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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Book Review – Legacy of Ashes

Comments (13)

My last book of 2007 was Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, one of the CIA books recommended in the comments of my post History of the CIA.  I read it on my Kindle, which I love.

I’ve read a lot of books in my life.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was as profoundly negative and damning on any organization.  The author – Tim Weiner – is a well regarded Pulitzer Prize-winner New York Times correspondent so this book is the real deal.

Weiner approaches this as a pure history book.  He starts at the beginning and marches all the way through to the end without slowing his pace at any point.  In addition to the endless stream of people involved, he covers in depth a number of the major CIA initiatives over the years, the vast majority of them ranging from "botched" to "debacle."  Along the way he lists the ever escalating number of people, dollars, and deaths that result.

I don’t think I really know how to lie or be deceitful.  I like to think my parents did a great job with me on that front.  I value honesty, directness, and forthrightness.  I even feel compelled to correct myself when I’m wrong (which happens often.)  I’m cynical about plenty of things, including government and religion, and often feel that many political leaders are fundamentally not trustworthy.  Legacy of Ashes beats you over the head with this message – over and over again.

This is a chewy and long but if you are looking for an exhaustive, comprehensively researched, and completely negative view of the history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes is the one for you.

Now for some mental floss via David Balducci to clean the mind as we start the 2008 reading list.

  • http://www.bOKnow.com Aydin Mirzaee

    I know this was a book review but I can't help but ask if it is easier to read something on the Kindle rather than read it on conventional paper? which do you find is easier on the eyes? or is it just a matter of what you get used to?

    Aydin.

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      I've only read a few on the Kindle so far but I find it to be a very easy experience. I was a big Sony eReader before and the eInk is the same technology so I'm used to it. I know some people that complain about the Kindle / eInk, but I think you can get used to it in about two or three books.

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  • http://sophisticatedfinance.typepad.com Robert Hacker

    I once asked a world class architect why a particular building he designed was so poor. He relied, “you must never forget that the client is involved”. The client of the CIA is the President and therein lies the problem. Since Eisenhower we have had few Presidents that knew how to effectively use the CIA.

  • Dave

    To what extent does the book indicate that the CIA is operating as a loose cannon vs. as an extension of the President?

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      It varied by president. In almost all cases the CIA did tons of stuff (much ineffective) the president wasn't really aware of while simultaneously doing lots of stuff the president directed (again – much ineffective.) There were numerous documented instances where the president directed the CIA to do something in vague terms that – when reduced to actions – were clearly illegal. It really got bad once the presidents (Nixon was the real beginning – but it carried forward) started insisting that the CIA do domestic stuff, including intelligence gathering / spying on US citizens.

  • Jerry

    A history of anything when the facts of the subject are not public knowledge is by definition not exhaustive and not comprehensive. Weiner may have successfully cataloged the “botches” and “debacles” that are public knowledge, but is generally unable to comment on the ops that were tremendous successes. KGB spies we turned, terrorist attacks that were thwarted, etc.

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      True, but the FOIA and all the Internet projects like http://www.gwu.edu/%7Ensarchiv/nsa/the_archive.ht…have certainly helped with the substantiation and triangulation of the truth. In addition, many of the living former directors were quoted in the book – the vast majority of them were uniformly negative (and surprisingly candid) about their experiences and stewardship.)

      • Steve Bergstein

        I've said it many times: I'm amazed that any large organization can achieve its mission. Every large organization, most of them businesses, that I've ever known well enough, with one exception, seemed so fucked up that it was a miracle that they could be profitable.

        The CIA's mission isn't financial but political. The one exception was a partnership where there were many small organizational units with significant autonomy.

        That said, Jerry had it right: Weiner just wouldn't have had access to information about the real successes. And what's a good success rate for the operational arm of an intelligence agency?

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  • Ray Picquet

    Giving short shrift to the successes of an intelligence agency may be a practical necessity for lack of information, but there is scant recognition therein of the distorted picture that results. The lack of balance is clear enough to the cognoscenti: Where, for example, does the author pay due attention to the impact of the CIA-run mole, Gotthold Krauss, who almost toppled the highly competent East German service, Hauptverwaltung Aufklarung (HVA) –at least according to Marcus Wolf, its legendary leader?

  • Nikolaj

    I've read the Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes" and I find it tremendously interesting. But potential readers must be aware that book is not a balanced and an influential CIA historian – Nicholas Dujmovic – has pointed out that it "is not honest about context, he (Tim Weiner) is dismissive of motivations, his expectations for intelligence are almost cartoonish, and his book too often is factually unreliable" (see https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-…My advice is to read both Tim Weiners book and Nicholas Dujmovic Read critical evaluation.

  • Aydin Mirzaee

    I know this was a book review but I can't help but ask if it is easier to read something on the Kindle rather than read it on conventional paper? which do you find is easier on the eyes? or is it just a matter of what you get used to?

    Aydin.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    I've only read a few on the Kindle so far but I find it to be a very easy experience. I was a big Sony eReader before and the eInk is the same technology so I'm used to it. I know some people that complain about the Kindle / eInk, but I think you can get used to it in about two or three books.

    • khkjh

      kjhkjh

    • ,jljlkllkjjlklkj

      lkjlkjlkjllklk

  • Robert Hacker

    I once asked a world class architect why a particular building he designed was so poor. He relied, "you must never forget that the client is involved". The client of the CIA is the President and therein lies the problem. Since Eisenhower we have had few Presidents that knew how to effectively use the CIA.

  • Dave

    To what extent does the book indicate that the CIA is operating as a loose cannon vs. as an extension of the President?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    True, but the FOIA and all the Internet projects like http://www.gwu.edu/%7Ensarchiv/nsa/the_archive.ht…have certainly helped with the substantiation and triangulation of the truth. In addition, many of the living former directors were quoted in the book – the vast majority of them were uniformly negative (and surprisingly candid) about their experiences and stewardship.)

  • Jerry

    A history of anything when the facts of the subject are not public knowledge is by definition not exhaustive and not comprehensive. Weiner may have successfully cataloged the "botches" and "debacles" that are public knowledge, but is generally unable to comment on the ops that were tremendous successes. KGB spies we turned, terrorist attacks that were thwarted, etc.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    It varied by president. In almost all cases the CIA did tons of stuff (much ineffective) the president wasn't really aware of while simultaneously doing lots of stuff the president directed (again – much ineffective.) There were numerous documented instances where the president directed the CIA to do something in vague terms that – when reduced to actions – were clearly illegal. It really got bad once the presidents (Nixon was the real beginning – but it carried forward) started insisting that the CIA do domestic stuff, including intelligence gathering / spying on US citizens.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/steve_bergs2127 steve_bergs2127

    I've said it many times: I'm amazed that any large organization can achieve its mission. Every large organization, most of them businesses, that I've ever known well enough, with one exception, seemed so fucked up that it was a miracle that they could be profitable.

    The CIA's mission isn't financial but political. The one exception was a partnership where there were many small organizational units with significant autonomy.

    That said, Jerry had it right: Weiner just wouldn't have had access to information about the real successes. And what's a good success rate for the operational arm of an intelligence agency?

  • Ray Picquet

    Giving short shrift to the successes of an intelligence agency may be a practical necessity for lack of information, but there is scant recognition therein of the distorted picture that results. The lack of balance is clear enough to the cognoscenti: Where, for example, does the author pay due attention to the impact of the CIA-run mole, Gotthold Krauss, who almost toppled the highly competent East German service, Hauptverwaltung Aufklarung (HVA) –at least according to Marcus Wolf, its legendary leader?

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