In This Review

A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA
A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA
By Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
Oxford University Press, 2022, 320 pp.

Jeffreys-Jones, who has been studying the trials and tribulations of the CIA for many years, provides a concise, informed, and thoughtful history of the agency. Intelligence agencies will never fully satisfy their political masters because some important events simply cannot be anticipated. The CIA has had the additional problem of being responsible for covert operations. The exposure of such operations and consequential embarrassment (perhaps most famously in the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961) has given the CIA an unwelcome reputation for torture, assassinations, and coups. It can be tempting to treat the agency’s history as a succession of scandals, awkward revelations, and official investigations—a “legacy of ashes,” as the journalist Tim Weiner has dubbed it. Jeffreys-Jones’s approach is more balanced, addressing such issues as “excessive Ivy League influence” and lack of diversity in the agency. He notes that much of the CIA’s influence depends on its relationship with the sitting administration. For the system to work best, the CIA’s director must have access to the president and be given the autonomy to present uncomfortable assessments while resisting politically convenient claims—a task the agency has often failed to accomplish, perhaps most significantly in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.