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Legacy of Ashes
The History of the CIA
Tim Weiner
read on June 7, 2013

It's criminal how much formal education I have, and how little basic American history I know. This book helped fill some of those gaping chasms. The book was as interesting as it was horrifying, for both our institutional ineptitude at intelligence, as well as for our total disregard of sovereign rights and international agreements. It seems like for 70 years our intelligence agency has been remarkably short sighted, and the volume and severity of times that has come back around to bite us is unbelievable.

Anyway, here are some of my notes while reading it.

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis was TERRIFYING. There were 99 nukes, each 70x more powerful than Hiroshima, sitting in Cuba. These things were aimed at US and had 2200 mile range - meaning they could nuke any city in the country (less Seattle). CMC only ended because Khrushchev proposed a deal where we'd need to disarm and remove our nukes in Turkey (aimed at Moscow), and we accepted. JFK took a ton of credit for having somehow negotiated a peaceful resolution to an impossible situation - but all that really happened is Russia sent out an olive branch and we grabbed it. USA did pretty much nothing right this whole time, and came unbelievably close to invading Cuba and starting WWIII. Absolutely terrifying.
    It was pretty surprising how little each US President, (and each new CIA director), actually knows about what the CIA is up to. Very often the POTUS is left in the dark as long as possible, and almost always future Presidents are left totally the dark, if not outright lied to.
  • We tried assassinating Castro.. we sponsored dozens of coup's.. some successful, some not. Most foreign policy disasters (Vietnam, Iraq) seem to be because we blew it on some covert coup attempt, or some other pyramid of lies. (For instance, in 'Nam we started the war on the premise that the VC shot at some of our boats in the area, but that was actually misreported by the CIA, they were never there!).
  • 1960's threat of communism was strikingly similar to 2000's threat of radical islam. Both cases produced a mountain of lies and limitation/infringement of citizens rights, all in the name of national security. (And, to be somewhat fair, at the time it's never immediately obvious if such a trade-off is necessarily bad. I mean, the commie threat was legit scary, as per above). But it's alarming how recycled and manufactured the threat seems.
  • It was surprising to me how overtly the US tries to control the world. We have a 50 year history of literally killing (or funding the assassination/coup of) democratically elected leaders because we don't agree with their policy. Pretty easy to understand why we're hated. Obviously this shows how ridiculously naive I am - I've always known the US to have this reputation, but hadn't actually known why.
  • ... following from the last note: the book raises interesting ethical questions about what is/isn't okay in foreign policy. Is it ethical for the USG to subsidize printing educational materials in a foreign country (e.g., could the US distribute John Locke books in Venezuela)? Is that propaganda? Is it okay to fund radio stations that promote the scientific method? TV? Contribute to campaigns? Where does the line get drawn? I hadn't really thought about it in too much depth before - probably something I should figure out.
  • Toward the end of the book, Weiner talks about (via quotes from former CIA directors) about the trouble the CIA has recruiting. The primary problem was framed as how hard it is to find people that are comfortable living a lie, that can totally own it and wrap their entire selves into it. Apparently that's harder to come across these days. Not sure if that's good or bad.

Author Bio:

Tim Weiner (born June 20, 1956) is a former New York Times reporter, author of four books and co-author of a fifth, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. His newest book is "One Man Against The World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon." He is a graduate of Columbia College of Columbia University and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. Weiner worked for the Times from 1993 to 2009 as a foreign correspondent in Mexico, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan and as a national security correspondent in Washington, DC. Weiner won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting as an investigative reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, for his articles on the black budget spending at the Pentagon and the CIA. His book Blank Check: The Pentagon's Black Budget is based on that newspaper series. He won the National Book Award in Nonfiction for his 2007 book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. His Enemies: A History of the FBI traces the history of the FBI's secret intelligence operations—from the bureau's creation in the early 20th century through its ongoing role in the war on terrorism. He is the director of the nonfiction residency program for reporters, writers, and documentary makers at the Carey Institute in Rensselaerville, New York.