Book Review: The CIA at War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror


by Ronald Kessler

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Pp. 362. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $27.95. ISBN:0-312-31932-0

Veteran investigative reporter Ronald Kessler has long had an impressive degree of access to top-level Beltway players. From Inside the CIA and a slew of books about Cold War espionage written over a decade ago to his latest work, a favorable biography of President Bush released just in time for the 2004 election, Kessler has been able to build up an astounding list of contacts and to establish an enviable portfolio of interviews with normally elusive history-makers. Since September 11th, 2001, the American public has been bombarded by a vast array of exposés and insider accounts, from Bob Woodward to Ron Suskind, from Anonymous to Richard Clarke. The CIA at War, however, should be viewed neither as a politically-charged hit piece nor as a screed against ever-expanding government power. Rather, it’s a thoughtful, enlightening, and captivating examination of America’s capacity to wage the Global War on Terrorism.

The CIA at War is, really, the story of the CIA. Kessler takes us from the days of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Agency’s precursor founded during World War II, through the Cold War, and up to the liberation of Iraq and subsequent hunt for weapons of mass destruction. The story is an entrancing one because many of the old-hands from the OSS continued with the CIA when it was founded, contributing to a kind of “cowboy” atmosphere in what became the Directorate of Operations (i.e., the spies); it was these cowboys, for example, that came up with a variety of ridiculous plans to overthrow Fidel Castro, including one that involved making his beard fall off, thereby losing him his people’s devotion.

Kessler’s account of intelligence cutbacks and bureaucratic decay that came about with the end of the Cold War is damning. Former CIA director James Woolsey could barely get in contact with the White House during his short tenure beginning in 1993; John Deutch demonstrated horrible leadership by badmouthing his own agency in the New York Times; the Directorate of Operations suffered massive personnel cutbacks that crippled America’s ability to gather human intelligence; and on and on. This began to change with George Tenet, a man Kessler describes as a patriot and incredible leader.

Anyone can write a book about bureaucratic struggles and inter- and intra-office politicking, but it takes a storyteller to make it interesting. Short biographical sketches of Agency directors like George Tenet and operations officers like David Manners, combined with entertaining and revealing anecdotes, make the real-life characters come alive. They remind us that, amidst all the chaos and matters of national security, these are actual people making decisions, people with families and values. Most readers, for example, probably won’t know that Tenet’s parents emigrated from Greece, his mother on a submarine. Similarly, Casey was known for a mumbling problem that was so out of control the joke was his phone didn’t need a scrambler, but Kessler reveals the man was also a “voracious reader,” spending tens of thousands of dollars each year on books.

Some may wonder why so much space is given to the history of the CIA. There are several reasons why it is this history that makes the book so insightful. Terrorist threats to America are not a new phenomenon; the men and women currently working at the CIA are, in many cases, veterans from the Cold War and other conflicts; bureaucratic ineptitude and antiquated procedures are age-old problems. The history makes the book rich, puts the Agency in context, and helps us understand the burden that must be carried by its employees and the responsibilities shouldered by its leadership.

Although written two years ago, The CIA at War remains strikingly relevant and is, perhaps, even better now that it has had time to age. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer now affiliated with the think tank American Enterprise Institute, has been highly critical of the Agency;

Reviewer: Tristan Abbey   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close