Friday, July 19, 2013

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

A while back I posted another Tim Weiner book about the FBI called "Enemies."  It was so good I decided to read this one, which preceded "Enemies."  Like "Enemies" he takes a government institution and opens it up using the organization's own files plus many interviews.  In this case, it's the CIA.

Now you'd think that working with the CIA files would get you several tons of paper with most of the words blacked out.  However, so much previously classified documentation got declassified in the 90's and people were willing to speak on the record, this book only contains verified accounts, with no hidden sources or other obfuscations.

The main reason this is being added to the blog is the flood of recent discussions about current CIA clandestine paramilitary operations.  Part of that discussion makes it sound as if this is a new thing.  As this book points out, those types of operations constituted the majority of the CIA activities from the late 1940's onward, often to the detriment of actual spying and compiling intelligence information from the many U.S. agencies that collected their own covert information, including the military and the State Department.  The result was the overthrow of a lot of foreign governments in the 50's and 60's, but poor coordination of intelligence coming into the country.  The ultimate result was 9/11.

The current discussion around personal privacy reveals that many people hope there actually is some professional government agency that has the capability to put all the pieces together and find and stop bad guys while letting the rest of us live our lives unmolested.  That's a pretty tall order and is subject to abuse.  In this case, the CIA did such a poor job of collecting and diagnosing intelligence that the responsibility was taken away from them in 2005 when the Office of Central Intelligence was dissolved.  They still are doing paramilitary operations.  I hope they've been able to retain veteran and recruit high-quality new individuals who can do the difficult work of acquiring secret knowledge and putting all those pieces together.  In "Enemies" I came away hopeful that issues were being addressed and resolved in the FBI to give us an internal surveillance and protection organization that can address issues of the 21st century.  In "Legacy..." I'm not so sure we have that capability on a global scale.  If you liked "Enemies" you'll like this book but you may be less optimistic with the ending.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

You know how you watch a really good nature program and the narrator points to something growing on the ground and then ties it to some bird who dropped something that nature made it pick up in the first place ten miles away?  After a while you start to understand that this area has microbes, insects, birds, winds in the trees that effect leaves shaped just so, etc. and it's all tied together and you think "Holy cow, that's amazing!"  Well, this book is that show and then some.
David Haskell is a biology professor who I really wish I'd had as my high school biology teacher.  Haskell decided to stake out a little plot in a Tennessee forest about a meter square and watch it every day for a year to see what he could see.  He likened it to a Tibetan monk's sand painting in which all the universe could be witnessed within.  Seeing the whole universe might be a stretch, but you get a good sense of the interconnectedness of living things on earth in these beautifully written vignettes.  Each chapter is around 6 pages long and represents a day's observations and thoughts on those sights.  They're all good and some of them are really cool.  It flows, makes sense and is lyrical to boot.  I would read one or two of the days and put it down, only to pick it up again pretty soon to see what was next.  The book is 245 pages with footnotes added if you want to dive a little deeper into that particular day or fact. 
We don't see most of what is around us.  It's there and our senses pick it up but we filter it out and move ahead.  Professor Haskell does a beautiful job of gently pulling us back to our world and seeing it with fresh eyes.