'Legacy of Ashes' Describes Founding of CIA

The new book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA traces the spy agency's failings back to its founding generation. Author Tim Weiner, a reporter for the The New York Times, speaks with John Ydstie.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This morning, we're going to talk about three of the men who helped create the CIA.

At the dawn of the Cold War, Allen Dulles, Richard Bissell and Frank Wisner were considered daring, imaginative and brilliant. Under them, in the 1950s, America's spy agency launched audacious operations. It overthrew foreign governments, even attempted to assassinate foreign leaders, actions that are now recalled more with embarrassment than pride.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

One of those originals, Frank Wisner, was a lawyer, a World War II spy, and a man who by the end of the 1950s would go mad. In a new history of the CIA called "Legacy of Ashes," New York Times reporter Tim Weiner traces some of the failings of the CIA today back to that founding generation. Weiner says men like Frank Wisner virtually invented America's clandestine service in the first days of the Cold War.

Mr. TIM WEINER (Author, "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA"): Frank Wisner was not interested in espionage, which is the core mission of the CIA. He was interested in covert action, making kings and breaking them, changing the world instead of knowing the world. And that got the United States into a good deal of trouble.

YDSTIE: And Wisner actually sacrificed hundreds of lives trying to do this during the Korean War.

Mr. WEINER: The Korean War broke out in 1950. The CIA could not get information by espionage from behind the Iron Curtain from North Korea, from China, which was newly under the control of its communist leader Mao Tse Tung.

And instead they took thousands of recruited foreign agents, Koreans, Chinese, other Asians, and hundreds of recruited foreign agents from Eastern and Central Europe and Russia. And they put them into planes and they strapped on parachutes and they flung them out into the darkness. And they died.

YDSTIE: What's astounding about this is that Wisner sent people in and never heard from them again and he kept doing it. He didn't stop and say this isn't working, we're sacrificing lives.

Mr. WEINER: The CIA was a new organization. They didn't really know what they were doing. They had to learn by doing and learn from their mistakes. And during the first 15 years running up to the Bay of Pigs, there were plenty.

YDSTIE: Maybe the most famous CIA leader is Allen Dulles, and as you suggest in your book, he charmed political leaders here at home and editors and publishers as well, which gave the CIA a reputation as a competent and effective agency. But a close look at Dulles's tenure provides a very different picture.

Mr. WEINER: Allen Dulles really didn't want to have a secret intelligence agency. He believed in dignified publicity because he wanted to create and burnish a public image for the CIA so that it could survive its infancy and its youth and grow up to be a permanent, powerful part of the American government.

YDSTIE: One anecdote about Allen Dulles, I think, is also very revealing - how he treated the briefers that came to talk to him each day.

Mr. WEINER: Allen Dulles showed his disdain for intelligence analysis, which is one of the core missions of CIA. Allen Dulles would assess briefings by weight. He would heft them in his hands and decide without reading them whether to accept them or not.

And an analyst who was admitted after waiting hours and hours, cooling his heels in the corridor, could find the director watching the Washington Senators baseball game on television, his feet up on an ottoman, watching the game while the briefer tried to catch his eye, standing behind the TV.

And as the briefer would reach his crucial points about Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles or the communist Chinese threat in Southeast Asia, Dulles would say something like, yeah, good hitter, can't field. He'd be commenting on the game.

And Eisenhower in the last days of his administration confronted Allen Dulles. In a full-dress meeting of the National Security Council - and this conversation was declassified less than three years ago - the most compelling documents are verbatim transcripts, word for word in many cases, of conversations between presidents and directors of Central Intelligence.

And Eisenhower says to Allen Dulles in front of everybody in the White House, Allen, for eight years I've been after you to get Central Intelligence organized. And you have failed me. You have handed me an eight-year defeat, and I will hand on to my successor, John F. Kennedy, a legacy of ashes.

And four months later came the Bay of Pigs. To see a president eviscerating a director of central intelligence before an audience of cabinet members, there's blood on the page.

YDSTIE: And as you said, Dulles still in control of the agency, the Bay of Pigs occurs and a guy named Richard Bissell was really in charge of that operation.

Mr. WEINER: Well, Dick Bissell had helped build the U2 spy plane - no small achievement. But Bissell was not really adept in running covert operations, and somehow Bissell convinced himself and others, including the president of the United States, that a 1,500-man Cuban invasion force could knock off Fidel Castro's 60,000-man army and just march on Havana from a mangrove swamp in the middle of nowhere.

I have actually been in the Bay of Pigs and stood in it. It is an impossible tangle of mud and mangrove, and these very hard, spiny crabs scuttling everywhere. And the idea that you could land there and get anywhere is, in retrospect, insane.

YDSTIE: I wonder if you could read for us from your book. This is basically after the Bay of Pigs, for which Richard Bissell bears much responsibility.

Mr. WEINER: Richard Bissell stayed on another six months. He later confessed in secret testimony that the vaunted expertise of his clandestine service was a fa├žade. It was, quote, "not the place where one would expect to look for professional competence," close quote.

When he left, President Kennedy pinned the National Security medal on his lapel. President Kennedy said, Mr. Bissell's high purpose, unbounded energy and unswerving devotion to duty are benchmarks of the intelligence service. He leaves an enduring legacy.

YDSTIE: How different is the CIA now than it was then?

Mr. WEINER: It's the same organization. It has gone through three generations of officers and analysts. This new generation, half of which has come on duty since 9/11, is very new, and it has had a leadership that has sometimes been at odds with the president of the United States.

Ever since the Bay of Pigs, the CIA has been exquisitely sensitive to presidential command and control. It is the president's secret army. It belongs to the White House, and it is presidents who have misunderstood, misused and abused the CIA, and that has gotten the CIA in trouble because presidents won't take the rap.

YDSTIE: Tim Weiner is the author of "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA." Thanks very much for speaking with us today.

Mr. WEINER: Thank you.

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