"Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" by Tim Weiner, Doubleday, 700 pages, $27.95
According to this fascinating, colorful and well-documented book by Tom Weiner, a journalist who has been covering the United States' intelligence activity for some 20 years now at The New York Times, the Central Intelligence Agency has failed in nearly every serious mission it has undertaken - from its first days during the Cold War to the present, when it is rapidly losing its authority and status as the leading organization in the American intelligence community.
At its inception, the CIA wavered between two main roles: providing intelligence that is as accurate as possible concerning the enemies of the United States, with the aim of helping its leaders make quality decisions on matters of national security, and conducting covert warfare as a major element in the struggle against the Soviet Union over global control. Very quickly the operational activity became the core of the organization's activity, while also continuing to lead the national intelligence assessment. Weiner deals far less with the intelligence aspect and this is regrettable - because in the end the fate of the Cold War depended more on a realistic evaluation of the Soviet Union's moves than on how clandestine operations were conducted.
Thus, for example, on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, analysts at the CIA insisted that the Kremlin would not dare to deploy missiles used for attack from Cuba; it was only the opposite assessment by the man who headed the organization at the time, John McCone (a businessman with a Republican political orientation, who was brought in by Democratic president John F. Kennedy to run the CIA after the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs), that led to the aerial photography mission which identified the missiles before they became operational.
It is hard to imagine what the Cold War would have looked like had the administration continued to rely on the CIA's research division, or had the missiles been discovered only after they had become operational. Presumably, in such a situation the Americans would have decided that they could not tolerate such a threat in their backyard and that it was necessary to launch an attack to destroy the missiles - a move that would have dramatically changed history.
But there is also no dearth of other assessment failures, from the absolute misapprehension of what was happening in Eastern Europe, the Far East and the Middle East during the first decade of the Cold War, to the total failure to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to the surprising end of the Cold War without advance notice from the CIA.
The lineup of failures since then keeps getting longer. It includes the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990; the assessment that Saddam Hussein's regime was close to collapse after the first Gulf War; the September 11 terror attack, which had been preceded by smaller attacks about which the CIA also failed to issue any warnings; the assessment of Iraq's nonconventional capabilities before the war in 2003, and the operational intelligence the CIA provided to the military in advance of and during that war, which has turned out to have been baseless. Another failure has been the organization's inability to provide effective intelligence that would have made it possible to eliminate Osama bin Laden either prior to or after the 9/11 attack. Now and then, there have also been successes; when the American defense establishment was sunk in the Vietnamese swamp, the organization warned of the overly optimistic assessments of the military echelons. But when they finally listened, it was too late.
It is interesting to note that two of the greatest successes, which also attracted the attention of decision-makers, are connected to Israel. One concerns the possession of a copy of Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, which kicked off the de-Stalinization process in the USSR. The copy was given to the CIA by Israel's Mossad espionage agency - a move that led to the start of the special relationship between the two organizations. The second success was the accurate prediction by the CIA of the course of the Six-Day War in 1967. Here, too, to a large extent, the CIA relied on Israeli sources, who realistically assessed the power relations between the Israel Defense Forces and the Arabs. Six years later, the organization continued to rely on Israeli assessments - and the result was that the Americans, too, were surprised by the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.
The record of the CIA's lack of success in assessments is overshadowed by an even more disgraceful series of failures in the operational realm. At the start of the Cold War, the head of the operational division of the organization at the time, Frank Wisner, estimated that it would be possible to enlist 700,000 expatriates from Eastern Europe for an anti- communist underground; he managed to enlist only 17. At the beginning of the 1950s, the CIA transferred to Poland $5 million worth of weapons, ammunition and other equipment for use by the anti-communist underground; in retrospect it emerged that the underground had been wiped out back in 1947 and the expensive equipment went straight to the secret services of Poland and the USSR.
The CIA fell into similar traps in other Eastern European countries as well. In the Far East the situation was just as bad; immediately upon the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the CIA was called upon to aid the military effort by means of covert warfare. Two hundred operatives were sent to Seoul, but not one of them spoke Korean. In 1951 they enlisted and smuggled 1,200 agents into North Korea, and one year later the number rose to 1,500. Nearly all of them were captured immediately and executed; others cooperated with their captors and sent back false information to the Americans for months. Studies conducted by the CIA after that war showed that nearly all the material that had been gathered was a product of North Korean intelligence.
The impression is that the CIA's capability vis-a-vis North Korea has not been dramatically changed to this day. During the course of 1952, the CIA parachuted 212 agents into Manchuria; all of them were captured and 101 were executed. It emerges that the Chinese had excellent sources concerning the very heart of American activity against them. Twenty-five years later it was revealed that the lessons were not learned: A Cuban intelligence officer who defected to the U.S. revealed that every Cuban agent enlisted by the CIA since the mid-1960s was a double agent. After a long investigation it emerged that this indeed was the case.
An important chapter in the history of the CIA is its involvement in revolts and in the elimination of foreign leaders. For example, the strenuous but unsuccessful attempts, encouraged by president Kennedy and his brother Robert, to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro after the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs, seem in retrospect like an ironic twist of history. Castro is still alive - many years after the two Kennedy brothers were assassinated. Weiner, incidentally, does not rule out the possibility that it was the Cubans who were behind the assassination of John Kennedy. In Indonesia, the CIA failed disgracefully in organizing a revolt against Sukarno, and in Syria CIA operations people were caught in 1957 when they tried to carry out a putsch against the government. There were similar failures elsewhere.
As Weiner shows, the operational successes of the CIA were in most cases the result of luck and not of precise planning or a high operational level. Thus, for example, at the height of the operation to topple Mohammed Mossadegh's regime in Iran in 1953 - after a series of hitches and following the exposure of the "hidden hand" of the Americans and British that was behind the operation - it appeared to the CIA officers in the field that the operation had fallen apart. Only the fraying nerves of Mossadegh, who agreed to give up his seat as prime minister, ultimately led to the desired result. To a considerable extent, the seeds of this success gave rise among the Iranians to the strong hostility toward the U.S. that surfaced after the Khomeini revolution.
In other cases, too, success proved to be of dubious value in the long term: Two coups that the CIA carried out - in Guatemala in 1954 and in Chile in 1973 - led to the elimination of democratic regimes and their replacement by bloodthirsty governments led by colonels and generals. In 1963, the CIA helped the Iraqi Baath party overthrow the regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim (who was thought to be a communist) and thus unwittingly gave a boost to one of the party activists who participated in the assassination attempt on Qasim: Saddam Hussein.
Another issue that emerges from Weiner's book is the CIA's tendency to suit its professional assessments to the president's political needs - a tendency that entangled the organization in a long string of inaccurate assessments, the worst of which was the decisive way it asserted, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons ready for use. History shows that there is an inverse relationship between the organization's professional ability in the area of assessment, and its tendency to satisfy the desires of its superiors with evaluations that are convenient but not congruent with reality. As its assessment abilities have declined steadily since the end of the 1960s, they have also become more politically biased. Thus, the CIA refrained from distributing its pessimistic views concerning the Vietnam War under president Lyndon Johnson, artificially exaggerated the strength of the USSR under president Richard Nixon, depicted the USSR as an empire of evil under president Ronald Reagan, and exaggerated Iraq's nonconventional capabilities under President George W. Bush.
Despite its impressive technological abilities, in this book, the CIA - which, with the help of a heavy dose of clever public relations, depicts itself to the world as an all-powerful organization - is revealed as quite a primitive one. At the base of the weakness lies its failure, since its establishment, to recruit intelligence-gathering officers who can operate in the field as locals, and analysts who are intimately acquainted with their area of research.
The U.S., as a country of immigrants, has always had enough citizens who spoke Russian, Chinese, Korean, Arabic and even the Afghani language Pushtu. However, the consistent policy of the CIA has been to recruit graduates of prestigious East Coast universities, who spoke excellent English, but from the very outset lacked the basic qualifications to be intelligence-gatherers in their target countries. Nor has the top echelon of the organization always been free of this problem. For example, in 1965 president Johnson (who did not evince any particular interest in intelligence) appointed vice admiral William F. Raborn as director of the CIA. The admiral apparently had many good qualities, but experience in the big wide world was not one of them: According to the testimony of the organization's staff, when they spoke to him about a foreign country, he did not usually know whether it was in Africa or Asia.
As a result of this ongoing ignorance the CIA has become dependent to a great and sometimes dangerous extent on foreign intelligence services, which have accumulated the regional intelligence and expertise the CIA lacked. This phenomenon has been especially prominent in recent years, when the war on Islamic terror has become the focus of the CIA's intelligence activity. This dependence, of course, comes with a price: In quite a number of cases it has emerged that the CIA has fallen victim to inaccurate information or biased assessments, and has lacked the ability to deal with the problems at hand.
The CIA has covered up its professional weaknesses with excellent public relations; the person who ran the organization in the 1970s, Allen Dulles, was a true wizard in this respect. The problem is that intelligence is not a matter for public-relations firms, and a good intelligence organization will keep its distance from them. Up until the start of the 1970s the method worked, but after Watergate, various Congressional investigative committees and the failure in Vietnam, many of the organization's failures were publicly revealed. Regrettably, not only have the steps necessary for rectifying this situation not been taken, but the CIA's relative weakness has transformed it into a pawn in the game of politics. In the current situation, it is hard to see any improvement on the horizon.
Intelligence at its best has to serve as the nation's compass in matters of national security, but as Weiner emphasizes in quoting Richard Helms - perhaps the best of the CIA directors - the U.S., which is the sole, great power now, is not interested enough in what is happening in the rest of the world. This is the main reason its compass gives false readings so often.
We in Israel, who are quite dependent on America's policies, can only hope that it will come to its senses quickly and begin managing its international operations not on the basis of political caprices, but rather on the basis of high-quality and accurate intelligence - of the sort that, for the most part, it does not have at its disposal.