Legacy of Ashes

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Tim Weiner, Allen Lane, £25

The CIA has overthrown governments, bribed and blackmailed politicians, carried out assassinations, sponsored bloody wars, trafficked drugs and weapons, and, throughout its history, made use of torture.

None of this can be seriously denied - indeed no real attempt is made to deny it. Instead it is ignored. The likes of Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and David Miliband can quite happily carry on rubbing shoulders with the men responsible for these crimes without the liberal media making any protest. One waits in vain for the newspaper headlines demanding the expulsion of the CIA terrorists and torturers from their London HQ.

In these circumstances, any book that throws light on the activities of the CIA is to be welcomed, but with Weiner's Legacy of Ashes, the welcome has to be seriously qualified. His award-winning history is concerned to portray the CIA as an organisation of incompetents, as being, in New Labour speak, "unfit for purpose".

The problem he has with the CIA is that it has not protected US interests effectively. What is missing from his account is any recognition of the United States as an empire and of the crucial role the CIA has played in the running of that empire.

No previous empire has ever maintained an intelligence and covert operations apparatus on the scale of the CIA. The reason for this is simple. The CIA is very much a product of the informal nature of the US Empire. Whereas the British Empire generally exercised control over its subject states and territories directly, putting in place colonial administrations, police and prisons, and armies of occupation, the US Empire has generally exercised its control indirectly, through local politicians, generals and police chiefs.

The CIA has always played an important role in this exercise of indirect control, ensuring that compliant regimes remain in power and overthrowing those that refuse to acknowledge the primacy of US interests.

A good illustration of the relationship between the US Empire and its clients is provided by the behaviour of Ed Lansdale, when he was the CIA minder for Ramon Magsaysay, the US candidate for the presidency of the Philippines in 1950. Magsaysay, supposedly the democratic and nationalist candidate, tried to insist on having his own speechwriter rather than the one provided by the CIA. When he would not back down, Lansdale punched him unconscious. The CIA speechwriter stayed.

For all of its empirical detail, Weiner's book is concerned to advocate the reform of the US intelligence apparatus rather than the overthrow of the US Empire. Indeed, his criticisms of the CIA have more to do with the increasing difficulties that confront an empire in decline than with opposition to imperialism as such.