CIA: A Short History of Nearly Everything?
November 22, 2008 9:18 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn about the history of the CIA? After hearing Bob Baer on Fresh Air, I've been reading Baer's books and became interested in the backstory. I started reading Legacy of Ashes, but even to me, a garden-variety lefty, it seems biased against the CIA. Any suggestions for a more 'fair and balanced' account?
posted by lukemeister to Law & Government (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Mr. kitkatcathy (who studies intelligence and security) directs you to the CIA library website itself. The CIA & OSS History section seems to be what you are looking for but he says the biographies have a lot of good titles too.

He adds that it is hard to suggest anything more specific without knowing what part of CIA history you want to learn about, eg. the organizational structure, operations, training etc.
posted by kitkatcathy at 10:15 AM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost is fiction, but it's very well-researched fiction about life in the CIA up to about the Kennedy assasination. Won't give you the whole picture, but it's a nice companion.
posted by COBRA! at 10:41 AM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: kitkatcathy,

My question is about operations and the proper balance between intelligence gathering and operations. Thanks!
posted by lukemeister at 11:16 AM on November 22, 2008

Both Legacy of Ashes and any of Baer's books are fairly anti-CIA.

Ronald Kessler's Inside the CIA is a good, if out-dated, history of the CIA and it's structure. It's a pre-9/11 book, but gives you a good idea of how the agency operates. Easy read.

Former CIA director Stansfield Turner wrote Burn Before Reading, which focuses on the relationships between CIA directors and the presidents. But it also covers a lot of the important agency history. Also, very short and readable.

I think both of these books will address the "balance" issue you are interested in.

Also, I haven't read it, but Robert Gates (former CIA director, current Defense Secretary) worked as an analyst at the CIA for about 20 years, and wrote From the Shadows, basically his memoirs, but he seems to cover a lot of critical agency history as well.
posted by BradNelson at 11:44 AM on November 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: ok lukemeister, here's your reading list as dictated by my significant other :)

He recommends you start with Ghost Wars which is a great look at CIA operations in Afghanistan from the 80s right up to 9/11. It won a Pulitzer and is informative and easy to read.

First In is a good follow up to Ghost Wars; it tells about the Officers who went in after 9/11.

The American Agent: My Life in the CIA by Richard L. Holm is another really good book. The first half of the book tells about some of the operations he personally ran; the 2nd half is more about how the CIA works in general.

He says books specifically about the balance between intelligence gathering and operations are more esoteric, but Transforming US intelligence by Jennifer Sims comes to mind. This talks about how the CIA moved away from human intelligence after the Cold War and the need to reorganize operations for the War on Terror by increasing human intelligence capabilities and hiring more intelligence analysts. However, this book is not easy reading; Sims is a professor at Georgetown who is really smart but wrote the book for people who actually want to study intelligence and not just read a book on it.

Lastly he says if you are looking for good reviews, this guy covers almost all intelligence books on Amazon.

Happy reading!
posted by kitkatcathy at 12:50 PM on November 22, 2008 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: kitkatcathy (and everyone who responded),

That's really helpful, thanks. In unrelated news, I miss T.O.

The Amazon reviewer that your husband recommended says he's 'on strike' but links to two websites, both of which are blank. I guess there's always drama in the spy world!
posted by lukemeister at 3:06 PM on November 22, 2008

Best answer: The books by Miles Copeland, Jr. are said to be excellent, although you have to watch out for potential misdirection. The father of impresario Miles Copeland III and Police drummer Stewart Copeland, he was stationed in the Middle East much of his career* and "ran" Saddam Hussein, then a young revolutionary in exile, for a while.
*Stewart says he used to answer their Beirut home phone "CIA, how can I help you?" At the time, though, the US was seen as a fair player by comparison with European colonial powers.

Anyway, although he was an ex-operative and had to have all his books approved by the CIA itself, he was open about mistakes and failures and frank about motives and national interests in a way that would have had less trusted agents trundled off to a Gitmo-equivalent. There is some evidence that he was a NOC for most of his later career. So in writing the way he did there may have been underlying strategy at work. But the excerpts I've seen are fascinating. So I can't vouch for how honest they are, but they seem to make for great reading.
posted by dhartung at 8:22 PM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If anyone is still reading this thread, I'm curious about whether Baer is generally regarded as credible, particularly as regards his strong denial that he was plotting to assassinate Saddam Hussein. He claims that Ahmed Chalabi made this up.
posted by lukemeister at 12:27 PM on November 23, 2008

If there's one thing that the Iraq war has demonstrated it's that Chalabi should not be trusted. He was a felon even before the war.
posted by spork at 6:36 PM on November 23, 2008

Biased against the CIA? Well, the CIA is a bad organization that does bad things, so maybe someone writing bad things about them isn't biased, but telling the truth. The best book I know of is William Blum's Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. As a kid, I remember skimming through the heavily censored The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, but I don't remember how good it is.
posted by history is a weapon at 4:24 PM on November 24, 2008

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