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When we were in Antigua, Guatemala, a great while back trying to learn a little more Spanish and soaking up the culture, a couple of people pointed out a building–a compound, really–called The School of the Americas. They said it was a CIA front operation. At the time I semi-dismissed it as a romantic notion of gringo conspiracy. After reading Weiner’s meticulously documented and compellingly written Legacy of  Ashes, I know that the CIA operated all over the world often with full knowledge of the locals even though they were supposed to be secret.


The organization caused the slaughter thousands of agents, foreign and domestic, over the years since its founding after WWII because it was unable to keep its agents and counteragents straight. From Sukarno to East Germany to Moscow to Cuba, they sent people on missions straight into the waiting arms of armies and police who knew they were coming and what for. When they did succeed, the success was dubious–as in the case of the Iranian Shaw and Chilean Pinochet and other brutal–though anti-communist–heads of state. When they didn’t, they engendered scorn, contempt, and hatred for America worldwide. Often the only ones who didn’t know what they were doing were ambassadors in the countries in which they operated, or their own colleagues, and the president. They outright lied to presidents from Eisenhower through Bush II in order to sell intelligence they hoped would keep their budgets high and preserve their organization.

What I’ve described above is the tip of the iceberg. The title is taken from a phrase uttered by Eisenhower, who after 8 years of trying to shape and control the agency to the national good felt that he had completely failed and had left his successor a “legacy of ashes” when it came to national intelligence. Things never got any better. I never believed the notion that the CIA would have employed mafia hit men to assassinate Castro. With JFK’s blessing. But it happened just that way, though never, obviously, succeeded.

The ultimate failure, of course, was Iraq, and the worst you’ve read is not the worst that happened. It’s a disgusting and shameful piece of American history that in some ways I wish I’d never read. Combined wit the financial fiasco outlined in The Monster (see Dec 3,2010), it makes you wonder if as a country and culture we haven’t succumbed to our most venal and corrupt selves. Happy Holidays.


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