If only the Central Intelligence Agency had ever analyzed itself as clearly as New York Times reporter Tim Weiner has done in his penetrating history of the agency's first 60 years.

Perhaps Weiner, who's speaking in Portland on June 5, wouldn't have had such a litany of tragicomic screw-ups to chronicle in Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, his award-winning 2007 book now in trade paperback (Anchor Books, 809 pages, $16.95).

Perhaps we wouldn't be in year five—and counting—of the Iraq war.

Alas, the CIA never had anybody like Weiner. Or at the very least, its top officials never listened to others who have tried over the years to make the same points Weiner does in Legacy. Instead, as Weiner details, the CIA has let itself be riddled with misadventures and misjudgments driven by a willful myopia since its haphazard creation after World War II.

There are the well-known disasters from the past six decades: to pick but two, the Bay of Pigs and the cooked intelligence that led Congress to give its overwhelming OK for President Johnson to prosecute the Vietnam War (with Sen. Wayne Morse [D-Ore.] being one of two senators to oppose that resolution).

And there are the less well-publicized snafus, such as the conclusion that almost all the secret information the CIA gathered during the Korean War "had been manufactured by the North Korean and Chinese security services."

Weiner's book takes its title from President Eisenhower bemoaning his failure to restructure the CIA at the end of his eight years—leaving a "legacy of ashes" to his successor. And the book succeeds in linking this generation's false intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to many of those earlier-day embarrassments.

Legacy falls short in making any groundbreaking prescriptions for improving American intelligence and leaves one key question unanswered: Can a nation that styles itself an open democracy ever countenance an intelligence agency that relies on subterfuge and secrecy?

But those are minor quibbles in such a comprehensive and engaging read about an agency that found itself adrift after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that now is in total disarray as it casts about trying to combat international terrorism.


Weiner will speak to the World Affairs Council of Oregon's monthly forum at 6 pm Thursday, June 5, at the Multnomah Athletic Club, 1849 SW Salmon St., 223-6251. $10 for members, $15 for non-members. To register, go to worldoregon.org/events/registration/TimWeiner.html.