CQ’s Jeff Stein today has a fascinating look at the politics of the Pulitzer Prize (the prizes will be announced in early April). The upshot? Tim Weiner’s CIA history, Legacy of Ashes, is no longer a shoo-in for the nonfiction book award, thanks to a concerted effort by some intelligence experts and officials to question his sourcing and accuracy. Columbia University Professor Dick Betts even wrote to the Pulitzer Prize Committee directly to criticize the book.
The book has its problems, but something fishy is definitely going on. I got phone calls and emails from intel officials right after it came out asking– in that friendly kind of CIA way — if “I’d heard” about the factual errors. And the only committee I sit on reviews UCLA MPP admissions files. The criticisms were so eerily similar, it made me wonder whether there was an actual set of talking points somewhere.
What’s so threatening about Legacy of Ashes? Footnotes. Weiner, who has been covering intelligence for the NYT for 20 years, was determined to write a book that, in his words, “hewed to the standards of history.” Unlike the stacks of crappy intelligence books on my shelf, this one valiantly tries to source everything in it, including on the record interviews with dozens of senior intelligence officials.
Is it completely accurate? Probably not. How could it be? There’s an old joke that CIA Director Bill Casey wouldn’t tell you your coat was on fire unless you asked him.
Does Weiner deserve the pile-on? No way.