Democracies Betrayed

Tim Weiner

     ... award winning reporter and author. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, winner of the coveted National Book Award, is Mr. Weiner’s third book. Afghanistan is among the nations he has traveled investigating CIA covert operations. He has focused on the United States’ intelligence establishment for more than 20 years, earning a Pulitzer Prize for his work on secret national security programs. A reporter for The New York Times, Mr. Weiner’s forthcoming books report on the FBI and the United States’ Department of Defense.

The United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has betrayed core American values for more than 60 years, failed in its mandate to deliver good information, and compounded both by declining to say “I don’t know,” reports Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. His title for this National Book Award winner is a quote from President Eisenhower, his fear-come-true.

“Iraq would be an Exhibit A in this long indictment of what we do in the name of the United States. We chose to go to war (in Iraq) -- a war of choice -- based on bad intelligence. We cannot afford to do this again. This is how great nations fall.

“Pretty much ever since the end of World War Two, (the country has been) in an undeclared state of war with the enemies of the United States. The President -- certainly from Eisenhower onward -- has done things that are arguably illegal or immoral in the name of the United States.

“This is very important for people to understand. The CIA didn't put up its hand and say ‘Let's set up a global network of secret prisons.’ The CIA didn't say, ‘I know, let’s use techniques tantamount to torture to elicit information from these terrorist suspects.’ The CIA didn't put up its hand and say, ‘Hey! I've got an idea. Let's go assassinate Fidel Castro.’ No. Presidents ordered the CIA to do those things. Presidents won't always take the rap. Rarely.

“It takes two people to tell the truth. One to speak it, and one to hear it. The customer of the CIA is a singular customer: the President of the United States, the “First Customer”. Directors of Central Intelligence were not always in possession of the facts. This was a frustration of presidents. But when they were, presidents didn't always want to listen. Presidents don't want life explained to them or (to hear), ‘Mr. President, it’s complicated.’ They want the problem solved. Now.”

You could express a great deal of American foreign policy in the phrase “Do something!” Mr. Weiner says.

“(The CIA) is a civilian agency with a military ethos. You don't say ‘No.’ The CIA salutes smartly, says, ‘Yes sir,’ goes back to headquarters, bears its head in its hands and says ‘Oh, my god, what do I do now?’ And this happens over and over and over again.

“A nation needs good intelligence. But we’ve been struggling for more than 60 years now to try to figure out how you run a secret intelligence service in an open American democracy. We haven't got it right yet. We need to do it within the ambit of American values. And we need to get good at it.

“We can build all the spy satellites we want, at a billion dollars a pop, all the electronic eavesdropping stations we can, at a billion dollars a pop, and we do. And they've been useful from time to time. But they are no substitutes for the human mind. At the end of the day, the only way to know what another person thinks is to talk to him. Machines can't do that. Only spies can do that. And diplomats.”

[This Program was recorded May 28, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

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Related Links:

Legacy of Ashes is published by Doubleday. The paperback version is published by Anchor Books.

In The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, Haynes Johnson presents a political story that parallels the intelligence story told by Mr. Weiner.

In Securing the City, Christopher Dickey shows how the NYPD has found more effective ways of suppressing terrorism than either the CIA or the FBI.

Reza Aslan tells the story of Iran's (and Islam's) current struggles — problems caused, in part, by the 1953 CIA sponsored coup d'état in Iran.

Former deputy director of the FBI Danny Couslon provides an insiders view of domestic intelligence.

Kevin Phillips has written extensively about the political climate which has facilitated CIA abuses and failures. John Dean has covered much of the same material from a different perspective. Ann Florini proposes an antidote.

Susan Faludi looks at the American mythology underlying CIA pretensions in The Terror Dream. Curtis White writes of Americans' failures of imagination and the consequences.

Failures of the mass media have allowed the CIA and its political masters to continue to fail us.  Among our guests with whom we've discussed the media are:  Tom Johnson, Bonnie Anderson, Neal Gabler and the late David Halberstam.

Sandra Mackey has written at length about the consequences of intelligence failures in the Middle East.

Respect for and understanding of democracy is essential to a cure.  Among others, both Cornel West and Doris Kearns Goodwin make the case.

... and, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


Tim Weiner has brought ugly truths to light. Betrayals of our fundamental values of justice and freedom are simply unacceptable if the sovereign people of the United States are ever to realize the ideal of governing ourselves or atoning for terrible abuses perpetrated in our names.

Mr. Weiner has our profound gratitude for doing his part in the democratic process -- reporting what politicians have hidden from us for more than 60 years. Thank you, Tim Weiner. Now it’s our responsibility to act on what we know.

Legacy of Ashes is Tim Weiner's history of the CIA. Would-be great nations need great foreign intelligence. The United States, he says, lacks that capacity.


A nation's senior executives need good intelligence about the challenges and opportunities facing them. Tim Weiner says that the CIA has never provided that intelligence to United States presidents. His solution: a National Intelligence University.

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