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Legacy of Ashes - the undoing of the CIA

The anatomy of a discredited organization

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Book Review At the beginning of the Nineties, this journalist went through the Central Intelligence Agency's hiring process. The process took about a year to complete, its length and rigor attributed to the great importance of its classified mission plus a purported desire to get just the right kind of people - America's best.

In any case, that was the story.

It wore out over the course of the experience. The first indication that people at the agency were asleep at the switch came with the use of a 1956 edition of a personality test called the California Psychological Inventory. Almost forty years out of date when our class of potential hires took it, the test inquired quaintly through a number of questions whether the respondent considered him or herself a "cut up" in high school. It was American slang for "a clown" and it was decades out of date. The survey also inquired - true or false - whether you had been in trouble for unseemly sexual activities and whether you liked "tall women," a decidedly odd question for a class of about fifty percent ladies, although maybe appropriate for 1956 when not many were expected to be in the agency workplace.

Eventually the agency invited me for a one-on-one interview with its North Korean analytic unit in Langley. When I arrived, no one was on hand to actually do an interview, just a couple of secretaries and one staffer who shepherded me here and there, exchanging pleasantries and idle chat for a few hours until it was time to go home.

Needless to say, the CIA wasn't hiring that day although over the years the stories have generated their share of laughs over dinner.

"Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" (Doubleday) by New York Times investigative reporter Tim Weiner sheds light on these small matters and many, many more big ones.

The agency, it turns out, has never been good at hiring. It has a talent problem that's only become worse over the past two decades. According to the book, the agency was downsizing when I briefly passed through. And it has never produced any intelligence on North Korea, a nation which has been a stonewall to it for the entirety of its existence.

Weiner's delivery is succinct, wonderfully writerly in his selection of telling quotes and anecdotes.

"Over the years, the CIA has become less and less willing to hire 'people that are a little different, people who are eccentric, people who don't look good in a suit, people who don't play well in the sandbox with others,'" according to Bob Gates, a former director and current secretary of defense, someone who looks very good in a suit. Could using a personality test designed in 1956 to screen for well socialized corporate conformists have something to do with such a discussion?

"Legacy of Ashes" doesn't deliver Hollywood myths. When people are periodically tortured by the CIA, it's just bad and ultimately pointless. Defector Yuri Nosenko, locked away and mistreated for three years by the agency's famously paranoid counterspy James Angleton, was not a Soviet double agent, but exactly who he said he was. And when the agency's David Passaro beat an innocent Afghan man to death in an ugly incident from the war on terror, American interests were set back. The only people to gain were "al Qaeda and their partners," reads the book. While Passaro was convicted for his crimes, Weiner's book documents way too many transgressions, large and small, to see any moral to it other than one which is the book's resonating message, that the intelligence agency was anything but an effective one, however fearsome its reputation.

Some have made the mistake of thinking Weiner is unfair. It's untrue. The author has a great deal of respect for his subjects, even the worst scoundrels. Throughout "Legacy of Ashes" are portraits of honorable men, operatives and directors who struggled with their consciences, the soul-crushing demands of their jobs and the quixotic and often sinister orders from their Presidents. If they did not do as well as hindsight might suggest they should have, much of it was perhaps because they were only human, not quite up to the flawless execution of ruthlessness, and possessors of frailties to which we're all party.

According to the book, one of the CIA's successes was the overthrow of Iran's Mohammed Mossadeq, a turn of affairs ignited by British history and desires. It resulted in ramifications and blowback now apparent to all.

Churchill used Iran's oil to turn the Royal Navy from a coal-burning armada into a much more modern force. Iran, under Mossadeq came to resent it, nationalizing the "property" of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, demanding a 50/50 piece of the action. Unable to toss aside the Mossadeq government, Churchill turned to his American allies. The job fell to the CIA which, according to Weiner, wound up making policy and action by default.

This part of the book is especially engrossing, mapping out events which seemed to happen half by direction, half by accident.

"It began with a public demonstration by a health or exercise club [in Tehran] - lifting barbells and chains and that sort of thing," according to a witness, by way of Weiner. "These were weightlifters and circus strongmen recruited by the CIA for the day," he writes. "They began shouting anti-Mossadeq, pro-Shah slogans and proceeded to march through the streets... Many others joined them... Two of the men in the crowd were religious leaders. One was the Ayatollah Ahmed Kashani. Alongside him was his fifty-one year-old devotee, [Ayatollah Khomeini]..."

The retelling of history, like history itself, is messy.

The CIA, in a press release, has objected to "Legacy of Ashes."

"Backed by selective citations, sweeping assertions, and a fascination with the negative, Weiner overlooks, minimizes, or distorts agency achievements," the unbylined missive reads.

The CIA compiles a handful of alleged errors but its argument is only for those who have not seen "Legacy of Ashes." The book easily defeats it in terms of weight and the delivery of history which many Americans who read it will perceive, from common sense, to be substantially true.

The CIA's problem is that only fools now believe when it asserts something. Having sold its integrity out many times for political reasons, most notably and recently for the disaster that is the war in Iraq, its reputation is decisively crushed.

There is no joy from Weiner concerning this. The author wonders how a nation that needs intelligence on the intents and capabilities of its enemies as well as its friends, so dearly, can put something together from the shattered pieces of American spywork. There is no glib answer. Check back in a decade. It might never work. ®

George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.

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