Mark Riebling

Tim Weiner’s CIA history lifts the cover on a half century of intrigue.
5 October 2007

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner (Doubleday, 702 pp., $27.95)

Tim Weiner, who reports on intelligence for the New York Times, has written an essential but flawed book about an essential but flawed agency. Legacy of Ashes, he declares, is “the first history of the CIA compiled entirely from firsthand reporting and primary documents.” That is the book’s great strength, and its great weakness.

It’s a strength, because the secondary literature on secret intelligence chokes with myth and guesswork. For every good book, such as Thomas Powers’s classic The Man Who Kept the Secrets, scores of bad ones have appeared, alleging, say, that the CIA killed JFK, concocted AIDS to kill black people, or orchestrated the World Trade Center attacks. Because Weiner doesn’t reference even the good books in the field, he doesn’t perpetuate the errors in the bad ones. If, as John Lukacs suggests, the historian’s calling is not just to establish truth, but to reduce untruth, then Tim Weiner has performed a real service.

Yet his reliance on primary sources crimps the value of the work. Weiner has read 50,000 pages of documents, most importantly the CIA’s own declassified oral and internal histories. But as the CIA itself has discovered, the more information one collects, the tougher it is to separate the “signals” from the “noise.” And like the CIA, Weiner is better at collecting the facts than interpreting them.

It’s difficult to see how Weiner derived some of his judgments. “The supreme goal of the CIA during the cold war was to steal Soviet secrets by recruiting spies,” Weiner writes, “but the CIA never possessed a single one who had deep insight into the workings of the Kremlin.” Yet as he notes elsewhere in the book, moles such as Pyotr Popov, Oleg Penkovksy, and Anatoly Golitysn all gave the CIA deep insight into the Kremlin. Weiner also asserts that Allen Dulles, CIA director in the 1950s, “refused to pay attention to anything but covert action,” that is, dirty tricks by human spies. But Dulles persuaded President Eisenhower to approve the high-tech U-2 spy plane project, as Weiner points out. In what Weiner calls “the battle between the spies and the gadgets,” Dulles fought for both sides.

Some of Weiner’s judgments are beyond dispute: “The annals of the Central Intelligence Agency are filled with folly and misfortune, along with acts of bravery and cunning.” That’s a truism few would contest, yet the book lacks the balance implied by that statement. Indeed, Legacy of Ashes is a litany of blunders. Weiner relates the agency’s failures in whole chapters, while he relegates its successes to mere clauses. For instance, he mentions but does not linger over the four crowning achievements of James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s famous counterspy chief, who pilfered Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin; cultivated alliances with British and especially Israeli intelligence; and assessed the Six-Day War correctly. Most critically, Weiner concedes: “As far as anyone knows, the CIA was never penetrated by a traitor or a Soviet spy during the twenty years that Angleton ran counterintelligence.”