If you have ever trusted U.S. government intelligence, read journalist Tim Weiner's A Legacy of Ashes. The New York Times national security reporter's comprehensive history of the CIA starts with the organization's humble beginnings during the last days of World War II, a time when high-placed government officials and President Harry Truman vocally questioned the need, legality, and usefulness of a worldwide intelligence outfit. Clearly, this was a different era. Weiner, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative journalism and the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction for this book, then delves into the litany of mistakes and problems throughout the agency's history. It turns out the CIA really didn't know how to do the whole intelligence thing. Agents were sent into sure-death situations, the former head of the CIA's first incarnation lost a vital briefcase at a cocktail party, and Soviet spies seemed to infiltrate the CIA at will. Weiner also studies the current status of the CIA under President Bush, and the CIA's newfound impotence in the shadow of the National Security Agency. Now out in paperback for the first time, and with a new afterward, this is an unsettling and captivating book. Impeccably researched and thoroughly documented, it has the accuracy and heft of a textbook, but reads, at times, like a Robert Ludlum novel.
Tue., June 3, 7 p.m., 2008