Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA is an amazing though controversial book. I am listening to it again, and recommend the interview I conducted with Weiner from September 2007 as an intro to the book, and as background to the discussion of the selection of Leon Panetta to lead the CIA. Many fans of the CIA blasted Weiner’s book as a one-sided assault on a crucial arm of our national security infrastructure that passed far too quickly over the Agency’s many successes. Others argued that because of the nature of the CIA, the public, and even serious historians like Weiner, will only know about the organization’s failures.
I think the book is an invaluable contribution to the public’s understanding of how the CIA works, and whether or not Weiner got everything right, the lesson is that the CIA has often gotten things wrong and to the great detriment of the country. The intelligence professionals who work there are by-and-large extraordinary public servants, and their patriotism and courage is never adequately conveyed, but their jobs require a near perfection that it is impossible to expect much less demand.
The job of the DCIA is enormously important, and has often been filled by individuals with no background in intelligence or even national security. Sometimes it has been filled by people with such backgrounds but with very little in the way of senior executive experience. Weiner’s book makes clear that a good DCIA will have one essential attribute –access to the president. No matter how experienced in intelligence or management, a DCIA who stays at Langley without ever or even often getting to the president to present the Agency’s findings, warnings and recommendations will be a failed DCIA.
In Panetta’s favor is the likelihood of access and his experience managing the White House under Clinton. Panetta is widely regarded as very smart as well, and widely liked across both parties. Though a liberal, the experience of having skippered a White House staff will have schooled Panetta in the art of getting to the president when it must happen and in the ways of winning internal Executive Branch dust-ups. The Congressional background didn’t help Porter Goss much, but perhaps it will help Panetta keep the budget cutters away.
Panetta’s a patriot, an experienced Washington hand, and close to the president-elect. As with many of the other early appointments on the incoming national security team, conservatives should be asking themselves if they ought not to be thanking their stars that the new team appears very realistic about the world they are being called on to lead and the enemies they will be facing.
The Weiner interview and many others with key authors of books central to understanding the national security of the United States are contained in my recent The War Against the West. When I interviewed Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald yesterday and learned he had never read The Looming Tower, I thought to myself that this explains part of his naivete about Hamas –he hasn’t done the basic reading. People who want to understand the war in which we are engaged have to work at it by reading books like Weiner’s, Lawrence Wright’s and the many other titles that are extraordinary efforts at reporting and analysis.
And if you won’t read the books, at least read the conversations with their authors.