A spooky look at the CIA

A history of US intelligence makes for uncomfortable reading.

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The intelligence, if you could call it that, seemed solid.

The Guatemalan military bugged the bedroom of the US ambassador in 1994 and caught her cooing to someone who was not her husband but did share her female secretary's name.

The CIA passed on this juicy tidbit to Washington DC, where it became the buzz of the capital during a period of difficult relations with Guatemala. And who did the recipient of these sweet-nothings turn out to be? The ambassador's 2-year-old poodle.

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It was yet another blunder in a long line of CIA debacles. This time, however, no dictators were propped up, no wars were started, and no one was assassinated. Presidents and Congress were not misled, and predictions about world affairs were not utterly, completely, and dangerously wrong.

In other words, the mistake was hardly newsworthy as these things go. After all, the agency routinely destroys whatever it touches, according to the aptly named Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.

The agency's past is filled with "fleeting successes and long-lasting failures abroad," writes author Tim Weiner, a national-security reporter at The New York Times. "The agency's triumphs have saved some blood and treasure. Its mistakes have squandered both."

Forget the latest James Patterson thriller. This is by far the scariest book of the year. By Mr. Weiner's account, the agency created after World War II to predict the next Pearl Harbor has spent six decades mishandling virtually every major world crisis. It's also managed to spy on American citizens while failing to anticipate everything from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and 9/11.

Forecasting the future, of course, is a difficult business. But predictions are most useful when they're based on information from good sources and solid analysts, and the CIA rarely had either.

Throughout the entire cold war, a grand total of three spies provided useful details about Soviet military efforts. Years later, the agency relied on fewer than a handful of agents to give it the inside story about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction.

The roots of the CIA's debacles lie in its early days, writes Weiner. Instead of chasing secrets, leaders preferred the dashing world of covert operations.

Eliminate a left-leaning president here, support a right-wing anticommunist leader there: It was all good. Bad men ended up in power and thousands paid the ultimate price, from Chile and Vietnam to Cuba and Indonesia.

The 20 CIA directors have included some dedicated and accomplished men, such as Bob Gates, the current secretary of Defense, and two Christian Scientists, Adm. Stansfield Turner and William Webster. But, as Weiner puts it, most "have left the agency in worse shape than they found it."

There is plenty of blame to go around. Presidents and Congress both failed to keep the CIA under control and never answered a crucial question: How can a democracy and a secretive intelligence agency coexist?

Since the book is so hard-hitting, some readers might assume Weiner is another liberal reporter on an ideological rampage. But the agency's own historians confirm many of his post-mortems.

Federal judge Laurence Silberman, a conservative's conservative who investigated the CIA's role in the run-up to the Iraq war, said generals would be sacked if the military had made such huge mistakes.

(The CIA itself, however, posted a response to "Legacy of Ashes" on its website last week, saying that the book "overlooks, minimizes, or distorts agency achievements." The agency's post says Weiner's account of what it calls his "juiciest" story – the tale of the US ambassador in Guatemala – is misleading. It also offers a catalogue of what it says are some of the inaccuracies in the book and concludes saying, "Weiner's bias overwhelms his scholarship. One cannot learn the true story of the CIA from 'Legacy of Ashes. ")

While it's unceasingly grim and less colorful than it could be, "Legacy of Ashes" is still readable, thanks in part to Weiner's ability to convince a parade of major players to speak freely.

Former CIA director Admiral Turner, for example, describes a moment when he had to decide what to do about an agent inside a terrorist organization who was being asked to kill a government official in order to prove his bona fides. Turner, to his credit, decided that the possible benefits, including saved lives, were not worth making "the United States party to a murder in order to take that chance."

The book is also strengthened by Weiner's sharp grasp of top-secret internal CIA documents, including reports that were declassified as late as this year.

Needed: a road map for the future

The only flaw in "Legacy of Ashes" is Weiner's failure to look forward. While he says the country "lacks the intelligence it will need in the years ahead," he doesn't provide a map for the future that will change that.

It will be up to others to learn from the CIA's troubled history and set a new course for intelligence gathering.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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