boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Artificial intelligence

The CIA often has shaped information to meet White House expectations, says a new history

(ALEX NABAUM)

Legacy of Ashes : The History of the CIA
By Tim Weiner
Doubleday, 702 pp., illustrated, $27.95

When my husband and I arrived in the Soviet Union as foreign correspondents at the dawn of glasnost in 1987, we discovered a country that simply didn't work. Well-educated Russians with good jobs stood on long lines for meager food and clothes. The neighborhood dentist left his instruments on an open windowsill to dry in the sun, next to his sleeping cat. Five of the six language instructors at Berlitz in Moscow had no home telephones. I ventured a few miles outside the capital of the world's other great superpower and found villages with no running water. Women hauled buckets home from the local well. Why, I asked myself, had I grown up terrified of this country trapped in primitive poverty? Didn't America's crack Kremlinologists -- all those people who had been briefing us -- know that the "Evil Empire" was a shambles?

Apparently not, writes Tim Weiner in his riveting new book, "Legacy of Ashes : The History of the CIA," since "The agency somehow missed the fact that its main enemy was dying." For eight years, from 1986 to 1994, senior CIA officers responsible for writing highly classified reports assessing the strength of the Soviet military deliberately concealed the fact that they were giving Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton information manipulated by Russian agents . "To reveal that [the agency] had been delivering misinformation and disinformation would have been too embarrassing," Weiner writes. "Ninety-five of these tainted reports warped American perceptions of the major military and political developments in Moscow. . . . They distorted and diminished America's ability to understand what was going on in Moscow."

Weiner, a New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who specializes in national intelligence, has written a fascinating yet scathing history of America's spy service , which, almost since its inception six decades ago, has rarely accomplished its central mission: to gather and analyze intelligence that informs the president of what is happening in the world. Instead, the CIA often tailors its work to fit White House preconceptions. "To survive as an institution in Washington, the agency above all had to have the president's ear," Weiner writes. "But it soon learned it was dangerous to tell him what he did not want to hear. The CIA's analysts learned to march in lockstep, conforming to conventional wisdom. They misapprehended the intentions and capabilities of our enemies, miscalculated the strength of communism and misjudged the threat of terrorism."

Iraq is only the latest example. In November 2002, the spy service supplied President George W. Bush with convenient facts to support his case for war. According to Weiner, the agency's last reliable reports from Iraq were four years old, but after 9/11, Iraqi defectors eager to see Saddam Hussein removed from power told Western intelligence agents the most politically expeditious story: that the Iraqi leader had biological weapons. And the deception worked. The CIA "swallowed secondhand and thirdhand hearsay that conformed to the president's plans," Weiner writes. "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."

Weiner's book, carefully researched and sharply written, is based entirely on material he gathered on the record. There are no references to anonymous sources, no blind quotes. (Bob Woodward, take note!) Drawing on interviews with scores of CIA insiders, including 10 past directors, Weiner paints a frightening portrait of a hapless bureaucracy whose drastic miscalculations -- from the Korean War through the Cold War to Vietnam and now Iraq -- have cost the United States dearly in blood, treasure, and prestige. George Tenet, the spy chief who will always be remembered for telling Bush that the agency had "slam dunk" evidence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, conceded later: "Those were the two dumbest words I ever said." But was he -- or any other top dog -- ever fired for such a grievous error ? Of course not. Bush gave Tenet the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The publication of "Legacy of Ashes," originally scheduled for August, was moved up several weeks because of the CIA 's release of its "family jewels," a compendium of historic documents detailing early horror stories. The material, collected in the 1970s, describes illegal and deceptive activities by the agency, including domestic wiretapping, failed assassination plots against Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders, the opening of U S citizens' first -class mail from the Soviet Union and China, and spying on journalists and political dissidents inside the United States in violation of the agency's charter to gather intelligence on foreigners.

Weiner's book adds depth, detail, and perspective to the supposed "jewels" and reports that the patterns identified in them more than 30 years ago only previewed what was yet to come. For example, the Bush policy permitting the torture of prisoners in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to pry intelligence from reluctant sources has roots in CIA experiments dating at least as far back as 1950, when unsuspecting subjects were given heroin, LSD, amphetamines, and sleeping pills in dubious attempts at mind control. During the Korean War, the CIA sent suspected double agents to secret prisons in Germany, Japan, and the Panama Canal Zone, where they were subjected to brainwashing and harsh, drug-assisted interrogation. "The drive to penetrate the iron curtain had led the CIA to adopt the tactics of its enemies," Weiner writes.

Now, as then, the country faces a hostile enemy , and the threat of nuclear war still looms. But to understand the political forces that shape our world, a new generation of spies is needed. Despite billions of dollars spent by a plethora of old and newly created intelligence agencies, the United States fails to train its clandestine officers to understand the language and culture of its most bitter enemies. Nor do the nation's elected leaders demand solid, unvarnished intelligence, irrespective of national policy or political prejudice, to help them make critical foreign-policy decisions. "Legacy of Ashes" should be must-reading for every presidential candidate -- and every American who wants to understand why the nation repeatedly stumbles into one disaster abroad after another.

Ann Blackman was a news correspondent for 35 years, including for Time magazine. She is the co-author of " The Spy Next Door, " about FBI spy Robert Hanssen , and author of " Seasons of Her Life, " a biography of Madeleine Albright , and " Wild Rose, " a biography of a Confederate spy.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES