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The Agonizing History of the CIA's Intelligence Failures

The Agonizing History of the CIA's Intelligence Failures

In a lecture addressed to an audience of nearly 200 in Dodd Hall on March 2nd, Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times and author of "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Anchor Books), discussed his deeply researched book, which won the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction. The event was organized by the Burkle Center for International Relations.

This article was first published in UCLA Today by Ajay Singh.

On September 11, 1998, exactly three years before 9/11, the CIA secretly warned the White House that American intelligence would suffer a “catastrophic, systemic failure” unless its information-gathering methods were revamped. Five years later, the CIA falsely reported that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, thereby fulfilling its own prediction and paving the way for the Iraq war.

In one way or another, the CIA has been blundering since its creation in 1947, prompting President Eisenhower to remark as early as 1961 that the agency’s shortcomings during his eight years in power would force him to leave a “legacy of ashes.”

“Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” (Anchor Books), is the pertinent title of a bestselling book – as well as a recent lecture – by Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times. Weiner discussed his deeply researched book, which won the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, to an audience of nearly 200 in Dodd Hall. The March 2 event was organized by the Burkle Center for International Relations.

The CIA was born in the face of overt opposition from the FBI, Weiner said. It also met with doubts by President Truman as well as his secretary of state that the agency could fulfill its daunting postwar mission of providing the president and the secretaries of state and defense “strategic intelligence not for the next day or next week but over the horizon, looking into the future,” Weiner said.

The great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu had a word for such intelligence – “foreknowledge,” Weiner said. But the CIA thought it could do in the communist world what its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, had done in wartime Europe – launch military-style spying missions behind enemy lines. The agency trained thousands of Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Eastern Europeans in secret overseas bases and “sent them out into the darkness,” said Weiner, who added: “Almost all of them died.”

When the CIA’s “blind stabs in the dark” failed for a full decade to serve U.S. strategic needs, Eisenhower appointed the first of numerous committees to probe the agency’s failings. “If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of fair play must be reconsidered,” Weiner quoted the committee as reporting to Eisenhower in one of the grimmest passages from the public documentation of the Cold War. “It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.”

Some of those words remained classified until after 9/11, Weiner said, noting that they would “ring true to those of you who do not remember the Cold War but have lived through the years since September 2001.”

In subsequent years, high-tech spy planes and reconnaissance satellites did help the CIA gather military intelligence, but the agency still came short on the urgent task of espionage – “the job of what Sun Tzu said was to ‘know your enemy,’” said Weiner. That failure contributed to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, at a time when President Kennedy, who had inherited Eisenhower’s “ashes” legacy, had been in office for less than four months.

Kennedy’s first reaction to that fiasco was “to scatter the CIA to the four winds – to break it into a thousand pieces,” Weiner said. Instead, he ended up putting his brother, Robert Kennedy, in charge of some of the most dangerous covert operations the CIA has ever run, including assassination plots against Fidel Castro.

A string of presidents, starting with Lyndon Johnson, have mistrusted much of the CIA’s intelligence when it did not conform to their preconceptions and policies, most notably in Vietnam. “This has been a problem for CIA directors and presidents – how do you provide intelligence that conflicts with the commander in chief’s desires?” Weiner said.

The CIA reached one of the lowest points in its history under the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. “Nixon began a process of disemboweling the CIA” because he believed the agency had set him up at the Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The break-in was conducted by six CIA veterans, and Nixon ordered the CIA’s director at the time, Richard Helms, to take the fall for what was a political operation run out of the White House, said Weiner. “Helms wouldn’t do it.”

Similarly, the CIA’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal came “dangerously close to ruining Reagan’s presidency,” Weiner noted, adding that Americans tend to forget this sordid chapter in Reagan’s otherwise momentous career.

The high point of the CIA’s history was under President George H.W. Bush, a career CIA officer who ran the agency for 11 months. The CIA provided “pretty good intelligence” during the first Gulf War and “the war lasted seven weeks instead of seven years,” quipped Weiner, adding: “That’s what intelligence can do when it works – keep America’s powder dry and prevent conflict.”

In stark contrast was the CIA’s catastrophic claim prior to the second Gulf War that “Iraq is bristling with weapons of mass destruction,” said Weiner. “The problem was that the CIA’s best intelligence [on Iraq] was four, five, six and seven years old – it had come from the United Nations weapons inspectors.”

When a nation as powerful as the United States goes to war on the basis of bad intelligence, where does that leave the world? “We have squandered thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, we have projected force without intelligence – and that is folly,” said Weiner. “That is how nations fall and that is how nations lose power.”

But it’s entirely possible to run a secret intelligence service successfully in an open democracy “if we abide by democratic values and don’t suspend them in the name of expedience,” said Weiner. To ignore that, he added, makes this country “like our enemies – and then we lose.”

Click here to listen to audio from the lecture.

Burkle Center for International Relations