REVIEW: The CIA At War. Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror


By Ronald Kessler. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003. 313 pages, endnotes, bibliography, photos, index

Kessler, a New York Times journalist and best-selling author, gained impressive access to the CIA and recorded interviews with many of its highest officers, past and present. The result is the CIA at War, a tantalizing journey into the organization, its history, secrets, travails, and successes.

From a Cold War operation run by Ivy League East Coast insiders to an enormous apparatus of human and technological counterterrorism headed by a son of immigrants, the CIA has chalked up remarkable successes (identifying the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba) and astonishing failures (being hoodwinked by a brace of double agents, many of whom continued in their ruinous ways after failing polygraph tests).

What emerges is a CIA that suffered long bouts of institutional atrophy, congressional hostility, and public lack of confidence, all of which made for staggering lapses in national security. A long period of patient reconstruction and striking success in the post-September 11 war on militant Islam has since followed. Kessler's access to contemporary officials, not least the media-shy George Tenet, makes by far for the book's greatest interest.

Allowing for Kessler's clear partisanship for Tenet, this book makes for a corrective to the view of the CIA as napping while dangers multiplied. The CIA's failure to preempt Al-Qaeda is located in a combination of Clinton administration uninterest, legal and technical shackles, and a prevailing mood of complacency in Washington.

Kessler offers teasing glimpses, interesting anecdotes..

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