How it Started
The CIA began as not as the CIA, but as the Office of Strategic Services. The OSS began doing covert work during World War 2. We Americans were impressed by Britain's successful intelligence service and attempted to replicate it for ourselves. We failed miserably, losing almost all the operatives we sent to spy on the Nazis.
The head of that unit, William Donovan, felt that a good intelligence service was a necessary part of our national defense. William Donovan talked Truman into approving such a service, and the Central Intelligence Group was founded, later renamed the Central Intelligence Agency. This raised the ire of the defense department, which felt that intelligence should be under the watch of, and was most relevant to, the military. This new civilian agency didn't begin with any friends outside the White House.
Fighting the Reds
The CIA's primary mission became fighting Communism. The first 3/4 of the book lay out how it attempted to accomplish this. The CIA's typical strategy involved identifying a country with the potential to elect a communist government, funding right-wing revolutionaries to overthrow said government, and helping a new government come into power.
In most cases, the new government would be headed by a violent fascist with no respect for law or liberty.
In the other cases, the plan would backfire when American involvement was exposed. Anti-American sentiment helped drive countries to communism more rapidly than they otherwise would have done.
Eisenhower started the "overthrow the government" trend in Guatemala in the early 1950's. The CIA had been considering the idea under Truman, but didn't have the support necessary to follow through. Eisenhower tasked the CIA with replacing the democratically elected left-leaning president of Guatemala with a strong anti-communist, and brought together the economic and military aid necessary to do so. The CIA feared that Guatemala could be the starting point for the growth of communism in Latin America, and later into North and South America.
The plan worked. Communism was out and reckless, incompetent, fascism was in. The US no longer had to worry about Communism taking root in Guatemala because the region fell into decades of evolving military dictatorships, human rights abuses, and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The US was rightly criticized for it's role in the affair, but the CIA saw the operation as a success. They did, in fact, prevent the spread of Communism. However, subsequent reviews of Guatemalan government records by the CIA revealed no connections between Guatemala and Communist Russia. The civil unrest and violence and death were never necessary.
This stood as a model for the CIA's future interventions in foreign governments. The parallels with Iraq are striking: overthrowing a stable government for ideological reasons based on poor intelligence and leaving behind a violent civil conflict. Our government isn't learning from it's mistakes.
Continuing the Fight
The CIA engaged in similar endaevours elsewhere in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and even Europe. They bought elections for the Christian Democrats in Italy in the late 60's.
The one thing the CIA did very well was give away money. The CIA doled out cash to their supporters all around the world in large quantities. These were rebel groups, friendly political parties, and even the Dalai Lama. Anyone against the reds could get all the dollars they needed to keep up the fight.
The CIA was also quite good at distributing arms. Money was never in short supply to buy weapons from overseas suppliers and funnel them through black-market channels to the gangs the CIA enlisted to fight for it. The Iran-Contra affair serves as the classic example of these arrangements:
The CIA bought missiles from the Pentagon, which resold them to an arms dealer at an inflated price. The dealer then sold the missiles to Iran, while the CIA sent it's profit to the rebels in Nicaragua. Iran would release it's American hostages, the Contras were funded without Congress knowing about it, and everybody was happy. Iran was so happy about these weapon shipments, it began taking more hostages.
The agency has been misused or abused by almost every President who held office during it's existence.
JFK had the agency working to overthrow Cuba and prevent further Communist expansion all over the world. The book suggests that his assassination was ordered by Castro, but doesn't reach any conclusion on that point.
LBJ got us into Vietnam because of poor intelligence. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was later revealed to be friendly-fire between two US warships, not an attack by the Communists. The error was discovered the same day LBJ ordered retaliatory strikes on Vietnam, but never reported to the legislature or the executive. The mistake was declassified in 2005.
Nixon had a bad habit of ignoring what the CIA told him when it contradicted his policies, even though the CIA was often right and Nixon was often wrong. Sound familiar? Nixon wanted to fight Communism everywhere and wanted the CIA to do it. One of his strongest legacies is the arms race for the cold war. He pressured the CIA for estimates of the Soviet's nuclear arsenal in line with his beliefs, and they delivered, overstating the true numbers until the end of the Cold War.
Carter decided to involve the US in the Soviet-Afghani war, ordering the CIA to funnel arms to the Afghan fighters resisting the Soviet invasion. The shipments went through Pakistani intelligence, which distributed them to the most effective fighters after keeping a fair share of the arms for themselves. The most effective fighters turned out to be the radical Muslims. Some of these fighters later formed the Taliban, of which you may have heard. They took power in Afghanistan in the mid-90's.
Reagan continued Nixon's legacy, using these overstated numbers to bolster the military-industrial complex and further the arms race with the Soviet Union. He approved of the shady arms dealing with Iran and the funding of rebels in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America.
Clinton and Bush
The latter quarter of the book talks about the CIA during the Clinton and Bush years. Clinton had little use for the CIA, rarely meeting with the director to discuss anything. The CIA itself didn't know what to do. After decades of fighting communism, they had lost their primary target. Agency staff left in droves for other lines of work.
Bush had little use for the CIA before 9/11, ignoring their warnings that a major terrorist attack on American soil was looming. We all know how that turned out. He had great use for the agency after 9/11, convincing the higher-ups to find intelligence supporting the existence of WMD's in Iraq. We all know how that turned out, too.
The agency is effectively hamstrung these days. The Defense Intelligence Agency is playing a much larger role in providing intelligence information to the executive, which is making the CIA's future uncertain.
The back of the book contains over 150 pages of notes, references, and sources. The author certainly did his homework.
The book itself is well-written. It doesn't go into laborious detail at any point, though I feel it was too thin on the motivations behind some of the operations discussed within.
My only other concern was the rapid-fire presentation of people. You get at least one new name every page, if not more, and keeping track of who's who becomes increasingly difficult as you keep reading.
Finally, this book made me angry. The level of incompetence demonstrated by both the agency and the politicians bending it to support their policies is disgusting to me, personally, and I'm genuinely bothered that these things happen in a country that supposedly respects liberty above all else.
Vote Ron Paul!