Legacy of Ashes

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Tim Weiner announces the thesis of Legacy of Ashes in its second sentence, asserting that “the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service.” In fact, his very title (taken from remarks made by President Dwight D. Eisenhower near the end of his administration) makes clear his opinion of his subject, the controversial Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA.

As Weiner explains, the CIA had several predecessors. Most important was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which oversaw America’s spying operations during World War II. President Harry S. Truman disbanded the OSS in 1945 after receiving a devastating report on its performance, and he denied the plea of its director, General William J. Donovan, to create a new, centralized spy agency. Truman’s will was countermanded by Brigadier General John Magruder and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, both of whom believed that the Soviet Union posed a growing threat. They organized an ad hoc group they called the Strategic Services Unit to carry on the OSS’s mission.

The CIA itself came into existence in 1947 under the provisions of the National Security Act, but it was two years before it had a real budget or a formal charter. Its mission was murky, and the secrecy under which it would operate was troubling to some close observers. Its job, according to the provisions of the act, was to sift intelligence and perform “other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security.” Ominously enough, the country’s handful of spymasters had already drawn themselves into two camps. The first believed that the new agency should concentrate upon espionage and analysis, while the second believed that it should engage in covert action within the “other functions and duties” formulation.

The split between the two camps survives to this day and according to Weiner has proven fatal to the operation of the CIA. In fact, within a year of the agency’s creation, covert operations had become its dominant function. Using millions of dollars skimmed from the Marshall Plan (an aid program designed to finance the recovery of the European nations after World War II), the CIA began funding émigré groups to penetrate the Soviet Union and its satellites. The consequences were disastrous, for time after time the émigrés were tracked down by skilled Soviet agents.

Hundreds paid with their lives for the CIA’s naïveté, but there was another factor at work as well. The Soviets themselves had penetrated the Western intelligence agencies. Their mole was Harold “Kim” Philby, on the surface British intelligence’s liaison with the CIA. For a time, Philby operated out a room in the Pentagon, and he cultivated an extraordinary contact. His source of information was none other than James J. Angleton, a powerful CIA official in charge of counterintelligence who gladly shared details about the agency’s operations with his close friend and drinking partner. In Weiner’s formulation, the alcoholic (and increasingly paranoid) Angleton would eventually take the “CIA’s missions against Moscow down into a dark labyrinth.”

According to Weiner, even the agency’s early successes were failures in disguise. The CIA helped overthrow the government of Iran in 1953 and that of Guatemala in 1954, but the acts would later be seen as blows to the United States’ moral standing and its strategic goals. The agency proved to be no better at straightforward espionage. It had failed to predict the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 and the invasion of Korea by the communist Chinese in 1950. In the latter case, the CIA rejected the observations of its own agents on the ground, but military arrogance was at work as well. The leader of the allied forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur, heatedly rejected any hint from intelligence agents that the Chinese would enter the fray, leading to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of American soldiers.

The first official critique of the CIA had come as early as 1948, instigated by Secretary of Defense James Vincent Forrestal. One of what would become a long series of negative assessments, it was prepared by Allen Dulles, who had been instrumental in creating the agency in the first place. He would become its...

(The entire section is 1782 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 21 (July 1, 2007): 14.

The Christian Science Monitor, August 14, 2007, p. 13.

The Economist 384 (August 18, 2007): 72-73.

Los Angeles Times, June 29, 2007, p. E1.

New Statesman 137 (August 13, 2007): 48-49.

The New York Times 156 (July 12, 2007): E9.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (July 22, 2007): 11.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 23 (June 4, 2007): 43.

The Wall Street Journal 250, no. 11 (July 14, 2007): P8.

The Washington Post, July 22, 2007, p. BW03.