Tim Weiner: Beschloss says NYT reporter has written solid history of CIA

Historians in the News

There have been angry C.I.A. books before. In the mid-1970s, with the revelation of ugly secrets about death plots, illegal openings of domestic mail and use of drugs for mind control came a rash of volumes decrying the notion that Americans could ever have countenanced “so immoral” an agency.

“Legacy of Ashes,” a deeply researched new chronicle of the Central Intelligence Agency by Tim Weiner, who covered intelligence issues for many years for The New York Times, is impassioned too. He is just as indignant about the offenses that Congress and other parts of our government investigated three decades ago — and others have exposed since then.

The chief target of Mr. Weiner’s anger, however, is not C.I.A. immorality but C.I.A. incompetence. “The most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service,” he complains. “That failure constitutes a danger to the national security of the United States.”

In this sense “Legacy of Ashes” is conspicuously a book of its time. In 2007 many Americans who think of the C.I.A. — when they consider the now-diminished agency at all — wonder bitterly why it could not help us avoid the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and why it claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction so dangerous that we had to fight a costly war in Iraq. ...

Anyone tempted to write this book off as an anti-C.I.A. screed had better look at Mr. Weiner’s sources. The author has impressively studied the archival record, teased out newly declassified primary documents and done numerous interviews to glean as much as can be publicly known about the agency’s history. Some of the most damning criticism of the C.I.A.’s past performance in this book comes not from gadflies or ideologues but from ex-officials and long-secret authorized accounts by C.I.A. historians....

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