Legacy of Ashes: The history of the CIA
REVIEW: Legacy of Ashes: The history of the CIA
By Malik Siraj Akbar
The performance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), America’s foremost external spying body, is a matter of constant concern for the intelligence experts who wonder if the clandestine organization has what it takes to fight America’s war against terrorism. Not many security pundits are certain about the actual duration of the war against terror: Some believe that this war might end in a decade time while the less optimist ones are of the opinion that this could prove to be a longer war than the Cold War. The second opinion is more agreeable.
In today’s rapidly changing world, it is not only the regular forces that solely fight the wars waged by the armed forces of their respective countries. Intelligence agencies in fact prepare the ground for success or humiliating defeat in any kind of war. Thus, the role and the capability of the CIA in the wake of unfolding global political and security developments is critical in the backdrop of extended American imperialist designs and expanding Islamist terrorism in the world
Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist Time Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The history of the CIA is a well-researched book that exposes the blunders, inefficiencies, and more honestly, lies of the CIA. Contrary to its widely preconceived image in the fiction novels or action movies as the most informed secrete agency on this planet, Weiner contents that the CIA could never become the organization that its founders had envisioned nor does it indicate with its performance that it can prevent the coming generations from the scourge of terrorism.
“Almost every president, almost every Congress, and almost every director of central intelligence since the 1960s has proved incapable of grasping the mechanics of the CIA,” says Wenier, whose book is based on fifty thousand documents of CIA archives and interview of several primary sources that worked with the CIA for years. He adds that, “most have left the agency in worse shape than they found it. Their failure have handed future generations, in the words of President Eisenhower, a legacy of Ashes.” Hence, Weiner believes that the CIA needs to be rebuilt if it wants to survive, a task which may take a several years of decades.
The CIA was formed soon after the Second World War to provide credible intelligence reports to the United States. The agency recruited highly qualified, reliable and patriotic American nationals and pro-US foreigners as its sleuths. In the early 1950s, the CIA spent half of a billion dollars to start with 15000 people in 50 overseas stations. One of the primary tasks of the CIA was to trace the Soviet maneuvering in the world but it greatly failed to accomplish its task. President Eisenhower was annoyed over the lack of CIA plans to deal with the USSR even after the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953. “We are not even sure what difference his death makes,” he had reacted. Similarly, by August 1953, when the Soviet Union tested its nuclear weapons, the CIA was clueless about such Soviet capability and it could not predict the Soviet intentions. CIA director Allen Dulles gave the first briefing to the US president six weeks after the Soviet nuclear tests.
The CIA played the key role in installing the government of Shah in Iran who subsequently pleaded to the Americans to make him a CIA-model of secrete service. Hence, the CIA helped to create the SAVAK, which was going to serve as the eye and ear of the United States against the Soviets in the disguise of protecting the Shah regime.
The clandestine outfit failed to win the trust of the successive US Presidents. For instance, President Nixon considered the CIA responsible for his defeat in 1960 elections against John F. Kennedy. Worst still, he could not trust the CIA reports about foreign enemies. So, Nixon decided to work secretly with Secretary Henary Kissinger without letting the CIA know about it. “I don’t mean to say that they are lying about the intelligence or distorting it, but I want you fellows to be very careful to separate facts from opinion,” said President Nixon, “the fact is that the intelligence projections for 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1968—and I’ve seen them all – have been up to fifty percent off in what the Russians were going to have.”
At times during its history, the CIA went to the extent of shamelessly telling lies in order to mislead the US government about the other countries which would, in some cases, lead to eruption of war. For example, secretary of State Kissinger came up with the bombshell saying that the CIA had been lying about its activities in Athens and deliberately mislead the US government. The same lies of the CIA had in fact triggered a war consuming Greece, Turkey and Cyprus which killed thousands of people.
The public reaction to Kissinger’s disclosure about the CIA lies was violent. The American embassy in Athens was surrounded by angry demonstrators and Rodger P. Davies, the US ambassador to Cyprus, was killed in the firing. In the same way, for the first time in the history of the CIA one of its station chiefs, Richard Welch, designated in Athens, was murdered on November 19, 1975. To this, seasoned diplomat and then the American ambassador to Athens shrewdly commented that despite living in Athens for a long time, it was the first time in his life that he had seen “the terrible price the US. Government must pay when it associates itself so intimately ….with repressive regimes.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush redefined the role of the CIA. For the first time in its history, the secrete service was given the power to operate as a global police. It threw hundreds of terrorism suspects in the jails located in Afghanistan, Poland, Guantanamo in Cuba and several American military prisons.
“The agency was now permitted to read secret grand jury testimony, without judge’s prior approval, and obtain private records of institutions and corporations….The CIA had never had the formal power to spy inside the borders of the United States before. It did now,” writes Weiner.
Predicting the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and tracing the whereabouts of Osama bin Ladan were two great expectations attached to the CIA. It, however, did not meet the expectations of the US people and the government.
On November 28, 2001, a CIA team was informed by the newly appointed commander of the governor Haji Zaman that he was “90 per cent sure” that bin Ladan was hiding in Tora Bora, a cave complex dug deep into the mountainside, located near Kurram Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan.
“He [bin Ladan] was within the agency’s reach but beyond its grasp. He could only be taken by siege, and the CIA could not mount one. Those who went after al Qaeda in Afghanistan were the best the agency had, but they were too few… He had the CIA outnumbered and outmaneuvered in Afghanistan, and he escaped.”
The CIA acted unprofessionally while dealing with Iraq. While the White House expected it to say Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, it had to report on the same line even if it did not have ample evidence. Saddam had in fact given up his nuclear weapons in the mid 1990s, discloses Weiner, fearing economic sanctions by the United Nations (UN). Saddam feared the UN sanctions more than the US invasion. Hence, Saddam’s nuclear facilities did stay there but the weapons were discarded. Mistrust between Saddam and the weapons inspectors indeed supported the hawks in the US government to instigate a war in Iraq.
In spite of not having any nuclear weapons, Saddam still pretended to be in possession of weapons of mass destruction, which he never did. On the other hand, Saddam’s defectors and detractors constantly egged the US to remove Saddam because they assure the White House that the Iraqi dictator did possess WMD.
“Absence of evidence was not evidence of absence for the agency. Saddam once had the weapons. The defectors said he still had them. Therefore, he had them. The CIA as an institution desperately sought the White House’s attention and approval. It did so by telling the president what he wanted to hear.”
The agency knew what the Bush administration wanted to hear about Iraq and it provided highly predictable and acceptable information to the government. On the other hand, Secretary of State Colin Powell considered this entirely true. On February 5,2003, Powell walked inside the United Nations and contended: “ Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
Weiner, in Legacy of Ashes, argues that the CIA has yet to become what its creators hoped it would be. “Can CIA meet the ongoing threat? The answer at this moment is no-absolutely no,” remarked Howard Hart, a former CIA official. As long as this so-called omnipotent secrete service starts operating more objectively and professionally, our insecure world will continue to remain an unsafe place – not solely because of the terrorist but equally because of those who are tasked with detecting the terrorists.