Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA Rothdas book review RSS
4.8 Stars

“You might as well go out and shoot everyone you see and then shoot yourself."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower

A straight forward, factual, and brutally depressing account of CIA history that is based on primary sources and de-classified documents. I was reading this book at approximately the same time that I watched this video [trigger warning: absolutely everything], and while the two are superficially different, I feel like they share a similarity in the way that two scenes would in an Iain M. Banks novel, where the same ideas and themes are shown at different levels of detail. Which is to say again that this book is incredibly depressing. Legacy of Ashes is not a book with a lot of storytelling or synthesis or authorial voice; it is closer to a plain listing of facts and information. This works though as the information is interesting and important enough to warrant reading. Indeed, you could teach a class on modern US history based entirely off this book, and it would be truer/more useful than the vast majority of more general US history books.

The basic story is of the 3-stage life-cycle of the CIA. There were the early years (1940's-50's), when the CIA had no clue what it was doing, and basically had a 100% failure rate against the KGB and other communist intelligence agencies. After that came the CIA's golden years, when it became more adept and scored some successes at the price of causing massive damage to the societies of dozens of countries. And finally there was the CIA's doddering senility in the modern age, where it became lost in a maze of bureaucracy and contractors and irrelevance.

Some of this history was at least partially familiar to me, either from other history books or from writers that I like. Le Carre touched on many of the highlights of the early years of the CIA: the botched operations and deaths, the sensitive material forgotten in hotel rooms, the moles who turned entire services inside out, the double agents who created mirages and illusions, the opportunists who invented information to collect cash payouts, the constant siding with fascists, gangsters, and dictators, the way the service encourages and selects for negative character traits among its own ranks, and the ability to decieve at least the civilians on your own side if not the enemy intelligence services. Lewis Lapham covers more of it in his recounting about the time he interviewed to join the CIA. Lapham chatted breezily at his ivy league with the recruiters, and then the rest of the interview was them asking a few Kingsman-like questions about fashion, drink preferences, and what was appropriate to wear to the regatta. Lapham decided they were empty headed idiots and never had anything more to do with them.

Ok, but that's enough anecdotes from other sources. Time for some anecdotes from the book:
- I'm not saying that it was the Cubans but... it was the Cubans. The interpretation of the book was that JFK was killed by Castro, and that this was in response to the CIA's bungled attempts to kill Castro at JFK's request.
- Iran as we all know was the fault of the CIA, and that crisis helped take out Carter.
- The Watergate plumbers were all ex-CIA but still very tied in, and they helped take out Nixon.
- Iran-Contra and 9/11 should have taken care of Reagan and Bush II, but didn't. You have to learn to lean into your failures. So, all in all it's about 50/50 whether the CIA will destroy any given US presidency.
- There was that time the Russians got a double agent to the head of the West German intelligence services. Whoops!
- There was that time the Russians got a double agent to the inner circle (basically second in command) of the British intelligence services. Whoops!
- There was that time the Russians suborned the CIA officer in charge of counter intelligence, who had access to, well, everything. His information was used to roll up all the CIA networks in the USSR. Whoops!
- There was that time the Russians suborned the CIA officer in charge training new recruits, who burned every single CIA agent trained over a 3 year period. Whoops!
- There were the air drops into Communist countries, where first a few, then dozens, and then hundreds of agents were parachuted to their deaths behind enemy lines. Literally thousands of people were parachuted in to face torture and execution without a single success.
- The fact that for most the Cold War, the CIA failed to have any significant spies or sources in Russia.
- many, many lapses of intelligence and analysis, where the CIA did not see events coming, or in many cases insisted that the event was not happening while it was happening (e.g. China joining the Korean War, Castro turning Commie, the revolts in Eastern Europe, the fall of the USSR, the fall of the Shah, a few Middle East Wars, The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, etc. etc.).
- After the fall of the Shah, Iranian militants captured and interrogated the 4 CIA members stationed in Iran. The agents told their interrogaters that they were newly stationed in Iran, that they barely knew the culture, that they didn't speak the language. At first the interrogators thought they were lying, and then the interrogaters were insulted as it dawned on them how little effort and competence their great enemy had pitted against them.
- and I could go on and on in this vein. The book certainly does.

The book is very harsh on the CIA, and I am a smidge less so. I have some sympathy for them in the early days of the agency, when they were trying to create an intelligence service from scratch and were pitted against agencies with centuries of experience. The book describes the agency then as "a rich blind man". For my part I think of it as a brain-in-a-vat or possibly some situation setup by Descartes. How do you begin to learn and reason about the world when all of your senses and analysis nodes are potentially deceptive and misinforming you in the worst possible way? It is a difficult problem, and it is not surprising that the only early successes of the agency were technical and not social, e.g. cracking a code or tapping a line in order to read communications directly, or later on using the U2's or spy satellites to gather information. Even more than that, I think the US is at a cultural disadvantage in spy craft. One of the downsides of living in a free and open society is that it gives us no practice at espionage. I've never payed a bribe in my life, and I'd be at a severe disadvantage in a suborning competition when faced with someone from Russia who might use bribes daily or weekly. And it its not enough to say that we should not engage in espionage at all; the book is focused on the CIA and so mostly glosses over the atrocities by the Russians, but there were genuine threats and USSR espionage actions that needed fighting. Again, it is a difficult problem. I feel like we do best by leaning on the things were are good at, e.g. idealism and money. The best sources of intelligence during the Cold War were never CIA spies, rather they were USSR defectors who were attracted to our system and turned off by their own. Similarly, we didn't win in the end because we were tricky or cruel, but rather by making a prosperous and attractive society that didn't just lay down and die on some random Tuesday. [Ed note: this all written from the perspective of 2016 or so, rather than our current shit-show] Rather than launching plots with a "Hold my beer" attitude like happened through a lot of the CIA's history, it would be wiser to always consider the potential blow back and damage done to the real sources of our strength. A good current day example of this would be the NSA, and how their offensive operations and their blow back have undermined the US tech sector.

So, in closing, Stop. Look. Think.