Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
By Tim Weiner
Doubleday. 702 pp. $27.95
By Jeffrey T. Richelson
Every author hopes for a news event that will draw attention to the subject matter of his or her book. But few actually enjoy the kind of exquisite timing that benefited Tim Weiner.
In late June, after 34 years of fending off requests, the Central Intelligence Agency released 702 pages of documents that constitute the agency’s fabled “Family Jewels,” in actuality, a hodge-podge of memos and reports. The “Family Jewels” were gathered in response to James Schlesinger’s 1973 directive that all agency components inform him, as director of central intelligence, of any activities which might have been undertaken in violation of the agency’s charter. Even though very few of the disclosures were new, release of the “Family Jewels” was major news for a full week.
The publisher of Weiner’s book sought, quite naturally, to capitalize on the publicity windfall and immediately rushed Legacy of Ashes, which had been originally scheduled for an August release, into bookstores. This seemed to be one occasion, moreover, where timing and substance were happily joined. Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has spent a considerable part of his career on the intelligence beat, covering the CIA for the most prestigious newspaper in the country, The New York Times.
The nearly-unanimous praise that greeted Legacy of Ashes underscored the presumption that here was a book which would convey an extraordinary understanding of the agency. Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten described Legacy of Ashes as “about as magisterial an account of ‘the agency’s’ 60 years as anyone has yet produced,” drawn “from more than 50,000 documents.” In The New York Times Book Review, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, the author of a well-received volume on some of the CIA’s early stalwarts, praised Legacy of Ashes as “engrossing” and “comprehensive.” Thomas noted that it painted “what may be the most disturbing picture yet of CIA ineptitude,” a claim made all the more credible since Weiner’s reportedly drew from “tens of thousands of documents.” Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, also writing in The New York Times, described the book as a “deeply researched new chronicle of the Central Intelligence Agency” which could not be simply dismissed as “an anti-CIA screed.” In The Wall Street Journal, Edward Jay Epstein, an author of numerous books and articles on intelligence, informed his readers the “prodigiously researched” book was a “fascinating and revealing history.”
There was very little critical commentary within the laudatory reviews. David Wise, the dean of journalists writing about intelligence, did observe in The Washington Post Book World, “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.” Still, Wise concluded, “Legacy of Ashes succeeds as both journalism and history.”
The near-universal praise is perplexing, if only because Tim Weiner’s book cannot be even remotely characterized as a history of the CIA.
During its 60-year existence, the agency has been engaged in five significant types of activities: human intelligence (the proverbial spying); technical collection (and other scientific and technological activities); analysis (efforts to interpret the present and divine the future); counterintelligence (actions taken to defeat adversaries’ intelligence services); and covert action (a grab-bag of activities, all of which are intended to produce political outcomes deemed beneficial to U.S. interests). Weiner’s book gives very limited space to the first four of those activities, while devoting the lion’s share of attention to the CIA’s covert action operations. It is not surprising given that covert actions—such as the efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro—tend to be the most sensational and controversial. But the fixation is more than strange, given the subtitle to Weiner’s book, together with his assertion that Legacy of Ashes “describes how the most powerful country in the history of Western civilization has failed to create a first-rate spy service.”
How does one make such a sweeping conclusion without making a reasonable effort to examine the CIA’s performance in the areas of intelligence collection (human and technical) and analysis? Weiner’s calculated neglect of these activities is hardly the only problem with the book—but it is the primary one.
The ungainly acronym HUMINT (for human intelligence) includes everything from classic espionage operations (i.e., getting foreign nationals to turn over their nation’s secrets), to recruiting travelers to share information (particularly during the early Cold War), to the interrogation of prisoners, including (most recently) “high value” detainees held in the CIA’s “black sites.” Targets of the agency’s HUMINT operations include enemies and allies alike, from the Soviet Union and Iraq, to France and Israel.
The HUMINT dimension is not entirely absent from Weiner’s account. He dredges up well-worn anecdotes familiar to any student of intelligence history, such as the KGB’s compromise of the first CIA officer ever posted to Moscow, while presenting some novel ones. One of the book’s genuine revelations is Weiner’s disclosure of a program designated GLOBE, described as the “CIA’s first worldwide cadre of deep-cover officers . . . [who passed] as international lawyers or traveling salesman for Fortune 500 companies.” There is also an extensive discussion of the Aldrich Ames case (about which Weiner wrote an earlier book), which befits Ames’s devastating betrayal, easily the worst ever suffered by the CIA. Ames not only compromised valuable intelligence operations, but was surely responsible for sending a number of agency assets in the Soviet Union to their deaths even as the Cold War was winding down. These episodes, even the thread-bare ones, are certainly a valid part of any objective history of the agency.
Weiner also describes a number of the CIA’s successes against the Soviet and Soviet bloc targets. He mentions intelligence received in the 1950s from Major Pytor Popov, “the CIA’s first spy of any note inside the Soviet Union,” who “knew a thing or two about tanks and tactical missiles and Russian military doctrine.” The CIA could, Weiner writes, “claim with conviction that Popov saved the United States half a billion dollars in military research and development.” Legacy of Ashes also acknowledges the contribution in the early 1960s of Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, a member of the GRU (the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff), who met CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officers on trips abroad and also “smuggled out some five thousand pages of documents, most of them providing insight into military technology and doctrine.” Weiner rightly characterizes Penkovsky as the “secret hero of the Cuban missile crisis,” because the manuals he provided enabled agency analysts to estimate precisely the capabilities of the Soviet missiles spotted by the CIA’s U-2s.
Weiner also refers to more recent CIA assets who provided significant intelligence during the late Cold War, namely, Ryzard Kuklinski and Adolf Tolkachev. A Polish military officer, Kuklinski gave the United States “a long hard look at the Soviet military,” including Soviet plans for use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a war in Europe. Tolkachev, who was regarded as the “CIA’s greatest source in twenty years,” is described as a “military scientist who had for four years delivered documents on cutting-edge Soviet weapons research.”
But this is also almost everything Legacy of Ashes tells us about these cases, because Weiner is very parsimonious when it comes to describing successful CIA endeavors. A history of the agency, according to Weiner, need only provide the vaguest details about the intelligence these assets supplied, and even less about its value and impact. Kuklinski’s information about possible Soviet intervention in Poland and internal Polish government developments goes wholly unreported—as does the salient fact that Kuklinski’s intelligence served as a catalyst for U.S. warnings to Moscow against intervention. None of this once highly-sensitive information is hard to come by now. But Weiner chose not to exploit such easily available primary sources as the transcripts of Penkovsky’s London debriefings, or the TOP SECRET Military Thought essays he turned over to Washington. Nor does Weiner even utilize well-regarded secondary sources, such as CIA officer Barry Royden’s detailed account of the Tolkachev case that appeared in Studies in Intelligence, or well-researched books on the Penkovsky and Kuklinski cases that relied heavily on primary documents.
Weiner’s parsimony, in fact, is such that a number of Soviet-era spies of import are completely missing from his account. There is no mention whatsoever of Dmitri Polyakov, Anatoli Filatov, or Aleksandr Dmitrevich Ogorodnik. Polyakov, according to David Wise, provided information on Soviet strategic missiles, anti-tank missiles, nuclear strategy, chemical and biological warfare, and civil defense. Filatov approached the CIA in the mid-1970s while stationed in Algiers, and in the fourteen months before being transferred back to GRU headquarters provided Washington with a great variety of Soviet intelligence and military secrets. His service to the CIA continued for a year after his transfer back to Moscow, until he was detected making a dead drop. Ogorodnik became an agency asset in 1974, while serving in the Soviet embassy in Colombia. In 1975 he returned to Moscow and took a position in the foreign ministry’s Global Affairs Department. The information that routinely passed through Ogorodnik’s office included KGB intelligence reports and the year-end, comprehensive report from every Soviet ambassador. Such agents would seem worthy of at least some mention in any book that purports to be a thorough history and reaches sweeping judgments.
Also, apart from the case of Colonel Chang Hsien-yi, the deputy director of Taiwan’s Institute for Nuclear Energy Research – who defected in the 1980s, after twice providing critical information about Taiwan’s nuclear weapons intentions to the CIA– Weiner’s history essentially ignores espionage operations against non-Soviet targets, including rogue nation nuclear programs and al-Qaeda. Thus, there is no real discussion of the agency’s apparent penetration of A.Q. Khan’s proliferation network and how the intelligence helped force Libya to abandon its weapons of mass destruction program.
As stunted as Weiner’s history is, he does not shy away from raising all kinds of criticisms, some of which are quite curious upon close examination. In his author’s note, for example, Weiner writes that all of the agency’s key Soviet assets were “volunteers, not recruits.”
This complaint seems trenchant until one recalls the Soviets were no more successful. The great majority of Americans—or at least the valuable ones we know about—who spied for Moscow were also walk-ins, a list that includes Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, James Nicholson, and Edward Pitts. Both sides during the Cold War obtained far more from volunteers than from recruits. In addition to denigrating the agency unfairly, though, Weiner completely disrespects the hard work of the case officers who ran the Soviet and East European nationals who volunteered their services. Successfully recruiting an agent from a “denied area” probably paled next to the genuinely hard work of running one, as the latter ranged from the technical tradecraft involved in obtaining information from the source without detection, to the emotional and material support necessary to those who risked their lives to provide the United States with valuable intelligence. Such skills were, and are, hardly trivial, and the agency’s ability to train such officers was not an insignificant accomplishment. But to ignore it is in keeping with Weiner’s proclivity to cast virtually any agency success in a negative light.
Weiner also voices criticism of the quality of the agency’s Soviet assets, apart from how they were gathered. The CIA “never possessed a single one who had deep insights into the workings of the Kremlin,” he writes. None of the 20 sources the CIA’s Soviet Division were running in 1956 “could have any idea of what made the Kremlin tick,” Weiner later adds, before concluding that the agency “never came close to providing a big picture of the Soviet Union.”
Again, the critique sounds better than it turns out to be. Weiner never specifies what would constitute a “deep insight” into the workings of the Kremlin, or why he believes there was some great secret—beyond Marxist ideology, a lust for power and privilege, and the personalities of those who ran the country—that, if known, would have provided the key to unlocking the Kremlin. His complaint about the inadequacies of the CIA’s 1956 Soviet sources is supposedly justified by a recounting of their lowly positions in the Communist state: the wife of a guided missile research scientist, a low-ranking naval engineering officer, a laborer, a telephone repairmen, a garage manager, a veterinarian, a high school teacher, a locksmith, a restaurant worker, and one who had no position at all.
What Weiner fails to acknowledge or appreciate is that while such individuals may not have had any special knowledge of what drove the Soviet leadership, they may still have been able to provide valuable intelligence. There is a difference between status and access. A naval engineering officer, even a low-ranking one, might well supply critical information about Soviet naval systems, just as Christopher Boyce—a $145-a-week communications clerk—turned out to be one of the most damaging American spies ever simply because he was able to provide the KGB with a detailed manual about a top-secret U.S. signals intelligence satellite system.