Book Review: Legacy of Ashes: A history of the CIA

Review: By Justin Marinelli 

The Hollywood myth of the CIA burns itself well into one’s memory. How many films have painted it as an indispensable agency staffed with the best and the brightest, manned by the most capable killers, and armed with billions in black-budget booty? We are all aware that this is a theatrical fiction, but we are influenced by it nonetheless.

In his book Legacy of Ashes, journalist Tim Weiner aims to reverse this perception and expose the CIA as an arrogant organization that stumbles from failure to failure without regret. He is indeed a convincing writer, but he does not succeed nearly as much as it seems he intended.

It must be admitted that the book is a thrilling read. Spy stories almost always are, and this one is helped not only by its veracity but also by its well-written prose. With that in mind, it must be admitted that the narrative is occasionally undermined by the brief acknowledgments it gives to CIA successes (mentioned, for example, are successful operations in dismantling a Libyan weapons program and preventing a Taiwanese initiative to acquire nuclear weapons). While certain of the many failures laid out in the text are irrefutable, a sympathetic reading will certainly find grounds on which to defend the Central Intelligence Agency.

A central theme of the book is that the CIA faces its most unfortunate setbacks when it focuses too heavily on covert actions and it pays too little heed to its ostensible mission of intelligence gathering and analysis. It is in making this case that this book finds its surest footing, and not just because it is in these moments that Weiner comes across not as an ideological opponent of the CIA but as a sober and judicious critic. The argument can certainly be made that he should have done more to play up this theme, as this emphasis serves as the book’s greatest strength. In any event, it is when he is advancing this line of reasoning that the book is at its most convincing.

It must be mentioned that a weakness of the book is its age. It is approaching the better part of a decade in print, and as such, its narrative finishes just before the end of the Bush administration. Those looking for an expose of recent events will unfortunately have to look elsewhere, which is something of a shame, as the book’s message and tone would have made for a most readable account of not only the CIA’s role in facilitating the usage of drones as an American weapon of war, but also of the Agency’s eventual success in tracking down Osama bin Laden.

With that in mind, the limits of the book also make it oddly suitable for the current day. A key emphasis is placed in the book’s final pages on the degree to which the CIA lost influence during the Bush years to the Pentagon and to military intelligence. Though it recovered healthily during the Obama years, there is certainly evidence to suggest that the new president has a contentious enough relationship with this section of the intelligence community such that it is worth asking whether or not we are likely to see a Bush-era dynamic play out over the course of the coming administration. Even if this is not the case, however, President Trump’s recent overture to the CIA, coupled with his gestures in regard to some of their more controversial behavior, indicate that this is a President with a vision for the CIA that is noticeably more militarised than what it is now. Whether or not this is an appropriate evolution for a organization that is ostensibly a civilian intelligence organization should be the subject of considerable debate, and I would like to think that this is something that could be agreed upon regardless of one’s position on the political spectrum.

In any event, Legacy of Ashes is a fascinating read, and while I wouldn’t recommend it as the only book one should keep in their personal library regarding the CIA, it is one that should be on the shelf of anyone with a serious interest in these matters. It is informative and well-written, and it is above all a good read, and so, in the end, I would encourage anyone with an interest in this subject to pick up this book.

Justin has recently graduated from Durham University with an Msc. in Global Politics. He has experience working for Washington DC think tanks and also holds a BA in Philosophy and Comparative Humanities from Bucknell University, Pennsylvania. His main interests are in the areas of geopolitics, grand strategy, political risk, and covert operations.

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