The Politics of the Pulitzer

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.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.