NBCC Awards Finalists in Nonfiction: Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes”


This is the seventh in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” Tim Weiner (Doubleday).

Top-notch journalists such as Tim Weiner of the New York Times are often so busy writing about what happened today, in 1000 words or fewer, that they cannot devote their talent to placing deadline stories in context.

Fortunately, Weiner stepped back from his daily coverage of the government’s so-called intelligence agencies to look at the big picture.  The last time he did that, for a book about defense spending as mishandled by military and civilian personnel in the Pentagon, he gave readers a searing portrait of a weapons establishment out of control, wasting taxpayer dollars on ineffective tools of war.

With “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” (Doubleday), Weiner punctures claims by the spymasters at the CIA that they have stopped enemy threats and otherwise served their nation well.  He bases his expose on 60 years of the CIA’s own internal documents, all obtained legally through perseverance, so it would be hard for anybody in the agency to argue he proceeded from bias.

Weiner does document the positive, what he calls “acts of bravery and cunning.”  But CIA documents also let him piece together a saga of “folly and misfortune,” making his expose feel both devastating and depressing.  Only the most xenophobic patriots will be able to finish this massively documented book without a sense of shame for the bad behavior of this U.S. bureaucracy on the global stage, and without a sense of anger at the misuse of resources.

The consequences are not abstract.  Weiner says CIA mistakes “have proved fatal for legions of American soliders and foreign agents; some 3000 Americans who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001; and 3000 more who have died since then in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The book is recent history at its best, and its most dismaying.—Steve Weinberg

Review in The New York Times.