Legacy of Ashes: The History of CIA

The only CIA man I’ve ever had dealings with, knowingly at least, was a nerdish fellow with thick glasses who used to hang around the bar of the Camino Real hotel, eavesdropping on the foreign journalists covering the 1980s civil war in El Salvador. Forbidden by the US Embassy to travel into areas controlled by left-wing guerrillas, he would order large rounds of drinks, in Spanish worse than mine, before inquiring casually whether anything interesting was happening out in the countryside. It became a bit of a game to feed him fictitious accounts of insurgents training with brand-new Russian artillery pieces and ground-to-air missiles.

In pursuit of what it defined as Uncle Sam’s interests, CIA operatives in El Salvador collaborated closely with torturers and killers like the infamous Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, aka “Blowtorch Bob” for his favoured  interrogation technique. Supported by a wealth of declassified documentary evidence and some devastating insider testimony, Weiner puts the boot in with relish, laying bare the lethal combination of arrogance and bumbling incompetence that produced disasters in Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iran (nobody saw Khomeini coming) and, of course, Iraq. The CIA’s orchestration of the 1963 coup there installed the Baathist regime, incidentally kick-starting the career of an ambitious young assassin named Saddam Hussein. The agency later failed to predict Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, while its bogus “slam dunk” reports on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction produced today’s catastrophe.

Among New York Times correspondent Weiner’s illuminating vignettes is Henry Kissinger confiding to Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai that the CIA’s image as an all-powerful, omniscient force was “vastly overestimated (and) they don’t deserve it.” A newly recruited CIA officer seized by Iranian militants at the US embassy in Teheran remembers their astonishment that he spoke no Farsi and knew nothing of their country’s customs, culture or history. When the Berlin Wall fell, the White House requested intelligence from US agents on the ground: “It was hard to confess that there were no Soviet spies worth a damn,” a senior official recalled, “they’d all been rounded up or killed and no one… knew why.” (A fellow CIA agent had betrayed them.)

Soon after Weiner’s absorbing book appeared, a report by the agency’s own watchdog on its performance in the run-up to 9/11 was made public. It found that in failing to devise a strategic plan to deal with the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and ignoring clear warning signs, the CIA’s senior leadership “did not discharge their responsibilities in a satisfactory manner.” In other words, they blew it again.

Reviewer: Philip Jacobson has covered conflicts around the world for many British publications.