The USA, the CIA, and Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes

The Cherry Orchard has been quiet lately, mainly because I’ve been occupied with an emergency technical redesign of my other blog. I’m still paying attention over here, though, and you better believe I’ll be back in full force to cover the 2008 Presidential Election. If you’re wondering where I stand on that right now, well, nothing much has changed. I support Hillary Clinton. I support Barack Obama. I support John Edwards. I want a change in leadership and an end to the military mania that has been so harmful to this nation since 2001.

I’ve lately been reading Tim Weiner’s award-winning new book Legacy of Ashes: This History of the CIA. This book presents a single powerful thesis: from its beginnings in Harry Truman’s post-war administration, America’s Central Intelligence Agency has been riven by a split between proponents of two opposing visions of the CIA’s role: those who favor a passive, espionage-minded spy agency and those who favor covert action over information. The latter has predominated, from the 1940’s straight through to today.

The essential question is: should the CIA report what other governments are doing, or change what other governments are doing? Should it gather news, or should it make news? The CIA was successful at making news in Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973, but the long-term effects of America’s bold programs to manipulate foreign governments are worrisome. Most worrisome of all — and this is a point that Tim Weiner pounds home repeatedly in this angry book — is the fact that while engaging in disruptive covert actions in every corner of the world, the CIA has clearly neglected the espionage side of national security. According to this book, we have far fewer high-functioning clandestine agents around the world than one concerned with the USA’s security would hope. We are laughably understaffed with operatives capable of reading foreign languages. We have been constantly undermined by double agents.

The commitment to covert action over knowledge seems to resonate with America’s cultural and political image, especially as expressed by Presidential candidates today. We are pragmatic, we are fearless, we “bring the war to them”, and our every move is above reproach because “we are America”. Unfortunately, this deeply ingrained approach to global politics has left Americans feeling more and more insecure in a world riven by nationalist, religious and ethnic hatred. Tim Weiner’s book is not about partisan politics — he expresses deep contempt for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (both of them best suited for domestic politics, both with terrible track records in foreign policy) and has the most regard for worldly-minded Presidents like Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush.

The book does reflect upon each American citizen’s idea of what our place in the world is, and one can only pray that our national culture will become more worldly, more considerate of international concerns, more multi-lingual, more respectful to foreign religions and alternative economic practices, and less isolated, less chauvinistic, less solipsistic. If we had put more effort into understanding and infiltrating the various societies around the world (rather than trying to manipulate these societies through imperious and unilateral policies), we would never have been caught looking on September 11, 2001.

3 Responses to “The USA, the CIA, and Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes”

  1. Steve Plonk Says:

    The book sounds like the guy is a “monday morning quarterback”. Having an effective intelligence community is important in today’s world… I will have to read it for myself. All of our legacy is really an empire of dirt. If we have either no scruples, nor legacy of patriotism, we are in for a hard fall. If that is Weiner’s lesson, than his point is well taken… On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Bamford’s THE PUZZLE PALACE about the NSA. I hope I can overlook Weiner’s foibles and enjoy his book also. I do not share the author’s “contempt” for Clinton. I however reserve my contempt for what happened during the Reagan adminsitration. The elder Bush tried to help us climb out of that “morass of overspending”, etc. and Clinton continued the military intelligence build-up using quality control which is lacking in the current W Bush administration. What we need is a “world view”. I am certain that Clinton shared that world view. Perhaps, an unpoliticized CIA is what is needed. (Incidentally, I am currently for Richardson; however, that may change depending on how he does in the primaries.) The left hand must always know what the right hand is doing so there is coordination. There always must be “plausible deniability” for the intelligence community. Only the Congressional Intel Committee and and certain members of the executive branch have any business criticizing the intelligence community. Facts should be brought out behind closed doors or approved before being let out into the press.

    Leaking intelligence information, like in the Plame case, should continue to be against the law.

  2. Mikey Says:

    No, we get it all wrong, Levi, Steve, because we are stupid and callous. Ambassadors should know everything that’s going on in their country of assignment. They should speak the language, know the history, know everything. Instead we appoint dumfuk actresses, businessmen, and campaign contributors to positions that must be our eyes and ears of vital international concern. Our Iraninan embassy was overrun in ’79, gosh, never saw that coming. Yet that is our standard for foreign intelligence.

    ‘Plausible deniability’ is to tell our children and everyone else that it’s perfectly okay to cheat, to lie, to hump another person’s spouse. Ever heard of ethics, honor, civility? Successful foreign policy is ‘to do the right thing’ not just what’s in one’s best short-term interest. Palestinian children have the same rights as Israeli children. To lead by force and self-interest is to make an enemy of everyone you encounter. To lead by example and fairness is to make followers of everyone you meet.

    It’s not the strong who survive, it’s the smart. The stupid destroy themselves regardless of how powerful they think they are.

  3. Steve Plonk Says:

    Mikey, I agree with the ethics portion of your comment; however, every government I know of has “plausible deniability”. You may be watching too much of “The Unit”. Spy services aren’t spy services if they can’t speak the languages of the countries they enter, and if they walk around with a transparent dossier. Spy services are needed in today’s world.
    Finally, certainly we don’t need too many loose cannons. There must be coordination between agencies and there must be limits to what is divulged. Accountability is important also. There must be a clear chain of command…So let’s keep it tightly wrapped.

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