Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The "I" in CIA

A non-fiction review this time: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tom Weiner. First up, a confession: I bought this book as a birthday present for a friend, but read its opening chapter and found myself drawn in. Needless to say, I won't be mentioning this to my friend.

This is a long and generally detailed look at the history of the CIA from its inception immediately after the Second World War up until the present day (earlier this year in fact). Mostly because of the defining nature of the CIA's relationships with different presidents, the book is primarily structured by succeeding presidential terms, with it further divided to delineate CIA activities in different geographical arenas.

However, despite changes in presidents, enemies and arenas, two surprising themes run through and unify the history presented. The first is that, even after sixty years of evolution, the CIA has never truly come close to satisfying the role of centralising intelligence that it was set up for. The second is that, contrary to general public perceptions, the CIA has almost never been a successful organisation, and has consistently misread signals leading its paymasters into either complacency or shadow-boxing.

That the CIA has never gotten to grips with its main task stems in part from its founding members' interests in covert operations. Rather than serve as a clearing house for the collation and analysis of information drawn from military, diplomatic and other sources, from the beginning the CIA has expended considerable effort engaged in exactly the sort of "dirty tricks" that its name is synonymous with. Many of these have served legitimate or semi-legitimate purposes, but, contrary to the stated rationale for its existence, they have dominated its focus and have been the source of many of the historical troubles it has experienced.

The degree of incompetence of the CIA certainly came as a surprise to me. Mission after mission after mission have been executed with either poor planning, operational support or follow-up assessment. That the CIA is covert has given its management carte blanch to tag its many failed missions as "top secret", and to avoid what would be necessary oversight in just about any other organisation. The infrequent successes that it has experienced have been shamelessly, and successfully, flouted by its directors, to the degree that public perception is of an amoral but effective organisation. The book has certainly set me straight on the robustness of this perception.

As a book, this is engagingly written and never boring. Occasionally it is complicated by jumps backwards and forwards in time to follow particular avenues, but these aren't too confusing. One aspect that is somewhat confusing is the long list of players that enter, exit then frequently re-enter the stage. Short of viewing the CIA purely from a organisational vantage point (i.e. "the director did this", "covert operations did that"), it's not obvious how to get around this and, to be honest, the evolution of the CIA has been too strongly influenced by a succession of key individuals to avoid mentioning them by name. The text is supplemented by a large number of often detailed footnotes, so particular points can be checked for clarification.

An obvious concern with a book on such a topic is the nature of any bias introduced by the author. Especially with an ethically-challenged organisation like the CIA (to reveal my own bias). From what I can judge, the book appears to avoid allegations of bias by sticking closely to sources, and by simply being so thorough. Dozens of missions and operations are described, running the full gamut from well-known successes/failures to events in backwater countries that have long since receded into history. I think that all of my own knowledge of the CIA was more or less covered in the book, suggesting that it presents a representative sample of their work, and does not skew things towards their unsuccessful activities. I'm sure, however, that certain political viewpoints will not share this assessment.

Concerning politics, it's interesting to read about the approaches different presidents have taken to the CIA. First of all, without exception, all have taken a strong interest in it. Some, such as Nixon, seem to have taken a very negative view of it, and have actively shunned it at times. Others, such as JFK, have made considerable use of it. Interestingly, almost no presidency comes out well in its dealings with the CIA. The exception is Jimmy Carter who, contrary to what one might expect, took strongly to the organisation, but viewed it as a tool to accomplish human rights goals (as well as its conventional anti-Soviet role). One of the interesting uses he put it towards was undermining the then-Apartheid South African government, in direct opposition to previous CIA operations that aimed to support it as a bulwark against Communism. Ultimately, even Carter came unstuck using it, but his is the only presidency not to be tarnished by it (at least as far as this book presents things).

The book's final analysis is not a positive one for the CIA. As noted already, the organisation has singularly failed at becoming what it was originally intended to be. Furthermore, the (unpredicted) end of the Soviet Union robbed it of a sense of purpose that has not been replaced well by Islamic extremism. The book closes damningly with the fiasco surrounding Iraq and its "weapons of mass destruction". The certainty professed by the CIA on these, which practically anyone could see was bogus, has comprehensively dented the respect and trust placed in the CIA (however misplaced that already was). Although only briefly dealt with, the ebbing of experienced CIA staff to private security companies seems a longer-term problem for the organisation. This creeping privatisation of "security" generally seems a rather worrying trend.

Overall, an impressive tome. I'm sure that its central messages could be distilled into a much shorter volume, but that would trim the supporting material and lose the authority of this edition.

A final note: for all of the dubious efforts of various presidents and CIA operatives, the actions of William Casey (from 1981 to 1987) stand out as plumbing new moral depths. While I was already aware of the outlines of the Iran-Contra Affair, the depths to which Casey dragged the CIA in conducting this operation were very revealing to read about. More generally, his handling of the organisation is remarkable for how spotlessly clean it makes the rest of the CIA's operations appear by way of contrast. It seems incredible to me that there are people out there who defend people such as this. Regardless of politics, purely pragmatic or utilitarian analyses of the reign of such people should stop anyone capable of rational thought in their tracks. The anointing of the likes of Oliver North as near-saints would suggest otherwise.

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