On the CIA
July 25, 2007 § Leave a comment
Corrupt and undemocratic practices by the CIA have prevailed since it was created in 1947. However, US citizens have now, for the first time, been given a striking range of critical information necessary to understand how this situation came about and why it has been impossible to remedy. We have a long, richly documented history of the CIA from its post-World War II origins to its failure to supply even the most elementary information about Iraq before the 2003 invasion of that country.
Declassified CIA records
Tim Weiner’s book Legacy of Ashes is important for many reasons, but certainly one is that it brings back from the dead the possibility that journalism can actually help citizens perform elementary oversight on the US government.
Until Weiner’s magnificent effort, I would have agreed with Seymour Hersh that, in the current crisis of US governance and foreign policy, the failure of the press has been almost complete. American journalists have generally not even tried to penetrate the layers of secrecy that the executive branch throws up to ward off scrutiny of its often illegal and incompetent activities. This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that documents its very important assertions in a way that goes well beyond asking readers merely to trust the reporter.
Weiner, a New York Times correspondent, has been working on Legacy of Ashes for 20 years. He has read more than 50,000 government documents, mostly from the CIA, the White House and the State Department. He was instrumental in causing the CIA Records Search Technology (CREST) program of the National Archives to declassify many of them, particularly in 2005 and 2006. He has read more than 2,000 oral histories of American intelligence officers, soldiers and diplomats and has himself conducted more than 300 on-the-record interviews with current and past CIA officers, including 10 former directors of central intelligence. Truly exceptional among authors of books on the CIA, he makes the following claim: “This book is on the record – no anonymous sources, no blind quotations, no hearsay.”
Weiner’s history contains 154 pages of endnotes keyed to comments in the text. (Numbered notes and standard scholarly citations would have been preferable, as well as an annotated bibliography providing information on where documents could be found; but what he has done is still light-years ahead of competing works.) These notes contain extensive verbatim quotations from documents, interviews and oral histories. Weiner also observes: “The CIA has reneged on pledges made by three consecutive directors of central intelligence – [Robert] Gates, [James] Woolsey, and [John] Deutch – to declassify records on nine major covert actions: France and Italy in the 1940s and 1950s; North Korea in the 1950s; Iran in 1953; Indonesia in 1958; Tibet in the 1950s and 1960s; and the Congo, the Dominican Republic, and Laos in the 1960s.” He is nonetheless able to supply key details on each of these operations from unofficial, but fully identified, sources.