Thursday, 12 July 2012

Book review: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Time Weiner (2007)

No doubt Weiner's book is the most comprehensive account of the CIA's history but it's hard keeping up with him. For most of the book, quotes from people pop up and then they're gone forever, like a series of shoot-em targets in a fairground sideshow. Even the names of the major players get lost. You are left with impressions. This weakness in the book's narrative structure diminishes as events approach the present day; the names of people working under George W. Bush are easier to remember. But the official record is missing for these years, whereas for earlier generations of people documents written, say, in the 50s and 60s had been released by the nougties. So while you're more likely to get the truth for those earlier years, you're less likely to be able to follow the action, and vice versa.

As time moves forward, especially for the years of G.W. Bush's presidency, you also have to question Weiner's objectivity. You pick up just a tad too much approval for the CIA's special culture and it's unique mission. For all of the morally indefensible conduct of the CIA under presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon (and then, after a refreshing hiatus, characterised by the more rational attitudes of Carter, under Reagan) - and, of course, abetted and encouraged by those men and their governments - Weiner appears to give the CIA qua organisation a big, fat tick. For any rational observer, living outside the bubble created by access to operational secrets or private conversations with managers and directors, it is clear that the CIA from the beginning should not exist. The crusade against Communism tainted the relationship between the US and other nations while it continued, and it has continued to infect those relations to this day.
"It was easy, once upon a time, for the CIA to be unique and mystical. It was not an institution. It was a mission. And the mission was a crusade. Then you took the Soviet Union away from us and there wasn't anything else. We don't have a history. We don't have a hero. Even our medals are secret. And now the mission is over." (p. 498)
In the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks in New York, when al Quaeda flew jet airliners into the Twin Towers, the CIA had plenty of information to convey to the powers that be. Not only that, but the director, George Tenet, failed on multiple occasions to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden when he was at large in Afghanistan. Nothing happened. The CIA did not stop the disaster. Why would it? The agency had been struggling with budget cuts for at least a decade, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It had had a series of short-lived directors and it was not trusted by those who controlled the purse strings.

In a real sense, the CIA needed Bin Laden so that it could reassume the position of power that it had held under successive presidents spooked by the Soviet bogeyman. It's pretty clear that the CIA assisted Bin Laden in escaping death or capture. And they also intentionally failed to raise the alarm about an attack from the air - which they knew was coming - so as to put pressure on Congress to increase their budget. They needed a new crusade, and so they manufactured it.

Weiner never posits this idea. He is too close to the psychopaths in charge at Langley, Virginia, where the CIA's headquarters is located. For this reason, this book is not a trustworthy exercise for the average reader, at least in its latter parts. Weiner clearly enjoys the derring-do even though he knows that it was failures in intelligence gathering that led the agency to pursue so many illegal acts of regime change over the years. The count seems endless. Guatemala, Iran, Japan, Thailand, the Congo. Billions of dollars of money were spent in secret, tonnes of armaments were supplied, right-wing leaders who had no popular mandate were ushered into power in dozens of countries just so that the crusaders in Washington could feel that they had done their bit to thwart the Reds.

This book, where it is based on facts taken from actual documents and not on intimate conversations with avowed liars, will make you angry. It fails when concrete evidence is missing and where the author relies on heresay and rumour to make his case. There is nothing glamorous about what the CIA does. It is supra-democratic, secretive to the point of paranoia, and it has copies throughout the world. In your country, wherever you live, there are men and women spying on citizens and then spinning the information gathered so that it fits with the agendas of the governments in power. It is truly frightening to contemplate.

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