Wall Street Journal
July 14, 2007

by Edward Jay Epstein

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

By Tim Weiner

With fanfare, the CIA recently released a set of internal reports describing such supposed skeletons in its closet as Castro- assassination attempts, illegal break-ins and mind-altering drug experiments on unwitting subjects. As it happens, such “family jewels,” as they are known, had been released (or leaked) in the mid-1970s: first to the Rockefeller Commission, then to the Senate's Church Committee (which issued some 14 reports based on them) and then to the House Select Committee on Intelligence. Despite three decades of familiarity, such unsecret secrets again made headlines around the world.

The unwarranted and hyperbolic response to the CIA's new “openness” only underscores how little the public and press really know about the CIA. Fortunately, Tim Weiner's prodigiously researched “Legacy of Ashes” fills in the gaps. Mr. Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter for the New York Times, lays out the agency's 60 years of operation, unearthing many newly declassified reports—and details exactly where he found them. He has written a powerful exposé of a secret arm of the American government without using anonymous sources, off-the-record interviews or blind quotes. “Legacy of Ashes” is the best book I've yet read on the CIA's covert actions.


When the Central Intelligence Agency was officially created after World War II, its supreme mission, Mr. Weiner notes, was “to steal Soviet secrets”—that is, to practice espionage. Of course espionage is no minor matter. It requires building an organization that can approach foreign officials clandestinely and persuade them to betray their government's most prized secrets—usually in document form. Espionage also means manipulating the careers of such officials so that they can gain access to the documents that are needed and pass them along undetected. The CIA itself thus required an environment of absolute secrecy. The National Security Act of 1947, authorizing the agency, created exactly such an environment.

But once presidents had at their disposal an entity armored by secrecy, they began using it to hide covert actions, including paramilitary operations, that had nothing to do with espionage. Soon enough the CIA become the home for an assortment of executive actions, including coups d'état, assassination attempts, election-fixing and sabotage. Hence those “family jewels,” at one time zealously protected.

It is Mr. Weiner's thesis that housing two such different activities under the same roof—espionage and covert action—led to a confusion of the agency's purpose and a shifting of its attention: Over time, the CIA became obsessively concerned with covert action and neglected its (crucial) espionage mission. Mr. Weiner concludes that “the CIA never possessed a single spy] who had deep insight into the workings of the Kremlin.” In nearly a half-century of work, he says, the agency succeeded in recruiting only a handful of Soviet spies “with important information to reveal.” Tens of thousands of “clandestine service officers” ended up gathering “the barest threads of truly important intelligence.”

Such an assessment runs counter to a more conventional view that claims great success for the CIA in its penetration of the Soviet empire; eg. its recruiting Soviet officials such as Pyotr Popov, Oleg Penkovsky, Vitaly Yurchenko, Anatoly Filatov and Adolf Tolkachev. The figures, it is said, provided valuable facts, including revelations by Mr. Popov's about Soviet enhanced military capabilities in Europe and by Mr. Penkovsy about Soviet missile accuracy.


The real issue is what constitutes success in the intelligence game. No doubt those “tens of thousands” of CIA officers worked at recruiting an equivalent number of Soviet-bloc diplomats, scientists and military officers posted at embassies and military missions and at the United Nations. But Soviet intelligence did not sit idly by. It countered U.S. recruitment attempts by dispatching “dangles”—loyal officials who feigned disloyalty to the Soviet Union in order to sow disinformation and confuse the CIA. And the Soviets, though their own recruiting, embedded moles within the U.S. intelligence establishment—such as Aldrich Ames at the CIA and Robert Hanssen at the FBI. Such spies could identify, in turn, CIA moles among the Soviets.

Thus short-term “success” was often thwarted in the long-term. That was the view of James Jesus Angleton (1917-87), the legendary head of the CIA's counterintelligence staff from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s. Angleton explained to me before he died that recruiting a Soviet-bloc official was the easy part. The difficult part was winnowing out the “dangles” and then invisibly managing the careers of genuine turncoats so that they could commit useful treason.


Angleton famously believed that many—if not all—the Soviets recruited by the CIA were either dangles or compromised agents who might mislead U.S. intelligence. So in the late 1960s Angleton effectively blocked the CIA's Soviet-bloc recruitment efforts by having his counterintelligence staff label supposedly recruited agents unreliable—since their bona fides had not, in his view, been established. When Angleton was fired on Christmas Eve in 1974, the CIA's Soviet Bloc Division re-opened the recruitment floodgates and was back in the espionage business.

Was Angleton's obsession with moles and disinformation misguided? From the evidence in “Legacy of Ashes,” probably not. After Angleton left, the CIA discovered that Aldrich Ames, the agency's own head of counterintelligence for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, had been a KGB mole. And it discovered that it had been receiving Soviet disinformation from myriad sources. One of Mr. Weiner's more stunning revelations is that for eight years (1986-94) a large number of the CIA's highly classified “blue border” reports contained information from CIA recruits who were “controlled by Russian intelligence.”

The CIA director signed these blue-border reports—so called because of their distinctive blue stripes—and sent them directly to the president, secretary of defense and secretary of state. Thus Soviet disinformation from the KGB—and Russian disinformation after the dissolution of empire—had routinely made its way to President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton. Mr. Weiner says that, astonishingly, the CIA inspector general, upon looking into this scandal, found that the “senior CIA officers responsible for these reports had known that some of their sources were controlled by Russian intelligence.” CIA officials continued to forward the Russian disinformation to the White House because it would be, as Mr. Weiner puts it, “too embarrassing” to admit that the CIA had been so badly deceived.

What distinguishes “Legacy of Ashes” from most other books about the CIA is that it places the agency's assassination attempts, coups d'état and other covert actions within a real political context. By tracing the relations between successive presidents and the CIA, Mr. Weiner refutes the paranoid myth that the agency was an out-of-control, rogue entity or, as some claim, a kind of shadow government. The CIA has always been a carefully honed instrument of executive power.

I do not agree with all of Mr. Weiner's characterizations of CIA officials. I find his portrayal of James Angleton as an incompetent and an alcoholic at odds with the trust that Angleton won over many years from six CIA directors—including Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, Allen W. Dulles, George H.W. Bush and Richard Helms. They kept Angleton in key positions and valued his work. Helms wrote in his autobiography: “In his day, Jim was recognized as the dominant counterintelligence figure in the non-communist world.” Such esteem would explain Angleton's long tenure at the CIA.

But such differences of opinion in no way diminish my admiration for what Mr. Weiner has done. “Legacy of Ashes” is a fascinating and revealing history—a jewel of a book, to borrow a term.

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