Tim Weiner on the Legacy Of Ashes: The History Of The CIA
HH: A special couple of hours straight ahead. We have with us the author of a brand new book, Legacy of Ashes: The History Of The CIA, and let me welcome Tim Weiner to the program, a New York Times reporter, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This is an amazing book, Mr. Weiner. Thanks for joining us.
TW: I’m so glad to be with you. Thanks for having me.
HH: Now last night, I told a member of Congress that this has got to be distributed to every member of every committee, because frankly, I’m astonished. Do most people come away from this book that you’ve talked to shattered in their illusions about the CIA’s competence?
TW: I think some do. I think that if the book has a value, it’s that it’s all on the record, that it is not ideologically right wing or left wing. This is an American problem. It’s about the CIA, but it’s bigger than the CIA. It’s about whether we, as a nation, can project our power around the world, whether we can be a superpower. And in order to do that, we need good intelligence. We need to know what’s going on in the world. In a phrase, we need to know the enemy. And we’ve been at this sixty years now, the September 18th, 1947, sixty years ago, the CIA was founded. And we are still trying to figure out how to run a secret intelligence service in our open democracy.
HH: And failing often in the process, as is detailed in Legacy of Ashes. Let me start with a recent headline to see if maybe the upswing has begun. Over the weekend, I read that Michael Sulick has returned to the Central Intelligence Agency, along with Stephen, I hope I pronounce this correctly, Kappes, and General Michael Hayden is reassembling a lot of the experience that had been lost in the Porter Goss interregnum. Is that good in your eyes that the veterans are returning?
TW: Even better, even more important is the fact that the present chief of the clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez, is changing his job from running America’s spy service to recruiting, recruiting people to work. That is job one right now, because the CIA today faces some of the greatest challenges in its history, and it also has probably the least experienced workforce in its sixty years.
HH: We’ll go through some of that history. Just to give people a taste they cannot possibly get even in a two-hour radio broadcast, the complexities in this book and the riveting detail, and I don’t encourage them to do that, they’ve go to read it, but I do want to get through some of the history. But first, to set the stage, if you assume the best intelligence agency possible, and that means the brightest people, good funding, cutting edge technology, and you factor in that intelligence agencies will always makes mistakes, even if it’s the best agency out there, if that’s the best possible agency and it represents 100% of what could reasonably be expected of an intelligence agency, what percentage of that agency does the U.S. have functioning today?
TW: This would have to be a very rough guess. I would say that in terms of technology, we’re somewhere above 50%. I would say in terms of human capability, somewhere below.
HH: Wow, and that just doesn’t make sense after sixty years, as we’ll find out. If we recall the Rumsfeld famous metrics memo that he sent out, one of his snowflakes about how do we measure success in the war on terror, how do you measure? What are the metrics for judging the CIA specifically, but intelligence agencies generally, Tim Weiner?
TW: One, can the United States, through the CIA, successfully recruit foreigners as intelligence agents, to get them to, in many cases, betray their country, because espionage is illegal everywhere, to help us gain the facts about what’s going on in the world? Can we recruit agent from inside al Qaeda, from inside international jihadist organizations? That is a metric. Life is made more complicated in that realm by the fact that the public image of the CIA, and the public image of the United States today, is not at a high ebb in the Islamic world.
HH: It doesn’t seem as though they have had any successes. But as you quote in the book, there’s an old saying among CIA veterans, dating back to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, that the public only sees the failures, not the successes of the Agency. Is that true in the current war against Islamic jihadists?
TW: Well, there’s a lot that we won’t know for another thirty years, until the documents are declassified, if they are. I think we can say that we know we haven’t been attacked again since 9/11. Whether that is the consequence of better intelligence, or whether it’s the consequence of the interrogation of prisoners in the so-called black sites secret prisons, we don’t know, and we can’t know. We do know that this is not a war that’s going to be won with fighter bombers or tanks or submarines. This is a war of intelligence, of information and ideas. And we will not succeed if we don’t have better diplomacy, if we don’t use our military more wisely, and if we don’t have better intelligence.
HH: In this first segment, I want to cover the weapons of mass destruction fiasco, and I want to make clear to the audience, which is a center-right audience, that this book is not an apology for George W. Bush in any way, shape or form. But it’s also very, very blunt on the WMD. I want to go to Page 491, and this paragraph. “This was not a selective use of intelligence. It was not cherry-picking. It was not fixing the facts to fit the war plans. It was what the intelligence said – the best intelligence the Agency had to offer. Colin Powell had spent days and nights with George Tenet, checking and rechecking the CIA’s reporting. Tenet looked him in the eye and told him it was rock solid.” That cannot endear you to some of your friends on the left, Tim Weiner, but it’s very, very blunt.
TW: This is what happened. And then Colin Powell went to the United Nations and the world, with George Tenet sitting over his shoulder, I think we all remember that, and said these are hard facts. This is our best intelligence. Iraq is teeming with chemical and biological weapons. And we went to war, and George Tenet had to come back to Colin Powell, not once, not twice, but several times and say you know this central pillar of the argument we made? It looks like it might not be so solid.
HH: And there are a couple of fascinating aspects in this chapter. Quoting on Page 490, “The CIA as an institution desperately sought the White House’s attention and approval. It did so by telling the President what he wanted to hear.” You also talk about George Tenet’s deeply-ingrained desire to please. It’s disconcerting to think of the CIA as acting like an approval-seeking child.
TW: Well, you know enough about how Washington works to know that power flows from proximity to the President. And if you are the guy in there briefing the President every day, you have power. You have even more power if what you’re telling him enhances or empowers his policy. Now there’s a reason that the guy who runs the CIA is not the President’s daily intelligence briefer anymore. There’s a reason that the office of Director of Central Intelligence was disestablished two years ago. And it has to do in large part with the disaster of the WMD reporting.
HH: This is a hard question to answer, but speculate please. Would a different CIA director have made the same mistakes that Tenet did, so that George Bush’s retaining of Tenet proves to be one of his greatest fiascos?
TW: That is very hard to say. Look, I know George Tenet a little bit. He’s an extremely decent human being, and he tried his damndest to fix a CIA that he described, at the point where he inherited it in 1997, as a “burning platform.” I mean, imagine you’re on an oil rig in the North Sea in the middle of the night, and there’s a storm, and the rig is on fire. That is how he describes the CIA he inherited ten years ago in 1997. He tried his very best, but it turned out to be not good enough.
HH: You describe his memoir as a bitter book. Is his bitterness justified, Tim Weiner?
TW: In part, because he had to, in addition to receiving a medal around his chest, take a lot of spears in the back.
HH: You also write on Page 489, this is another shocking conclusion, again, most people assume a New York Times’ reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner’s going to be a man of the left, and that you’re going to run into…but I want my audience to understand you just call them like you saw them. Page 489, “Saddam wanted the U.S., his foes in Israel and Iran, his internal enemies, and above all, his own troops to believe that he still had the weapons of mass destruction. The illusion was his best deterrent, and his last defense against attack.” That’s why I asked about Tenet. Do you think that Saddam would have fooled everyone? Anyone in that job?
TW: No, the problem is that the best intelligence the CIA had at the end of 2002 was four or more years old, and dated from the time when there were weapons inspectors in Iraq, some of whom were CIA officers. After they were withdrawn in December, 1998, the intelligence kind of dried up. And so we were left with defectors like the infamous Curveball, who told the CIA what it wanted to hear, I mean, through the German service. And we just didn’t have the facts on the ground. That’s why you need spies, that’s why you need espionage, and our efforts weren’t good enough.
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HH: As I said when I had Lawrence Wright on when The Looming Tower came out, I know a Pulitzer Prize winning book when I read it. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is one of those. Tim Weiner, let’s go back to the beginning. Wild Bill Donovan enjoys a lot of hazy approval through the years. Maybe Bill Casey contributed to that. But the OSS, it wasn’t such a successful group, was it?
TW: Look, it was…after World War II broke out, after we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, there wasn’t any question that we needed an unorthodox group of intelligence gathering people, and clandestine service officers. It was a desperate need, in fact, and the OSS at full strength was never more than 13,000 strong. But the analysts in it who did research and reporting, really quite useful. The operations side, very mixed record. There were daring people who did incredibly brave jumps behind enemy lines to hook up with, for example, the French resistance in occupied France, and then there was a lot of blind stabs in the dark.
HH: You know, in my years in D.C., I got to know a few Agency people, and no one ever said they didn’t have courage. But dropping 22 two-man teams into Germany, 21 of whom are never heard from again, or how many agents did they drop into North Korea, Tim Weiner? I don’t have my note on that.
TW: Well, this is now during the Korean War.
HH: Right, right.
TW: This is CIA, which was stood up in 1947, sixty years ago. Hundreds upon hundreds of foreign agents, Koreans, Chinese, Russians, Eastern and Central Europeans, were dropped behind enemy lines, behind the Iron Curtain, and behind the Bamboo Curtain in the early 1950’s, because the CIA thought they could operate in Eastern Europe, and behind enemy lines in the Korean War, the way they had operated in Western Europe during World War II. And that turned out to be a terrible mistake.
HH: Well that…what I’m getting at is that OSS legacy of daring, and dropping teams into Germany, seems to me, from reading your book, never to have matured in the Agency, and that the reckless expenditure of human lives, in many instances, has been, well, it’s astonishing, especially that North Korean example. Is that still lingering in the Agency, this almost…
TW: I think not. I think that the first phase of the Agency’s history really runs from its foundation in 1947 until the Bay of Pigs in 1961. And when Allan Dulles ran the Agency, as he did throughout the Eisenhower years, ’53-’61, there was a kind of daring do and devil may care spirit that persisted from the OSS. But as a result, a lot of scattershot and harebrained operations resulted. And the ultimate one was the Bay of Pigs.
HH: We’re going to come to that later in the broadcast. At this point, I would like to take a moment to introduce some names to people that they may not be familiar with, Allan Dulles, Richard Helms, Frank Wisner, and James J. Angleton. These are sort of the four horsemen of the Agency. Can you tell us a little bit for the audience who have not yet read Legacy of Ashes about Allan Dulles?
TW: Allan Dulles was a very prominent figure in the OSS during the War, operating out of Switzerland, brother of John Foster Dulles, who was Secretary of State in the Eisenhower years, became Director of Central Intelligence under Eisenhower, and these two brothers, one running the foreign policy of the United States, the other the secret intelligence service of the United States, they really have no equal in American history as a team that enjoyed enormous power, and really operated out of their vest pockets quite a bit. Sometimes, they told the President what they were up to, and a few times, more than a few times, they didn’t. And the consequence, ultimately, was uncoordinated covert operations, for example, an attempt to run a coup in Indonesia in 1958 that was so not secret, that was so overt, and so miscalculated, that it really contributed to the growth of the Communist Party of Indonesia, which became the third largest such party in the world by the 1960’s. Angleton, another OSS figure, brilliant, strange, became chief of the counterintelligence staff in 1954, and ran it for twenty years. This is the office that’s responsible for both protecting the CIA from penetration from communist spies, and trying to penetrate. It’s the game inside the game, spy versus spy.
HH: And Soviet oriented for so long, and we’re going to come back to this, because the Nosenko…well, the whole think is fascinating. What about Wisner? I think he’s probably the most obscure of the four.
TW: Frank Wisner, another OSS veteran, became the first chief of the clandestine service in 1948, and ran it for ten years. Brilliant, driven, undiagnosed manic depressive, and toward the end, had to be hospitalized several times for nervous breakdown, finally blew his head off with a shotgun in 1965.
HH: Now I know you couldn’t have spoken with Wisner and Dulles, but it appears to me…or Angleton, maybe Angleton, but it appears to me that you did have many conversations with Richard Helms over the years.
TW: We spoke when I was covering CIA in Washington. I was able to, during the 1990’s, I was able to speak to him both in person and on the telephone. I have a great respect for the man. He died not quite five years ago at the age of 89, and in my estimation, probably the best director of Central Intelligence the country ever had.
HH: And why?
TW: Because he truly believed in espionage, as opposed to covert action.
HH: Explain that distinction, if you would for people.
TW: All right, espionage is spying, is trying to figure out what’s going on in the world, the careful, patient development of sources of information, recruitment of foreign agents, until you get inside the enemy’s head, you know, the enemy, okay? You can shake hands with a foreign intelligence service and pick its pocket at the same time. Cover action? That’s Wisner’s school, and Allan Dulles’, to a greater extent. Not so much to know the world, but to try and change the world, and to swing elections, run coups, change governments, change the course of history to make it conform better with the goals of American foreign policy.
HH: But Richard Helms, did he downplay covert action when he was…
TW: He did not, but he was the most consistent advocate for an espionage service, a real espionage service that the CIA really ever had running the show.
HH: We’ve got about a minute to the break. Was he political at all? Did he come from an ideological base? Or was he simply an accomplished spy?
TW: He served one president at a time, and he was not a political man. Richard Nixon, when he came to power, he was director of Central Intelligence under Johnson and Nixon. Johnson came to respect him enormously. Nixon did not, because Richard Nixon, God bless him, hated the CIA.
HH: I’ll be right back. He’s right about that.
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HH: I want to go just a couple of bits back to Georgetown, to the Wisner’s home, when he becomes the head of foreign operations, covert action. And there really was such a time in Washington, D.C., it doesn’t exist anymore, when people would gather together around a Sunday night dinner table and basically form the world.
TW: It is hard to imagine today, but in the years immediately following World War II, there was a fairly small circle of people who knew each other, many of them had been to school together, many of them had served side by side in the Second World War, who were really the intellectual movers and shapers of American foreign policy. Remember that President Harry Truman had come to office upon the death of President Roosevelt in the closing months of World War II, and he was not, you know, the world’s greatest foreign policy expert. He was very good on domestic policy, but he didn’t really know the world. So the elites of Georgetown included among their number people who did know the world, and they knew it from the perspective of fighting the War in Europe, and fighting the War in Asia, and being diplomats, charge d’affaires in Moscow during the War, and through long service to this country and diplomacy, and in the military, and in the OSS, in intelligence. These folks helped formed the foreign policy of the United States in the late 1940’s, and the beginning of the Cold War.
HH: It’s so intimate. It’s really astonishing how small the circle was with George Kennan and George Marshall. But Wisner made his stamp on it, and it’s a boozy, breezy, almost comic book approach to foreign affairs. They basically would decide who to kill over dinner.
TW: Well, kill is a bit strong, but…because the CIA never assassinated a foreign leader during the Cold War. It wasn’t for want of trying.
HH: What about the 200 people at Mosaddeq’s house, and we’ll come to that, but…
TW: All right.
HH: …a lot of bodies left in Iran that day.
TW: True. Foreign policy is sometimes a very messy business.
HH: We’re going to come back to that. You know, my first job out of college was working with David Eisenhower on the book he wrote about his grandfather, and I knew a lot about Walter Bedell Smith. I’ve got to confess, though, I didn’t know anything about his impact on the CIA. He’s a remarkable man, he’s largely forgotten. How did he fit in with this Georgetown elite, because that’s what doesn’t work for me. It’s like the square peg in the round hole.
TW: He kicked their rear ends. Walter Bedell Smith had been General Eisenhower’s chief of staff throughout World War II. He was a no-nonsense, hard as nails man. He did not suffer fools. And when Harry Truman asked him to take over the CIA, in the national emergency of the first days of the Korean War, he saluted smartly, and found that he had inherited quite a mess. The CIA was only three years old, remember, and it was really a series of sort of independent fiefs squabbling with each other. Well, General Eisenhower, when he became president, organized the White House as a good general runs his staff, with clear chains of command. And throughout the Korean War, General Walter Bedell Smith, as director of Central Intelligence, tried very hard to organize the CIA. And he gave it the shape, really, that is has today, out of a very messy and tangled organizational chart. In the process, he came to believe that both Frank Wisner and Allan Dulles, who had become the number two men at CIA, were pulling the wool over his eyes, and deceiving him about the conduct of covert operations overseas, particularly in Korea. Strangely, at the end of his eight years as president, I believe President Eisenhower came to the same conclusion.
HH: Interesting. Did the…do you rank Smith just below Richard Helms in terms of successful leaders?
TW: Walter Bedell Smith is one of the great forgotten figures of 20th Century American history, a truly amazing man, and he sweated blood to make the CIA work, and he really put it into a kind of organizational shape. There remained one problem, one that never got solved, which is talent.
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HH: And interestingly enough, Tim Weiner, how did you get into the intelligence reporting business?
TW: Well, I was sent on my first foreign assignment when I was 29 to cover an election in the Philippines that turned out to be the first great popular revolution of the era, and ended in the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. That got me interested in covering the wider world. And in 1987, I decided I was going to go to Afghanistan, which was then under the brutal occupation of the Soviet Army, to look at what the United States, and in particular, the CIA, was doing to support the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan. I called up CIA, and said you know, I understand you do briefings for foreign correspondents going to strange countries. I’m going over to Afghanistan, may I come by? And they said no, we don’t do that anymore, forget about it. So I went to Afghanistan, went hiking through the mountains with the Mujahideen, got bombed by the Soviet Air Force, and had a good, long trip. I spent time on both ends of it in Peshawar, Pakistan, and after about three months, came home. And gosh, I hadn’t been back in Washington more than a day or two before the phone rang. It was CIA saying hey, Tim, how’d you like to come in for that briefing (laughing).
HH: (laughing) Well, that’s good work.
TW: So that was the first time I set foot in CIA headquarters, and you know, I was fascinated from the get go.
HH: Now what I’d like to do is for the benefit of people who don’t read the Washington Post and follow it, sort of set up what, how the CIA is organized, and how it now fits in the new regime. You mentioned earlier in the program the disestablishment of the Director of CIA, and the new National Intelligence Director. But if you can get below that, and tell them how does the Agency organize itself…
HH: …you know, intelligence, covert, and all that sort of stuff.
TW: Well, the office of the Director of Central Intelligence, and the CIA itself, were set up sixty years ago in 1947. By the time Walter Bedell Smith was done whipping it into shape at the end of the Korean War, it was organized pretty much the way that it was organized for the next fifty years, which is you have a clandestine service, the operations directorate. These are the people who do things overseas. You have the directorate of intelligence. These are the analysts, largely desk-bound people whose job is to pull together all the information, both secret and open, available to the government, and eventually, you know, present it to the president. You have a directorate of science and technology that makes everything from little, tiny microphone gadgets to you know, they helped to invent the U2 spy plane.
HH: How good is that directorate today?
TW: You know, the great problem that they have is the great problem that also confronted the National Security Agency over the past decade, which is that, is the explosion of cell phones, e-mail, and encryption, publicly available encryption, of fiber optic communications as opposed to old copper wires. It’s much more difficult to penetrate communications now. And it’s so much like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose, that it’s very hard for the secret technology experts, the computer guys, the guys who make bugs, to try and figure out how to penetrate the communications of the enemy. That is the great challenge.
HH: I’m jumping ahead here, but at the end of the book, you talk about the privatization of intelligence, and a pretty interesting…and I hadn’t thought about…
TW: Yeah, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, they were ten years ahead of the public domain. Today, I think they’re behind the public domain.
HH: All right, so back to the…that’s the third directorate. Is there a…
TW: Right, and then you have a directorate of support that is everything from file clerks to people who get you from point A to point B, who maintain CIA stations inside American embassies abroad, the tail in the tooth to tail ratio.
HH: Tell me if you can the rough numbers and budgets of these four directorates.
TW: All right, all classified, these are rough approximations, very rough. Today, upwards of 20,000, maybe as high as 25,000 at CIA, budget, again, very rough estimates, between $5 and $6 billion. As a rule of thumb, the budget of the CIA is roughly one percent of the Pentagon’s budget, and there is a big story there.
HH: Yes, there is. Of the 25,000 CIA employees, how do they divide between operations, intelligence, and the other two directorates?
TW: Probably somewhere in the neighborhood, again, these are very rough approximations, because the numbers are classified, and I can’t give you a sense of authority.
TW: Probably 10% of those are in the clandestine service.
HH: All right. And where does the Farm, about which so much has been written…have you been there, by the way?
TW: I have not, that is a classified location. It is outside of Williamsburg, Virginia.
HH: And where does it fit in this organization? And what goes on there?
TW: The training?
TW: Mostly of people who are going to work for the clandestine service. It has been described as everything between a boarding school and a boot camp.
HH: Finally, in this segment, if you could put the CIA in the web, that includes PFIAB, The NSA, the DIA, the State Department…
TW: The alphabet part?
TW: Two years ago, after the disastrous experience of the weapons of mass destruction reporting, an attempt was made, a serious attempt by Congress to restructure American intelligence. And the Director of Central Intelligence post was abolished. That guy had been doing two jobs. One, being the CEO of the CIA, the other being the chairman of the board of all American intelligence. That’s now two jobs. The CIA no longer is first among equals in the American intelligence establishment. There’s one CEO of the CIA, and another guy, that’s Mike McConnell, running, being the chairman of the board. And General Mike Hayden is running the CIA.
HH: And does it work better, in your view, with this new system?
TW: The consensus even among the people in Congress, and in the intelligence community who helped create this change, is that what we have done is add another layer of bureaucracy, fifteen hundred people in the Directorate of National Intelligence. And if we see changes, we will see them down the road.
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HH: It’s a short segment, Mr. Weiner. I just want to ask you about other foreign intelligence services. It’s limbed out a little bit in the book, but does the CIA rank them in terms of their reliability? And we’re taping this interview just a couple of days after Israel goes in and takes out a secret facility in Syria that may have had North Korean glow in the dark stuff, which looks like a pretty doggone good operation. Do they rank Mossad as the best of the best?
TW: You know, I don’t think that there’s a rating system. Each country’s intelligence service is unique to that country’s position in the world, their foreign policy problems…if we had a model that would be applicable to our American democracy, and our superpower status in the world, it might well be the British service in the 19th Century. Why do I say that?
TW: When the British were, for example, running present day India and Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Raj, their foreign intelligence officer and their military officers and their spies, their diplomats and their soldiers, went to India and they lived there. And their children grew up there. And their children grew up to be foreign service officers, diplomats, spies, soldiers. And they stayed on for generations. And they achieved a deep knowledge of the languages and the histories and the cultures of the countries they wanted to command and control and contain. We do two year tours.
HH: But you know, I’m curious, I’ve read Peter Hopkirk’s books, the Great Games, they’re wonderful books. But is it even possible for Americans, given the way that the world views us now, to try and immerse themselves in the way that Brits would go into Afghanistan or into Pashtun and hang out forever?
TW: Let me suggest to you that the war we are now in may last as long as the Cold War. And to quote Mike Hayden, General Hayden, the head of the CIA, this is an intelligence war. We are not going to win this war with fighter jets, or nuclear weapons, or aircraft carriers. We are going to win it with intelligence and information and ideas. If that is true, we need to cultivate a generation of Americans who know how to speak Arabic, and Chinese, and Korean, and Farsi, and Pushtu, the language they speak in Eastern Afghanistan, and Hindi, and Urdu. And those people need to know not only the languages, but the histories and the cultures of the countries where those languages are spoken. And then we can go out and win this war.
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HH: Before we get started on our sort of postcards from CIA history segments, Tim Weiner, I’ve tried to sell the idea over the last year or two, a couple of people in the presidential campaigns, that we really need to have established the intelligence equivalent of the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, someplace where you can spend five years shaping an intelligence operative and analyst. Is that ever going to happen in the United States?
TW: Well one, I couldn’t agree with you more, and two, it would require a long term commitment by whoever our next president is, and whoever is in control of the next Congress, and the folks who run our intelligence services, and our universities, to agree that we need a crash program in this country, just like we were curing cancer, which in a way, we are, to train many thousands of young Americans who are coming out of high school now, in those really tough languages like Arabic and Chinese that pull down your grade point averages. And really, it’s a kind of intelligence ROTC.
HH: Yeah, they need a Rickover. They need someone who’s going to build the equivalent of the nuclear program, and do so on a…you’re right.
TW: And at the same time, those people can’t go out and recruit foreign agents, that is foreigners who know what’s going on in their countries, or in their political groups, and maybe in their terrorist organizations. They can’t go out and recruit them when the public image of the United States is at a low ebb. It makes it so much harder. So we have a lot of diplomacy, a lot of work to do on that front, we have a lot of work to do in the intelligence front, and we have a ways to go in restoring the public image of the United States in the world.
HH: Now let’s talk about the price of having a great reputation and a terrible record, as Donald Gregg once said about the CIA. Would you explain to people who Donald Gregg is?
TW: Don Gregg was George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, and before that, Ambassador to South Korea, and before that, station chief for the CIA in South Korea, and before that, a distinguished twenty year history, twenty five years at CIA.
HH: So he knows what he’s talking about. And when he says the Agency had a great reputation and a terrible record, what’s he referring to?
TW: That in the years before the Bay of Pigs, the arts of covert action and espionage were really new to us as a people, okay? We had not had a permanent peacetime intelligence service in this country. And the CIA made a lot mistakes. And you know, when intelligence fails, people die.
HH: Their great claim to success if, of course, the coup that removes Mosaddeq, the Iranian prime minister, and restores the Shah to his full authority. Do you, in retrospect, view that as a good action on their part, and a wisely calculated move?
TW: Well look, President Eisenhower authorized it. The operation was not quite as smooth as the CIA represented. It was quite a chaotic business. But in the end, a willing partner of American foreign policy, the Shah of Iran, was installed in power. And you can argue that 25 years of stability resulted. But 29 years of bitterness and instability has followed that. And the Iranian people, the people that we as Americans don’t know a lot about, are not unaware that the United States overthrew their prime minister. And that breeds resentment and fear and hostility.
HH: What was the…why was the failure so great on intelligence in 1978? The overthrow of the Shah and the installation of Khomeini, probably the greatest foreign policy disaster to befall the United States in the last thirty years.
TW: Well, one of the biggest surprises.
HH: Yeah. What happened? Where was the breakdown?
TW: You know how many people there were at the CIA station in Tehran?
TW: Four, one of whom had deep experience with the country.
HH: Was that a Carter administration drawdown? Or was that bureaucratic bumbling?
TW: That was a drawdown that really began in the second Nixon administration, and continued throughout the 1970’s, and it was part of the general diminution of American forces abroad toward the end of the Vietnam War.
HH: There’s a book by Ali Ansari called Confronting Iran: The Failure Of American Foreign Policy And The Next Crisis In The Middle East. He argues that the Iranian people carry the Mosaddeq coup on their sleeve, that this is going to define us for a very long time. But there was also a failure to understand the role of Islam in this. Does the Agency, has it begun its education on Islam, Tim Weiner?
TW: I think that we are now almost three decades distant from the rise of Islamism and jihad, that is holy war in the name of Allah in this world. And I think we have a much better grasp as a people, and that the CIA probably has a better grasp as an institution of some of the forces that drive it. However, we are in a bad position right now, because much of the Islamic world views our present situation in Iraq not a lot differently from the way they viewed, and I know this is a terrible thing to say, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. And that here is a non-Islamic power occupying an Islamic country, and it’s not good for the public image of the United States right now.
HH: Oh, as I mentioned, Lawrence Wright’s been a guest on this program three times, and clearly, the jihadists are portraying us as the new Soviet Union, and to what extent…
TW: Well, that’s the last thing we want to be portrayed as.
HH: Right, right, and that’s a call for the communication strategy of the United States to be a lot better. Let me go back to Mosaddeq, though. 200 people killed in the assault on his home in that botched coup that actually did work out to the stability side. And after that, as I read your chapters on Guatemala, and South America generally, 58 assassinations approved, you say in the Guatemalan takeover.
TW: Yeah, on paper.
HH: On paper.
HH: But this is a bloody gang. This is a really ruthless group of people.
TW: Look, this was war. You know, the Cold War was not fought over negotiating tables. The Cold War was fought in a hundred different countries, often by proxies of the United States and the Soviet Union. I mean, my favorite image of the Cold War is a battle that took place in 1964 on Lake Tanganyika in the heart of Africa, when a boatload of our Cubans, and a boatload of their Cubans…
TW: …started shooting at each other.
HH: Do we have the stomach for that as a country anymore, Tim Weiner, because I’m not disapproving of the necessity of doing hard things, although some of these are really bloody things, but does the country have that stomach at all anymore?
TW: I’m not sure that we as a people have a lot more stomach for Americans losing their lives to shot and show overseas right now. We have an armed forces, we have an army, I should say, an army that is very tired, that has been fighting a war that has been going on, you know, longer than World War II, and that we can’t fight the war on terror the way we fought the Cold War. We are not fighting a nation. We are fighting ideas.
HH: But as you know, when it was proposed, as it’s detailed in your book, and in Wright’s book, when it was proposed that bin Laden’s farms be shelled, or bin Laden be tracked down with the emirs he was hawking with in the middle of the Afghani desert, Tenet and Dick Clark wouldn’t approve it, too many collateral casualties. And that sort of summed up for me what happened.
TW: No, Rumsfeld wouldn’t approve a plan to hit Osama bin Laden’s number two guy in Pakistan…
HH: But that goes back to…
TW: …in 2005. Why? Because it was going to be so bit an operation, a DOD operation, that it was going to look like an invasion of Afghanistan. Hitting people is not necessarily the solution. You know, Osama bin Laden could get taken out tomorrow, and you know, God willing, someone will take him out at some point, get him off the stage. But it’s a hydra. This is not about individuals. This is about a war of ideologies, of ideas, and of information.
HH: But as you describe in Legacy of Ashes after 9/11, the Agency went to a war footing that was stunning. They picked up a lot of people who did not deserve to be picked up, but they did capture a lot of al Qaeda people…
TW: Yeah, there was an international dragnet, and you know, they had to let some people go, probably nine out of ten.
HH: And was that kind of energy and that kind of ruthlessness, is that capable of repetition absent any other?
TW: Not right now, because Iraq has sucked all the air out of the room, of covert operations, and of the military. This is both the Army and the clandestine service of the CIA, run pretty ragged right now.
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HH: Throughout those sixty years, Tim Weiner, Congress has done a bunch of things, vis-a-vis the CIA. It’s helped destroy it from the left, the Church Committee’s helped destroy it from the right, Porter Goss and his band of “reformers.” What should Congress do, after you’ve studied…they can read the details in Legacy of Ashes, but how ought they to operate vis-a-vis this agency and intelligence generally?
TW: Things have changed. The CIA is no longer first among equals in American intelligence. Congress, in its wisdom, and the administration, changed the architecture of American intelligence two years ago. We now have sixteen different instruments in the orchestra, and a conductor in this new office called Director of National Intelligence. That’s Mike McConnell. And McConnell, former director of the National Security Agency, has noted that he’s working 18 hour days, seven days a week, trying to get these instruments tuned up, harmonized, and playing off the same piece of paper. The problem is do we want to have a secret civilian intelligence service in our open American democracy? We have gone sixty years now without solving this. If you’re going to have a secret intelligence service, then it’s going to have to be really, really secret. And as you may have noticed, it’s awfully hard to keep real secrets in the American government.
HH: Does the American media, and hey, the New York Times has been involved in this, as has the L.A. Times, I’ve talked to Doyle McManus about it on air before, are they cognizant…I know they’re doing what they perceive to be their job, but are they cognizant of how difficult it makes the intelligence gathering operations of the United States?
TW: Let’s take a case study. I wasn’t one of the reporters on this story, but not too long ago, the New York Times ran a story about a tremendous argument taking place in the Bush administration about how far the United States should go when it comes to spying on Americans in the name of the war on terror. And boy, the paper and its editors were called everything but a child of God for running that story – traitors, treason. But we now know that in fact, this argument was so deep that the Attorney General of the United States wouldn’t go along with it, and you know, was confronted in his hospital bed by the White House Counsel and others, saying you’ve got to sign off on this, and he said no. And his deputy, the acting attorney general of the United States, said no. Now is that a legitimate story for us to cover, that there is dissention that deep in the administration over a question of spying on Americans? I would argue that it is.
HH: There is no compulsion in the world under our Constitution that restrains the New York Times from running that, but tell me about, since you cover this world, when the details of the banking surveillance are revealed, a program that had successfully helped obtain the arrest of one of the great Indonesian terrorists in Thailand, and it’s compromised, and the New York Times puts it out there, it’s compromised, Doyle McManus of the L.A. Times says yes, it’s possible we may have provided information that would lead to terrorists escaping capture or killing.
TW: Right. All I can do is to tell you what…I can’t speak for the New York Times, all right? But I can speak for myself as an American citizen, and a reporter who covered CIA for some years, I would never knowingly publish anything that I thought could get anybody hurt or killed, ever.
HH: That is…I think that’s the standard I would love for everyone to have. Let’s go back to the history. Diem and the Kennedy’s. You’re not going to be invited to the Kennedy Library anytime soon, I don’t think, or maybe you are. Maybe they’re pretty broad-minded. But this is a pretty awful picture of Bobby and Jack Kennedy that come across.
TW: I am parenthetically going to speak at the Nixon Library tonight.
HH: Oh, wonderful, in Yorba Linda. What time are you talking…oh, I’ll talk about it…we’re recording this on the 17th of September. I will tell people about that. What time are you speaking?
HH: Yeah, John Taylor’s an old friend.
HH: And so I’ll tell people about that. But what about the Diem story?
TW: Well, you know, President Kennedy installed a taping system in the White House in July of 1962, and he recorded his thoughts about his role and the American role in the overthrow of President Diem of South Vietnam, who had been president for nine years, and whom we were backing in what became a major war against North Vietnam. He said three days after the coup in which Diem was murdered, we really shouldn’t have done that. We bear a great deal of responsibility for it, and practically, this was eighteen days before his own assassination. Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence under President Johnson and President Nixon, I think put it quite succinctly. Let’s leave, I’m paraphrasing Helms here, let’s leave aside questions about morality and the brotherhood of man, and so forth and so on. The question of political assassination boils down to this. If you try to knock off another country’s leaders, why shouldn’t they try to knock off yours?
HH: Well, you do confirm in the book that the Kennedy’s repeatedly tried to take Castro out, but you do not weigh in on any kind of conspiracy theory. What is your thought on that? Did Castro…
TW: We’ll never know.
HH: Okay, just wondered. So you’re not buying…
TW: It’s not knowable. Either…this is what it boiled down to for Helms, and this is where I come out. Either Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, squeezed off a million to one shot, or as Lyndon Johnson later speculated, Kennedy was trying to get to Castro, but Castro got to him first. And until the Cuban archives are opened, which will probably not happen in our lifetimes, and until the Soviet archives are opened, we’ll never know. It’s not knowable.
HH: Bottom line on the Gulf of Tonkin, was fake intelligence used to manufacture the incident that certified the conflict?
TW: Yes, and the burden there goes to the National Security Agency.
HH: Explain for our listeners.
TW: There were two ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in the summer of 1964. There was also a clandestine operation, sabotage operation going on onshore. The two ships believed that they were under attack from the North Vietnamese, but it was a dark night, it was a foggy night, and what they thought were torpedoes coming at them were in fact sonar images of their own shadows, of their own churning in the water. The intelligence that the NSA picked up of communications of the North Vietnamese was at first misinterpreted. And then when they discovered their mistake, they just buried it. They covered it up. They deliberately deep sixed the fact that there had been no concerted North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin on the night of the 4th of August, 1964.
HH: When did that become known?
TW: Well, the NSA…
HH: We’ve got about 30 seconds.
TW: …to its great credit, the National Security Agency, to its great credit, published an unclassified or declassified history just less than two years ago.
– – – –
HH: We have to stop at the Bay of Pigs. They got…the Agency had Cuba wrong from the get go. They though the regime, the Castro regime, would collapse in a few months, you write at Page 155. They go with the mafia, they try to assassinate Castro, but the biggest fiasco of all, the Bay of Pigs. Did the CIA’s will fail? Did the Kennedy’s will fail? Could it ever have worked?
TW: The central problem was this. You had the covert operators, and the chief of the clandestine service at that point, Richard Bissell, shaping the intelligence for President Kennedy, who’d been in office only a matter of weeks. The analysts at the CIA were shut out of this. They didn’t know squat about the Bay of Pigs. And it’s like, you know, a hitter at the plate calling his own balls and strikes. I don’t think that the president fully understood what the operation was going to be like, and I don’t think Richard Bissell in his role as chief of the clandestine service really explained to him what it was going to be like. As one of Bissell’s deputies on this operation, Jake Esterlein of the CIA, later reflected, Bissell was lying up to the president, and Bissel was lying down to his people at CIA.
TW: And the consequence, well, we all know the consequence, many dead in the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro is incredibly still standing, forty six years later.
HH: The description on Page 174, 1,189 captured, 114 killed, a massive foreign policy fiasco. Had the Agency improved its performance by the Cuban Missile Crisis? Do they get kudos?
TW: Well, I think the difference is that you had a new Director of Central Intelligence, John McCone, and McCone was a very forceful personality, very conservative California Republican, and he just knew in his gut that Krushchev was going to put nuclear weapons into Cuba, because that’s what he would do if we was Krushchev. The CIA as an institution rejected this idea, said no, that’ll never happen, but it did. And McCone argued very forcefully to get the spy planes up to look down, they found the missiles, and I think McCone is the unsung hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
HH: Now the…we keep coming back to strong personalities in this job, Bedell Smith did a good job, you’re saying McCone did a good job, and you’ve got a lot of praise for Helms. So does Hayden fit into this successful…
TW: Well, I think he’s certainly the most capable director since Bob Gates, our present secretary of Defense, ran CIA back fifteen, sixteen years ago. What he’s got to work with? He has said himself is probably the least experienced workforce in the history of the CIA. For every ten analysts he’s got with less than four years experience, he’s got one with more than ten years experience.
HH: Wow, that is such…
TW: And you know, by the CIA’s own standard, those are trainees, people with four years or less in experience. So can this be turned around? Yeah. Was adding 50% more analysts and 50% more operators as the President commanded two years ago necessarily a good idea? We’re going to have to wait and see on that.
HH: Does the popular culture, you’ve now been covering the CIA for twenty years, and we’re talking the whole Len Deighton novels, nowadays, Dan Silva, Le Carre, The Good Shepherd movie, do they get the Agency? Do they…is there anyone out there who’s succeeded in figuring out what it is to be a part of this organization?
TW: Well, this is a criticism of me as well as the people who write novels. I’m not sure you can know it until you’ve lived it. I have tried as an outsider to read the record, to interview some of the players, to read oral histories, to get a sense of what the job is like. I fear that most Americans and a notable number of presidents of the United States are more familiar with the myths about the CIA that are created by movies and TV shows and fiction, than they are with the actual capabilities of the CIA itself. And that’s been a problem.
– – – –
HH: I’m not debating journalism and stuff with him today as I’ve often done with people like your colleague John Burns, Tim. I’m just interested in this book so much. I’m amazed we won the Cold War. When you read…
TW: Well, thank God Soviet communism was such a rotten system.
HH: And thank God for Ronald Reagan. But when we got…they turned every agent, not every agent, they turned the Berlin office on its head right after it gets set up, they run us a counter operation against this Berlin tunnel, which I had never read about. Kim Philby is going to lunch with Angleton all the time. It’s amazing we stayed in the game long enough for Ronald Reagan to win it.
TW: Our American democracy is stronger, more resilient, and more capable of change than certainly Soviet communism was. It blew itself apart.
HH: Ronald Reagan put the charge in.
TW: And I think that I want to try to make a very important point about Legacy of Ashes, that I think some of my friends at CIA have missed, because not everybody at CIA is happy about this book.
HH: Oh, I’m not surprised, yeah.
TW: …to put it mildly. I think that espionage is a noble pursuit, not because I’ve been a foreign correspondent and I go to foreign capitols and say take me to your leader, what’s going on here, all right? I think we have to know what’s going on in the world to succeed as a superpower. And I also believe that there isn’t a force on Earth, not jihadists, not terrorists, no nation, can every truly harm the United States. The only power on Earth that can harm us as a nation is us.
HH: Well, that’s a big debate with which I disagree, but I want to get back to, before we go too long, you mentioned that they’re not happy with you at Langley.
TW: Not everyone.
HH: What do they resent? The candor? Because I mean, you’re obviously approving of their mission, and quite respectful of their courage, just their competence is at issue.
TW: I think that the history of the CIA is something that’s been very jealously guarded at Langley, at CIA headquarters. The three successive directors of Central Intelligence, starting with Bob Gates, our Secretary of Defense today, vowed that they were going to declassify the Cold War histories of the big clandestine operations. And it never happened. And I started to wonder after a couple of years, this is in the early mid ’90’s, why not? And now I know, because I’ve done enough studying of the record, and I’ve teased out some of these histories, because they’re horrifying…
TW: …and they’re embarrassing. And you know, if they had gotten out, both at the time they had happened, or at any point over the last thirty, forty, fifty years, it would have damaged the public reputation of the CIA, and the CIA cannot take that damage right now. They need to recruit a new generation of Americans who are willing to serve them. And the most important development there in recent days has not been the return of Mike Sulick, who was exiled under the Porter Goss administration to run the clandestine service. It’s that the guy he’s replacing as the chief of the clandestine service, Jose Rodriquez, is stepping down in order to recruit.
HH: Tell me why Valerie Plame is not mentioned in your book.
TW: Because it was a totally inside baseball Washington story that had nothing to do with the conduct of the CIA.
HH: But in your book is a theme that why do we exist if nobody believes us. The Valerie Plame affair has done a great deal of damage to people on the center-right, where I live and broadcast, in trusting the Agency. And there are others which you recount in here. It’s a difficult thing to overcome.
TW: There was a larger story of which the Plame story was, in my estimation, an infinitesimal part, that I tried to recount at the end of Legacy of Ashes, which is this. This White House, run by a man who is after all, not only the son of a former president, but the son of a former Director of Central Intelligence, got in a war with the CIA.
TW: There was a lot of sniping going back and forth. And Lewis Libby was one of the casualties, took a bullet in the neck in that crossfire. Cheney, the Vice President of the United States, sorry, Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, had decided long ago during the Nixon and Ford administrations, that they didn’t really trust the CIA. And that is reflected in this continuous sniping that’s gone on since 9/11. And it’s not a healthy state of affairs.
HH: And Tim Weiner, I’ve got to tell you, after reading this book, I don’t blame them. You’ve indicted the CIA, and you’ve tried them, and presidents would be crazy to have trusted this Agency. And when they did, they got the WMD report.
TW: Yeah, but presidents also don’t want to know the truth sometimes. And they don’t want to hear inconvenient facts sometimes. And if you go back through the history of the CIA, there have been more than a few times when the CIA, for example, during the war in Vietnam, tried to tell Presidents Johnson and Nixon, look, this war is not going to be won by military means. This is a political war. Well, they didn’t want to hear that.
HH: You know what you ended up persuading me, although I don’t think you intended to, at the end, when you talk about Robert Gates seeing stars, and there are generals everywhere in the intelligence agency, and the Pentagon’s war on the CIA appears to be successful, and it’s taking over more and more, is that that’s a good thing, that the competent professionals of the military are not the dilettantes who would gather in Georgetown, drink themselves under the table, and launch coups in Guatemala that killed hundreds.
TW: Well, you sound like you’re channeling Richard Nixon.
HH: Well, I worked very closely with him for a long time (laughing).
TW: The…this takes us back to the original question.
HH: Yes, it does.
TW: Do we want to have a secret intelligence service, a civilian intelligence service, in the United States of America? If so, we better start getting good at it.
HH: But tell me if it’s possible, because one of the things…you also, they all check out, Cofer Black leaves, they’re all going to work for the new Beltway bandits. The military gets guys and the keep them, and gals, and they keep them. It’s professionalism.
TW: Well, I’m going to quote Colin Powell on this, who in my estimation, is one of the greatest Americans to have ever get a position of leadership in the government of the United States. Colin Powell has now warned us, this is an interview that Walter Isaacson did that’ll be forthcoming I think in GQ magazine, against the formation of a terror industrial complex.
HH: That’s fascinating. We’ll look for that.
– – – –
HH: I want to thank you, Tim Weiner, for spending this much time with me. It’s a very important book. Are you surprised at how successful this is, and how much interest it’s generated?
TW: You know, I’m surprised on a personal level, but…and pleasantly surprised, but I think when I step back and think about what it was like for me as a kid growing up, both of my parents are immigrants to this country. They both escaped World War II in Europe. And I want us to function as a participatory democracy, this country. And informed electorate, an informed citizenry, is crucial to American democracy. And I fear that many of my fellow Americans just are tuning out to what’s going on in the world. And if the up and coming generation of Americans, kids coming out of high school and going into college now, tune out and turn off, and are not interested in what’s going on in the world, we’re not going to succeed, not as a participatory democracy, not as a free republic, and not as a superpower. So in part, I wrote this book to give people an idea about what happens when intelligence fails. The CIA has had successes over the years. But when intelligence fails, soldiers die. And we need to have an informed citizenry to help rebuild our capacity to do intelligence, to form strategy, to make American foreign policy.
HH: And not only soldiers die, but of course, thousands of civilians as well. There was an intelligence failure by the CIA leading up to 9/11, which is so well documented, that we really can’t afford to be this blind. Let me close by asking you, are you staying in this business after this book? Are you going…what’s the next project for Tim Weiner?
TW: Well, I hope to be able to write books in the future. I think that we’re at a point in American history where we need to look at the structures we created in 1947, the office of secretary of defense, the CIA, the National Security Act of 1947, and the way it was amended two years ago, and really think about do these structures serve us now in the right way for this new war in which we’re now engaged? Or do we really have to rethink the way in which we organize our powers, and the way we project power around the world. I think that’s the subject I’d like to tackle in the years down the road.
HH: Does that mean…we’ve got 20 seconds, to study the Pentagon?
TW: Well, I think that Bob Gates, having served now both as Director of Central Intelligence and Secretary of Defense, would be a good person to start with.
TW: Are we organized properly to protect and defend the United States?
HH: Tim Weiner, a fascinating interview, a wonderful book. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. I’ll be right back, America, don’t go anywhere. I appreciate very much your time, Tim Weiner. Good luck in bringing this book to the attention of the public.
End of interview.