The Ghosts of Langley by John Prados


Historian John Prados has written a greater number of books than most people read in a lifetime. Starting with World War II, his writing focuses on United States international relations and his history lessons are formidable. A senior fellow at the National Security Archive, Prados directs its CIA Documentation Project and Vietnam Documentation Project. He also is a long-time contributor to the print edition of The VVA Veteran.

For the sixth time, he examines the CIA in The Ghosts of Langley: Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness (New Press, 446 pp.; $28.95, hardcover; $18.99, Kindle). In it, the twenty-nine-page prologue alone delivers enough information to fill an average book.

Citing newly declassified documents, Prados argues that CIA leaders have drifted beyond their original espionage and intelligence analysis mission, and have created more problems than they have solved. Today the agency works amid aftereffects of covert operations that closely resembled military actions, Prados says.

The CIA “ghosts” Prados refers to are spymasters and their henchmen and women who caused the agency to alter its classic role. Its current methods of operation include torture, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, evasion of legal oversight, and more, according to Prados, who speaks with authority.

He eschews chronology and sets out the agency’s evolution by grouping spies according to character types. This produces chapters with titles such as “Zealots and Schemers,” “The Headless Horseman,” “A Failed Exorcist,” and “The Flying Dutchman.”

Prados’ declarative sentences can be attention grabbers. For example, in introducing “The Sheriffs,” he says, “The CIA had long had a problem with women. From the beginning, agency folk considered spying man’s work. Women were not viewed quite the same as homosexuals, but they needed to fight for acceptance.”

Throughout the book, Prados touches on CIA activities during the Vietnam War. Several times, he raises the issue of CIA countermeasures against antiwar demonstrators. He writes about topics such as the Phoenix Program and the November 1963 coup against South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. In these cases, Prados examines the actions of people who controlled events more than the events themselves.


Notes, a bibliography, and an exceptionally detailed index support the text.

Almost as a footnote to The Ghosts of Langley, on the afternoon I finished reading the book, Iran accused the CIA of fomenting protests calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

The CIA declined to comment.

The author’s website is

—Henry Zeybel


One Hundred Victories by Linda Robinson

Linda Robinson’s One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare (Public Affairs, 344 pp., $28.99) is an excellent and well-organized look at special operations in the war in Afghanistan. The author—a special ops expert who is a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation—has taken a very complex war and made it understandable. Robinson makes only a few references to the Vietnam War, but to the student of that conflict similarities between it and Afghanistan jump right off the page.

Lack of strategic planning, disagreement among high-level officers, support of questionable Afghan leaders, and a general ignorance of Afghan culture have factored in making this the longest war in U.S. history.  Perhaps the greatest mistake, Robinson contends, was making it an American coalition war instead of an Afghan war.

Robinson has done an admirable job describing the heroism, tenacity, and selflessness of American Special Ops men and women. She takes the reader through the provinces in Afghanistan and shows how small groups of dedicated fighters and neighborhood planning can make a difference. Descriptions of combat and death rival any work of fiction.

Linda Robinson

She includes several quotes that this writer won’t forget, such as this one from T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia): “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

One can easily substitute “Afghanistan” for “Arabia.”

Another quote that hit me was from a female soldier standing at attention while caskets were loaded into a plane: “There are so many,” she says with pain in her voice.

Linda Robinson’s final sentence reminds us to remember all those killed and their families in such wars. I would add that it’s especially important for those who are quick to advocate for war but do not wish to put their own sons and daughters in harm’s way to remember the lost.

Robinson writes that she started out two years ago to chronicle America’s special operations forces’ largest initiative since the Vietnam War.  She clearly has accomplished that goal.

—Joseph Reitz