It is ironic. The flaws that spoil Tim Weiner’s passionate, malevolent and often misguided history of the Central Intelligence Agency are precisely the same flaws for which he damns CIA: Preconceived conclusions, lack of insight about the target and sloppy reporting. From the book’s second sentence, Mr. Weiner tells you where he’s going to end up: “Legacy of Ashes,” he announces, “describes how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service.”
Like most polemicists, Mr. Weiner tends to favor sources who buttress his case and disregard those who don’t. Thomas Polgar, the CIA alumnus whose particular weltanschauung often mirrors Mr. Weiner‘s, turns up Zelig-like throughout the book, providing just the right quote or anecdote when it’s needed.
Jimmy Carter’s almost universally detested director of central intelligence, Adm. Stansfield Turner, receives respectful treatment too. Hardliners like CIA’s legendary deputy director for plans, Frank Wisner, DCIs William J. Casey and Allen Dulles, and counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton are vilified.
Mr. Angleton is introduced to readers thusly: “Drunk after lunch, his mind an impenetrable maze, his in-box a black hole, he passed judgment on every operation and every officer that the CIA aimed at the Soviets. He came to believe that a Soviet master plot controlled American perceptions of the world, and that he and he alone understood the depths of the deception.
He took the CIA’s missions against Moscow down into a dark labyrinth.” Not until 200-plus pages later do we learn from Mr. Weiner that “CIA was never penetrated by a traitor or a Soviet spy during the twenty years that Angleton ran counterintelligence.”
Nor is Mr. Weiner above skewing the evidence to support his case — another of CIA’s nasty flaws. In 1956, Frank Wisner watched helplessly from Austria as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to suppress Hungary’s democratic rebellion.
Mr. Wisner, Mr. Weiner writes, “fled Vienna and flew to Rome. There, he dined with the American spies of CIA’s Rome station, among them William Colby, the future director of central intelligence. Wisner raged that people were dying as the agency dithered. He wanted to ‘come to the aid of the freedom fighters,’ Colby recorded. ‘This was exactly the end for which the agency’s paramilitary capability was designed. And a case can be made that they could have done so without involving the United States in a world war with the Soviets.’ But Wisner could not make a coherent case. ‘It was clear he was near a nervous breakdown,’ Colby recorded.”
Mr. Weiner wants us to believe Colby thought CIA wasn’t allowed to act in Hungary because Mr. Wisner was so close to a breakdown he couldn’t make a coherent case for doing so. But that’s not the truth. Colby’s quotes are cherry-picked out of several paragraphs describing the Hungarian revolt in Colby’s autobiography, “Honorable Men.”
What Mr. Weiner chooses not to include is Mr. Colby’s categorical assertion that no matter what Mr. Wisner and his staff might have done, “President Eisenhower overruled them … It was established once and for all, that the United States … was not going to attempt to liberate within that sphere, even if the provocation was as dramatic as that in the Hungarian situation.”
Like CIA, Mr. Weiner is also guilty of sloppy reporting. His book is filled with factual errors. Some are careless, like getting the capital of Switzerland wrong. (Hint, Tim: It’s not Geneva.) And the Israeli hit on Ali Hassan Salameh took place in 1979, not 1978.
Mr. Weiner’s coverage of the execution of Che Guevara has Cuban-American CIA agent Felix Rodriguez debriefing Che for two days. Mr. Rodriguez actually flew to the village of La Higuera (Mr. Weiner incorrectly refers to it as Higuras) on the morning of October 9, 1967, and returned to Vallegrande with Che’s body the same day.
Others are more dangerous. Books like “Legacy” are often cited in footnotes, so Mr. Weiner’s distortions may become part of conventional wisdom. For example, Mr. Weiner claims Felix Rodriguez was on the agency’s payroll when he worked to support the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. Mr. Rodriguez was not.
Mr. Weiner also regurgitates the legend that CIA is responsible for Saddam Hussein because the agency contrived a February 1963 coup in Iraq that brought the Baath Party to power. Mr. Weiner’s money quote is from Ali Saleh Sa‘adi, a Baath Party interior minister in the 1960s, that Mr. Weiner found in a book published in 2001. Says Mr. Sa’adi: “We came to power on a CIA train.”
But Horace J. BARBER (a CIA-style pseudonym), the Headquarters Near East Division Iraq Desk Officer on duty in February 1963, who had a long and distinguished career in CIA’s Clandestine Service, objects.
“I was summoned to Headquarters by the watch officer and informed that the ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim Arab nationalist regime in Baghdad had been overthrown by the Ba'th party,” BARBER e-mailed me. “This coup came as a complete surprise to the U.S. Intelligence Community… . There is absolutely NO possibility that the USG or, specifically, the CIA could have been involved in plotting a Ba’th coup in Iraq WITHOUT the HQS Iraq Desk Officer being fully involved in, or at least cognizant of, this activity.”View Entire Story
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