a follow-on from the wartime Office of Strategic Services, through the eras of the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam, right to the present era.

Legacy of Ashes is a relentless catalogue of decades of crippling intelligence failures due to the infiltration of virtually every unit from its inception, of inter-departmental turf wars, of an agency addicted to covert action at the expense of intelligence gathering, whose main agenda seems to have been the buying or toppling of foreign governments (Italy, Japan, Egypt, Iran, the Congo, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, who knows how many others).  

 It is a story of rampant alcoholism and ruthless personal ambition amongst agents, of execrable planning and hideous bungles costing thousands of lives, including hundreds of the CIA’s own agents. It is the story of out-of-control section heads and gung-ho cowboys operating virtually as laws unto themselves, answerable to no-one, dreaming up insane schemes like throwing live bats out of airplanes with incendiary devices strapped to their backs, to rain down on Tokyo (this one didn’t work).

This priceless little gem appears on pages 4 and 5, courtesy of David Bruce, former CIA operative and later U.S. ambassador, whose unenviable task it was to test the bats-as-bombs hypothesis. It tends to set the tone for the whole, sorry saga, which could almost be a Keystone Cops comedy if the effects on the history of so many other nations had not been so devastating and long-lasting.

All in all, Legacy of Ashes is an utterly gripping narrative, one that I have been quite unable to put down – a 700-page catalogue of “swashbuckling of the worst kind”, to quote the words of one former agent.  The book’s great strength is that everything is on the record, sourced from first-hand reporting and primary documents, with numerous direct quotes from former operatives. There is an addendum of over 150 pages of notes documenting the author’s sources.

Frightening stuff.


December 27, 2007 - Posted by | Non fiction | , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Well, it turns out Weiner was distorting the record according to his preconceived notions, which is the unforgivable sin of scholarship. See this item for why Weiner did not win the Pulitzer for Legacy of Ashes:

    Comment by Eric Rambler | December 25, 2008 | Reply

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