Beyond the CIA's Veil
Veteran New York Times reporter Tim Weiner became fascinated by the CIA after a 1987 trip to Afghanistan to report on the agency's effort to arm rebels battling the Soviets. When he returned and interviewed CIA analysts, he found that they wanted to ask him only what it was like in this country they were studying but had never visited. In his new book Legacy of Ashes, Weiner pierces the CIA's veil of secrecy with a sweeping, authoritative historybased on thousands of declassified CIA reports and on-the-record interviews with participants. The book, which paints a withering portrait of an agency with more failures than successes, was written as a wake-up call in an age when the CIA is the front line against Islamic terrorism.
Your book contains surprisingly few heroes inside the CIA. Did you expect to find more?
The foundation of this book is the CIA's documents. The story they tell is one of people going up against problems they do not understand. For lack of understanding a language or a culture or a history, the missions failover and over again.
Is there one figure who encapsulates the good and the bad?
Frank Wisner (the first chief of the CIA's clandestine side) had the highest hopes, deepest patriotism, and the most soaring ambitions for what the clandestine service could do. He hired everybody he could get his hands on. He rode a wave of enthusiasm throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s. His mission was to roll the Soviets back. The tragedy was that the missions never worked. People died. Nations were lost. Finally, Wisner had been an undiagnosed manic-depressive. Wisner was lost, too.
Is the book more about the failure of the CIA or the failure of presidents to understand what the CIA is and what it isn't?
Much more the latter. The greatest tragedy in this story is the inability of presidents to understand the CIA and to use it wisely. They got their information from movies, books, and Washington corridor chitchat. And so you have misuse and abuse. John Kennedy was quite struck by the fact that CIA officers didn't look like James Bond at all. He was shocked when he was introduced to William Harvey, who built the Berlin tunnel (a CIA operation to eavesdrop on the Soviets), as our James Bond. Well, Harvey looked like a pear, and he drank double martinis at lunch.
Your portrait of President Kennedy will very likely surprise many people.
He set in motion the events that led to the assassination of the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. There is a scene in the book where John Kennedy sits alone in the Oval Office, dictating a memo about the assassination. "We must bear a good deal of responsibility for it," JFK said, meaning we have blood on our hands for Diem's death. And he stops for a moment as his children are running in and out. Then he resumes: "And the way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent." Two weeks later, Richard Helms, the director of central intelligence to be, walks into the Oval Office carrying a Belgian submachine gun seized as a war trophy. Helms said, "I'm sure glad the Secret Service didn't catch us bringing this gun in here." Kennedy says, "Yes, it gives me a feeling of confidence." These guys were playing with life and death.
Lyndon Johnson is also a fascinating presence in the book.
He desperately wanted the CIA to find out a way to win the war in Vietnam. They never had a spy close to Ho Chi Minh. What they could tell him was that we were not going to win the war. They got Vietnam less wrong than anybody else in the U.S. government from 1966 onward. They reported it high up the chain of command, and that took intellectual and moral courage.
They weren't rewarded for it.
Presidents don't like to be told what they don't want to hear. Johnson had a very vivid memo of how he regarded the CIA. It involved milking a cow and having the cow swing its unclean tail through the pearly white milk in the pail.
There are eerie echoes of the past in controversies today, such as domestic eavesdropping.
We now know, 30 years after the fact, precisely the ways in which three presidentsKennedy, Johnson, and Nixonabused the power of the CIA to spy on Americans. We will know in 30 years if, when, and how this White House abused its powers to spy on Americans. We have no idea today.
But this is not an anti-CIA book.
Having covered them off and on for 20 years, I'm convinced that we need to get good at espionage. Not at covert action, not at overthrowing regimes, but at espionageat figuring out what's going on without being detected.
This story appears in the August 6, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.