Reviewed by David Wise

The CIA is a fat, easy target these days. Under George “slam dunk” Tenet, it failed (along with the FBI) to prevent 9/11, and then it famously and wrongly estimated that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Tenet’s $4 million memoir to explain these failures merely subjected him to more slings and arrows, soothed only somewhat by all that moola.

Morale plunged under his successor, Porter Goss, who brought a clique of unpopular flunkies from Capitol Hill to Langley. The spies revolted, and Goss had to walk the plank. Now the agency is presided over by Michael Hayden, the same Air Force general who supinely created President Bush’s warrantless wiretap program to eavesdrop on Americans despite the Constitution. Given the checkered history of the CIA, it is small wonder that Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes is a highly caustic, corrosive study of the beleaguered agency.

But Weiner, a New York Times correspondent who has covered intelligence for years, cannot be accused of kicking the agency when it is down. It is his thesis, amply documented, that the CIA was never up. He paints a devastating portrait of an agency run, during the height of its power in the Cold War years, by Ivy League incompetents, “old Grotonians” who lied to presidents — an agency that, more often than not, failed to foresee major world events, violated human rights, spied on Americans, plotted assassinations of foreign leaders, and put so much of its energy and resources into bungled covert operations that it failed in its core mission of collecting and analyzing information.

To compare some of the agency’s antics revealed in this book to the Keystone Kops is to do violence to the memory of Mack Sennett, who created the slapstick comedies. My personal favorite is an episode in Guatemala in 1994, when the CIA chief of station confronted the American ambassador, Marilyn McAfee, with intelligence, as she recalled, that “I was having an affair with my secretary, whose name was Carol Murphy.” The CIA’s friends in the Guatemalan military had bugged McAfee’s bedroom, Weiner reports, and “recorded her cooing endearments to Murphy. They spread the word that the ambassador was a lesbian.” The CIA’s “Murphy memo” was widely distributed in Washington. There was only one problem: the ambassador was married, not gay and not sleeping with her secretary. ” ‘Murphy’ was the name of her two-year-old black standard poodle. The bug in her bedroom had recorded her petting her dog.”

Forty years earlier, the CIA had overthrown the legally elected government of Guatemala, a covert operation long touted as one of the intelligence agency’s grand “successes.” It was even called Operation Success. Guatemala was made safe for United Fruit — talk about banana republics — but not for democracy. A series of military dictators followed the CIA coup, with death squads and repression in which perhaps 200,000 Guatemalans perished.

Weiner’s study is based on a prodigious amount of research into thousands of documents that have been declassified or otherwise uncovered, as well as oral histories and interviews. And one of the truly startling, eye-opening revelations in Legacy of Ashes is just how close even the agency’s avowed triumphs came to disaster. As Weiner documents, both the Guatemalan operation and the overthrow of the government of Iran (Operation Ajax) in 1953 teetered on the edge of catastrophe. They were run by old boys whose management skills seemed to combine Skull and Bones with the Ringling Brothers.

And of course the “success” in Iran, restoring the Shah and his notorious secret police, the SAVAK, to power, was all about oil, grabbing it back from Mohammed Mossadeq, who had nationalized it. The coup, run by the CIA’s Kim Roosevelt, Teddy’s grandson, was followed in 1979 by the takeover of the ayatollahs, arguably a direct outcome of Islamic resentment of the agency’s meddling in that country. Today, Iran, with its ominous nuclear weapons program and defiance of the West, looms as a much greater foreign policy challenge to the Bush administration, and to world peace, than Iraq ever was. Thanks a bunch, Langley.

Weiner carefully traces the agency’s history from the start, when Harry Truman, realizing he had disbanded the wartime OSS too quickly, anointed Sidney Souers, a St. Louis businessman who had run the Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, as the first central intelligence chief. In a White House ceremony, Truman presented Souers and Admiral William Leahy, the White House staff chief, “with black cloaks, black hats, and wooden daggers.” Weiner recounts a series of botched operations run by the likes of Tracy Barnes, Desmond FitzGerald and Richard Bissell, who were among the CIA’s leading spooks in the agency’s early years. But he reserves his greatest contempt for Frank Wisner, the agency’s first covert operator, who sent dozens of agents to their deaths in the Ukraine and Albania and wasted the CIA’s millions on a phantom army in Poland that was invented by Soviet and Polish intelligence to befuddle the agency.

As Weiner tells it, the arrogance of CIA Ivy Leaguers was matched only by sheer incompetence. From the start, the CIA hid its failures behind a Top Secret label and was useless in its ability to penetrate the Soviet Union or any other foe. In one year, he notes, the agency managed to miss the Soviet atom bomb, the Korean war and China’s entry into that conflict. Weiner also finds little to admire in Allen Dulles, who presided over the agency in its heyday but had to depart after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. He portrays Dulles as a sort of duplicitous Santa Claus, over the hill by 1961, shuffling about in carpet slippers. But Dulles’s OSS record in penetrating the Nazi high command from Switzerland had been impressive. And based on my personal observation and conversations with Dulles in the early 1960s he was not a doddering old man in carpet slippers but a shrewd professional spy.

Although most of Weiner’s research is superb, he unfortunately perpetuates the legend that CIA director Richard Helms stood firm against Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up. Not so. In an odd footnote, Weiner says Helms “complied with the president’s order to go along with the cover-up for sixteen days at most.” But the author, who quotes extensively from dozens of CIA documents, curiously makes no mention of the damning memo that Helms wrote to his deputy, Vernon Walters, on June 28, 1972, about the FBI investigation of the break-in: “We still adhere to the request that they confine themselves to the personalities already arrested or directly under suspicion and that they desist from expanding this investigation into other areas which may well, eventually, run afoul of our operations.” It was a bald-faced lie, exactly what the White House was demanding that Helms tell the FBI.

If there is a flaw in Legacy of Ashes, it is that Weiner’s scorn for the old boys who ran the place is so unrelenting and pervasive that it tends to detract from his overall argument. He is unwilling to concede that the agency’s leaders may have acted from patriotic motives or that the CIA ever did anything right.

Nevertheless, Legacy of Ashes succeeds as both journalism and history, and it is must reading for anyone interested in the CIA or American intelligence since World War II. Weiner quotes Dean Acheson’s prophecy about the CIA to good effect: “I had the gravest forebodings about this organization . . . and warned the President that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it.”

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.