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Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

by Tim Weiner

The 9/11 attack was “a systemic failure of the American government,” writes Pulitzer Prize– winning New York Times reporter Tim Weiner in his distressing chronicle of the first 60 years of the Central Intelligence Agency. “It was the Pearl Harbor the CIA was created to prevent.” While the agency’s “triumphs have saved some blood and treasure,” he argues, its “mistakes have squandered both.” Weiner finds that the CIA is replete with promises and failures of agency reform, but each director proved worst than the last.

OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency

by Richard Harris Smith

Any understanding of CIA culture must begin with the establishment of the Office of Strategic Services, an agency set up by Wall Street investor William “Wild Bill” Donovan at the invitation of Franklin D. Roosevelt at the outset of World War II. Modeled on British intelligence, the OSS collected intelligence information and conducted special operations. Staffed largely by Ivy Leaguers, as well as a number of American Communists and sympathizers, OSS culture was elitist, liberal and patriotic. First published in 1972, and reprinted in 2005, OSS remains an absorbing read.

The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA

by Evan Thomas

Newsweek editor Evan Thomas follows the rise and fall of four key figures of the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s: Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes and Desmond Fitzgerald. These men saw themselves as “interventionist in the cause of freedom,” but this vision led to running secret armies in Tibet and Laos, the ill-conceived Bay of Pigs invasion and Mafia plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. President John F. Kennedy simply could not understand how people so smart led him to do something “so stupid” as the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Of course, Kennedy was looking for scapegoats after making a disastrous foreign policy decision.

See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism

by Robert Baer

Former field agent Robert Baer takes the reader through the back streets of the Middle East and Afghanistan to show how the CIA lost its way in the post–Cold War era. As a 21-year veteran of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, Baer captures the danger of a field operative working in Iraq, Beirut, Khartoum and New Delhi, and the frustration of seeing the CIA become more comfortable waging bureaucratic wars than fighting terrorism. Leaving the CIA in 1997, Baer became increasingly disheartened by such actions as the agency’s closing of operations in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, when it was evident to many that fundamentalist Muslims were gaining strength.


Originally published in the December 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here