When You Ask For James Bond And You Get Maxwell Smart


Title: Legacy of Ashes

Rating: 5 Stars

I first read this many years ago. So, as far as contemporary histories go, this is getting a little dated (written 10 years ago). However, given the history of the previous sixty years, it seems highly unlikely that the CIA has really changed in the interim.

It starts in the aftermath of WWII. Really for the first time in its history, the United States is truly an international power with interests that extend far beyond its shore. Clearly, the Soviet Union has designs beyond its border. What are its intentions? Does it want to take over all of Western Europe now that the bulk of it is in ruins? Will it try to spread communism all over the world?

Originally, all Truman wanted was someone to provide him an intelligence briefing that had more depth than what he could read in the New York Times. However, the veterans of the OSS had other ideas. They felt that the Soviet Union was an inexorable force and it must be fought back via all means possible.

And this sets a pattern for the future. The presidents, some of whom are more enamored with covert actions than others, by and large want one thing. They want to know what is going on in the hearts and minds of their adversaries. However, the bulk of the intelligence budget goes to covert action. You end up with CIA directors either outright lying to the president or at best misleading by misdirection.

All of this could be excusable if the CIA was at least good at either of the jobs. For most of its history, the CIA produced analysis, that at its best, is a just a rehash of what is known (several presidents claim they receive better analysis from The New York Times), and at its worse, is just blatantly wrong. With very few exceptions, the CIA has missed every historically significant event. If possible, the CIA might even be worse at covert action than it is at analysis.

Here are just some of the notable analysis failures of the CIA:

  • Said Soviet Union couldn’t produce an atomic bomb for at least 4 years at the very moment the Soviet Union set one off
  • Claimed that the Chinese would never cross the Yalu River into North Korea at the very moment that the Chinese were invading
  • Completely missed the Cuban missile crisis
  • Said Soviet Union wouldn’t invade Afghanistan at the very moment it invaded Afghanistan
  • Completely missed the Ayatollah coming to power in Iran and the rise of Islamic government in general
  • Missed the fall of the Soviet Union
  • Learned about the wall coming down by watching CNN
  • Had all kinds of warnings about 9/11 but could never synthesize it into actionable intelligence
  • Somehow mistook the Chinese embassy in Belgrade for a military warehouse; to this day many in China think its bombing was an at of deliberate provocation

In case missed analysis isn’t bad enough, how about blatantly misleading the president:

  • Falsified data to make it look like the Soviets were behind the terrorist acts of the 1970’s and 1980’s
  • Falsified enemy strength in Vietnam
  • Intentionally wrote up misleading assessments of WMDs in Iraq to make it look like the information came from multiple sources when it actually all came from one source aptly named Curveball
  • General multi-decade gross exaggeration of threats to ensure the funding would always be flowing

How about bad covert action:

  • Every single Soviet double agent was discovered, captured, and usually executed.
  • Thousands of partisans parachuted behind the iron curtain are either executed on the spot or turned to double agents.
  • Every single agent in Cuba recruited over a twenty year period was proven to be a double agent
  • Never could penetrate the Hanoi government during the Vietnam War
  • The primary impetus of Iran-Contra (I’ve now written about this a couple of times, it’s such an act of madness) was to free American hostages for arms to Iran but the net result was an increase of American hostages (since it basically set a market price for them)
  • An argument can be made that the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in the early 1950’s was the template that the United States was to follow (ie support a dictator and train his secret police) throughout the Middle East, ultimately leading to deaths of hundred of thousands of civilians and thousands of American soldiers
  • Arming the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan with absolutely no thought to the long term implications of doing so
  • Post 9/11, the CIA was given essentially super powers, which was squandered in secret prisons, torture, murder, domestic surveillance, and virtually no useful intelligence

How about morally reprehensible behavior?

  • Trained the brutal secret police of Iran, Iraq, Cambodia, Guatemala, Peru, and South Korea
  • Covertly funded the Ba’ath party, eventually leading to Saddam Hussein coming to power
  • At various times, provided intelligence to both Iran and Iraq during their war
  • Explicitly orchestrated overthrows of democratically elected governments in Guatemala, Iran, and Chile

I could go on and on. To quote from a Congressional investigation into the CIA: “Great successes are rare and failure is routine.”

For its entire seventy year history, the message has consistently been, give us five more years and we’ll really have this intelligence thing figured out.

Well, it’s clearly not working. Isn’t it time that maybe we just acknowledge the fact that secrecy and covert action is either anathema to democracy or possibly, at a fundamental level, just not part of the American character?



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