Freedom from Blog

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Summer Reading

So in the last month of summer (another summer gone!) I managed to slog through two long but very worthwhile books.

First was Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes, a history of the Central Intelligence Agency from its founding through the creation of a new Director of National Intelligence (to replace DCI) in 2007. Weiner, who was the NYT's intelligence beat writer for 20 years, makes pretty clear that the CIA was a colossal failure--it was never able to generate useful intelligence about the USSR (its primary mission for most of its history); rarely warned the president of impending events (e.g., in 1998 President Clinton probably read about the Indian nuclear test in the newspaper before CIA gave him a heads-up); and there's the whole 9/11 thing.

One unusual facet of the book is that Weiner is unusually sympathetic to the folks who worked at CIA during his time covering them. So he's harsh on early CIA folks (e.g., Allen Dulles), but kinder to folks like George Tenet (or Bob Gates). That's not to say that he's positive re: Tenet, but just that he seems more sympathetic, because he knew the guy. So the tone of the book changes some time in the 1980s. Even though the CIA never got anything right, Weiner worries when experienced types leave the Agency in droves at the end of the Cold War. But if they never got anything right, what value their experience?

Definitely worth the read. I learned a lot. One thing, the book will remind you how insular and incestuous DC really is. In 1976, the DCI went to Plains, GA, to brief Jimmy Carter on intelligence. That DCI? George Herbert Walker Bush.

Next up, and even more worth reading (i.e., YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK) is Rick Pearlstein's Nixonland. If were still teaching American Government courses, I would teach this. It might not be freshman level, though.

Pearlstein documents, in loving detail, how RMN was able to exploit American polarization over the 1960s into power; how the American consensus unraveled--in large part because ambitious pols, and not just Nixon (I'm looking at you, George Wallace) were willing to do it to acheive power. I'm not sure how things could have turned out otherwise. But Nixonland provides an excellent roadmap to how we got where we are now.


At 3:30 PM, Blogger Tim Fleming said...

The author's trashing of Dulles in "Legacy," is justified; Dulles may have been the most evil person alive in 20th century America.

Tim Fleming


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