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Posted: Sunday, Sep. 28, 2008

CIA essential, fallible, NYT reporter says

Published in: Pam Kelley

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In 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations that the country's best intelligence showed Iraq had chemical and biological weapons.

Now, five years after invading Iraq, we know America's best intelligence was stale, badly sourced and mistaken.

“This is the price we pay when the CIA gets things wrong,” says New York Times reporter Tim Weiner.

This man knows, maybe better than anyone, how much the CIA has gotten wrong over the years. Weiner, who'll speak in Charlotte Tuesday, Sept. 30, is author of “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.”

The book, winner of a 2007 National Book Award, chronicles the misstep-filled history of the 60-year-old agency that's supposed to unearth the secrets of America's enemies.

With impressive research and on-the-record sources, Weiner details a litany of failures. The agency didn't realize the Soviet Union was crumbling. It failed to warn leaders of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It tailored messages to fit White House opinions. And that's just a sampling.

Weiner isn't anti-CIA.

If America is to remain a superpower, the CIA is essential, he says. He's sympathetic to its difficulties. For one thing, most every president has failed to understand the agency. “Presidents want their problems solved right now, and intelligence cannot do that for you.”

In an afterword to the new paperback edition of “Legacy of Ashes” ($16.95, Anchor Books), Weiner offers advice on making the CIA effective.

First, he told me, “the stain that has been created by use of torture and abuse of detainees must be removed.” Aside from ethical reasons, he cites a huge practical reason: Our shameful conduct makes it even harder to recruit foreign agents.

The agency also needs a new generation of intelligence officers who understand other nation's languages, history and culture, he says.

Does that seem obvious? Consider the Iraq Study Commission's total count in 2006 of Arabic-speaking Americans working in Baghdad's Green Zone: six.

For years now, Weiner says, the CIA has failed to heed the first principle of intelligence: Know your enemy. “It's very hard to do that if you don't speak his language.”

Weiner speaks at noon Tuesday at a World Affairs Council of Charlotte luncheon, the Westin Hotel, 601 S. College St. $40 for members, $50 for nonmembers. He'll talk at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Central Piedmont Community College's Overcash Performing Arts Center, 1200 Elizabeth Ave. $10 for World Affairs Council members and CPCC staff and students, $15 for others. 704-687-7762; www.worldaffairscharlotte.org.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271; pkelley@charlotteobserver.com

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