America’s foes and rivals have long overrated the Central Intelligence Agency. When Henry Kissinger traveled to China in 1971, Prime Minister Chou En-lai asked about C.I.A. subversion. Kissinger told Chou that he “vastly overestimates the competence of the C.I.A.” Chou persisted that “whenever something happens in the world they are always thought of.” Kissinger acknowledged, “That is true, and it flatters them, but they don’t deserve it.”
A few years later, in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the American embassy in Tehran. They captured a C.I.A. case officer named William Daugherty and accused him of running the agency’s entire Middle Eastern spy network while plotting to assassinate Ayatollah Khomeini. Daugherty, who had been in the C.I.A. for only nine months, tried to explain that he didn’t even speak the native tongue, Persian. The Iranians seemed offended that the Americans would send such an inexperienced spy. It was “beyond insult,” Daugherty later recalled, “for that officer not to speak the language or know the customs, culture and history of their country.”
The C.I.A. never did have much luck operating inside Communist China, and it failed to predict the Iranian revolution of 1979. “We were just plain asleep,” said the former C.I.A. director Adm. Stansfield Turner. The agency also did not foresee the explosion of an atom bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949, the invasion of South Korea in 1950, the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the explosion of an atom bomb by India in 1998 — the list goes on and on, culminating in the agency’s wrong call on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 2002-3.
Tim Weiner’s engrossing, comprehensive “Legacy of Ashes” is a litany of failure, from the C.I.A.’s early days, when hundreds of agents were dropped behind the Iron Curtain to be killed or doubled (almost without exception), to more recent humiliations, like George Tenet’s now infamous “slam dunk” line. Over the years, the agency threw around a lot of money and adopted a certain swagger. “We went all over the world and we did what we wanted,” said Al Ulmer, the C.I.A.’s Far East division chief in the 1950s. “God, we had fun.” But even their successes turned out to be failures. In 1963, the C.I.A. backed a coup to install the Baath Party in Iraq. “We came to power on a C.I.A. train,” said Ali Saleh Saadi, the Baath Party interior minister. One of the train’s passengers, Weiner notes, was a young assassin named Saddam Hussein. Weiner quotes Donald Gregg, a former C.I.A. station chief in South Korea, later the national security adviser to Vice President George H. W. Bush: “The record in Europe was bad. The record in Asia was bad. The agency had a terrible record in its early days — a great reputation and a terrible record.”