REVIEW: Article

A Commentary on Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes"

For someone who spent 31 years as a CIA operations officer, Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes” is a painful, sometimes ugly read. My wife has asked me how it made me feel to read such a litany of failure about an organization that had taken us to Saipan, Japan, Burma, Vietnam and Korea. The most honest answer I can give to that question is that Weiner’s meticulously researched book did not take me by surprise, and that I cannot quarrel with his basic conclusions. My discomfort and chagrin come from the realization that things were often far worse than I had suspected them to be.

I joined the army in 1945, at the age of 17, and was trained as a cryptanalyst. This led NSA to approach me in my senior year at Williams to see if I would like to resume that career. I was interviewed in Washington by an NSA recruiter who quickly saw that I had no interest in returning to the increasingly technical field of cryptography. He advised me to apply to CIA, an organization I had hardly heard of. “What’s CIA?” I asked.  His reply was, “Oh, they jump out of airplanes, and are going to save the world.” I immediately applied to CIA, and reported for duty two days after my last final examination at college, in June 1951.

The training I received was a very mixed bag. A group of about 40 of us worked out of a large safe house in Maryland, and were introduced to the rudiments of surveillance, dead drops, and secret writing. Our instructors were mediocre at best, and we never could learn what actual experience they had had, if any.

Twelve weeks at the Infantry School at Fort Benning came as a vast improvement. We felt we were being taught by experts, and relished the experience. We were all put under alias, and this caused considerable amusement among our army instructors, as under the stress of parachute training we frequently forgot what name we were supposed to use.

I was interested in Asia, and eventually was assigned to the Vietnam desk of the Directorate of Operations, as a newly-minted paramilitary officer. I was informed that my first assignment was to go to Thailand, where I would pick up a group of North Vietnamese agents, and train them in small unit tactics and sabotage before we all were parachuted into the Indochina jungle. This was early in 1952, more than two years before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. I had the temerity to ask what our mission would be, and was curtly informed that I would be given this information just before jumping out of our transport plane. At the age of 24, having gone through long months of training, it never occurred to me to refuse the assignment. Such was the wild and woolly atmosphere that prevailed in those days.

Fortunately for me, the ethnic Vietnamese I picked up in Bangkok were not what they pretended to be, and the operation imploded. My life expectancy increased, and I was assigned to CIA’s training base on Saipan. On that beautiful island teams of agents from several Asian countries were trained for extremely hazardous and ill thought out missions into their home countries. Few were ever heard of again. One Chinese team of agents, dropped into Manchuria in 1952, came up on their radio and requested food. CIA rushed to respond. But the team had been captured by the Chinese, and the C-47 aircraft carrying supplies was shot down. Jack Downey, age 22, a 1951 Yale graduate and one of my paramilitary classmates, survived the crash, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served more than 20 years before being released in 1973. Downey has gone on to a magnificent career as a lawyer and judge. The dark stars, carved into the wall of the entrance to CIA headquarters building, are mute evidence of those who were not so fortunate.

CIA was the step-child of OSS and MI-6, and in the early 1950s it was doing what OSS and MI-6 had done during World War II—dropping agents behind enemy lines. The problem was that our two main Cold War antagonists, China and the USSR, had established far more draconian controls over their territory than the Nazis had been able to do in the European countries they occupied. The day of the heroic French maquis was long past.

Much later in my career, after many years overseas, I was given the job of trying to improve CIA’s training for career officers. This was the late 1970s, and CIA was still smarting from the major Congressional investigations of 1975, during which Senator Frank Church famously referred to CIA as a “rogue elephant.” As I talked to young trainees, I found that they often had the misperception that they had missed CIA’s “golden age” which they thought had occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Having served through that period, I told the trainees that in those early days, CIA had had a strong image, but very weak capability, and that in the 1970s, the agency’s capabilities had greatly improved, while its image had been tarnished by revelations of misjudgments or operational miscues.

Weiner’s book sheds clear and unforgiving light on those early days, and Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence from 1952-1961, emerges as a destructive, mendacious man. As Weiner puts it, “Over the next eight years, through his devotion to covert action, his disdain for the details of analysis, and his dangerous practice of deceiving the president of the United States, Allen Dulles did untold damage to the agency he had helped to create.” (p. 70). In fact, the title of Weiner’s book comes from President Eisenhower in his last meeting with Dulles in January 1961. After listening to Dulles heap praise upon himself as DCI, Eisenhower exploded in anger, said nothing had changed since Pearl Harbor, that a complete reorganization of American intelligence was required, and that in the field of intelligence he would leave a “legacy of ashes” to his successor. (p. 167).

Weiner powerfully describes the differing and mostly difficult relations that each American president had with CIA. Truman created CIA, but feared it becoming an “American Gestapo.” All he wanted was a daily newspaper containing the best intelligence available. But the strong-willed men who supported the creation of CIA, wanted to do far more than report the facts. Men like Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, operations chief  Frank Wisner and the Dulles brothers (John at State and Allen at CIA) soon had CIA involved in “fighting fire with fire,” via varying forms of covert action, which included “buying” a crucial Italian election in 1948, and coups in Iran and Guatemala.

A pattern was set that carried on through Eisenhower’s eight years. In CIA at the time, it was rumored that the Dulles brothers had a list of eight countries in which regime change had to occur. The coups in Iran and Guatemala were first judged to be great successes, but then came Cuba, planned under Eisenhower, but carried out early in Kennedy’s presidency. This fiasco soured JFK’s view of CIA, but it was not long before the Kennedy brothers had turned to CIA, ordering the assassination of Fidel Castro of Cuba, and Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister of the Congo, seen as a “Castro of Africa.”

Of all the presidents since Truman, only George H. W. Bush truly understood CIA. He had briefly been its director, and as Weiner puts it, “He was, in truth, the first and only Commander-in-Chief who knew how the CIA worked.” (p. 423). I served as National Security Advisor to Bush when he was Vice President, and went with him on visits to 65 foreign countries. Whenever it was possible, Bush met privately with the local chief of station, to thank him for the difficult work his people were performing. Bush looked forward to reading the daily intelligence brief, gave valuable feedback to CIA, and never, to my knowledge, pushed the Agency, as did other presidents, to perform over-the-top covert actions. As President, Bush worked very well with DCI Bob Gates, to bring the Cold War to a close without a shot being fired.

A central measure of any intelligence agency’s competence and value lies in its ability to deal with the difficult issue of “speaking truth to power.” And conversely, for an intelligence agency to be worth the considerable costs involved in maintaining it, government leaders must be willing to listen to intelligence, and be influenced by it, even when its judgments run counter to theirs. To put it most starkly, an intelligence agency must recognize the truth, and have the guts to assert it, even to leaders who do not wish to hear it. As a young CIA case officer, I naively assumed that the high-level policymaker sits at his or her desk eagerly awaiting new insights from the world of intelligence. I learned over time that intelligence can be welcome if it fills a void, or confirms an existing policy, but is regarded with suspicion and cold hostility if it indicates that an existing policy judgment is flawed. I also learned that the agency’s ability to recognize the truth and predict the future was far from perfect.

Weiner’s comments on varying presidential attitudes toward CIA are pungent and revealing.

 “Lyndon Johnson liked the agency’s work only if it fit his thinking. If it did not, it went into the waste basket.” (p. 248).

Richard Nixon referred to CIA people as “clowns and jerks,” and largely ignored the agency’s caveats and judgments. He ordered CIA to fix the 1970 presidential election in Chile, despite agency warning to the contrary. As Weiner puts it, “Nixon believed that all presidential action is legal in the realm of national security. If the president does it, he said, it is not illegal. Among his successors, only George W. Bush fully embraced this interpretation of presidential power, rooted in the divine right of kings.” (p. 295).

In later years, Gerald Ford recalled enormous misjudgments on CIA’s part regarding the Soviet Union, given at a 1962 congressional budget hearing. “They had charts on the wall, they had figures, and their conclusion was that in ten years the United States would be behind the Soviet Union in military capability, in economic growth. It was a scary presentation. The facts are that they were 180 degrees wrong. They were the best people we had, the CIA’s so-called experts.” (p. 191).

While Weiner is unsparing in illuminating the many analytical failures of CIA, he also demonstrates how the agency was damaged by assignments it was given by various presidents, including assassinations, coups, the fixing of foreign elections, and spying on American citizens. Inevitably, these misadventures eventually became known, and they all required denials, including denials by the presidents who had authorized them. This led to calls for congressional investigations, such as those conducted by the Church and Pike committees in 1975. Writing about that tumultuous period, Weiner says, “The power of secrecy had been undone by the lies of presidents in the name of national security of the United States. The U-2 was a weather plane. America would not invade Cuba. Our ships were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Vietnam War was a just cause. The fall of Richard Nixon showed that these noble lies would no longer serve in a democracy. DCI Bill Colby leaped at the chance to renew the CIA’s standing with the White House, for he knew that the assault on secrecy threatened the agency’s survival.” (pp. 335-336).

In June of 1975, as part of that effort, I was given permission by Colby to speak anonymously to Newsweek magazine on what it meant to be a CIA station chief. In response to the question, “How has the agency evolved over the past decade?”, this is what I said:

“Intelligence today is more a scalpel than a broadsword. The historical conditions under which we were created explain why we were initially given as large a role as we were. We are a people always looking for a panacea, and there was the feeling that perhaps, after our initial successes in Iran and Guatemala, paramilitary intelligence operations were the answer to containment of communist forces. Thus we were given large roles to play, perhaps in the misguided belief that covert operations can be a substitute for foreign policy. That cannot be. Covert action can be an adjunct, but cannot replace foreign policy. In the earlier days, the agency was afraid to say “no.” We wanted to prove we were able to do anything our masters asked us to. Since Vietnam, there is a clearer perception that intelligence is a selective tool used to cut behind appearances toward something close to reality.”

I am certain that other former agency officers will be as distressed as I am about how CIA’s overall record emerges in Weiner’s excellent book. I am also sure that some may assert that if CIA’s many successes, which still cannot be revealed, were added to the mix, the historical balance would be positive. I fear that that would not be the case, but we will never know.

Weiner asserts, and I fully agree, that today the United States desperately needs a powerful and effective intelligence establishment. In a recent television interview, Weiner said that the greatest immediate need is for talented young people, with linguistic abilities and a sense of history, who are willing to dedicate 20 years of their lives to anonymous work for their country. Fair enough, that is a fine place to start, and that was what hundreds of young people I knew tried to do in the 1950s and 1960s. Let us hope that it can be done better a second time around. That will depend upon the talents of the people willing to work for CIA, upon the quality of the leadership they receive from within the agency, the kind of missions they are ordered to perform by the White House, and their ability to accurately predict the evolution of key foreign policy concerns.*

* Editor’s Note: Ambassador Gregg served in the CIA from 1951-1982. When he retired, he received the CIA’s highest decoration from Director William Casey.

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United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, 1989-1993