The best books about the CIA 📚

Browse the best books on the CIA as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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Book cover of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

By Steve Coll

Why this book?

The inside story of how the CIA, the Mujahadeen, and Pakistani intelligence orchestrated a civil war in Afghanistan, and sowed the seeds of Islamic militancy that would eventually lead to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Steve Coll’s history is a masterpiece of journalistic research and political storytelling. I love this book because Coll provides both the sweeping global scope of history and the minute, gritty details that bring the sights, stories, and blood of Afghanistan’s war into sharp focus for readers. For such a deep dive, the book is incredibly accessible and is a breeze to read.  As an…

From the list:

The best books on the human toll of civil war

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Book cover of Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Free Speech

Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Free Speech

By Frank Snepp

Why this book?

CIA officer Frank Snepp was one of the last American officials to leave Vietnam in 1975. But when he published a damning critique of the U.S. war effort in a book (A Decent Interval), it ignited a controversy that was widely covered in the press and led all the way to the Supreme Court. Snepp was charged with causing 'irreparable harm' to national security and ordered to surrender all profits from the publication. His account of the events around the court case are of course subjective but nonetheless speaks to a central paradox around the first amendment: freedom…

From the list:

The best books on U.S. national security culture and the exposure of secrets

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Book cover of A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between

A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between

By Grant Evans

Why this book?

Historian Grant Evans does a thorough and highly readable if academic job to introduce remote, mysterious, landlocked Laos, the land of a million elephants from its distant beginnings as a conglomeration of waxing and waning city-states to its French colonial era and tragic role in the Vietnam War, its current post-revolutionary stasis and persistent refusal to become a nation serving its citizens. Anyone contemplating a visit to Laos should carry this book in their luggage as it touches on almost all aspects, cultural and economic, historical, and societal of one of the last communist nations surviving today.

From the list:

The best books about Laos and the CIA's covert war there

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Book cover of Air America

Air America

By Christopher Robbins

Why this book?

From 1965 onwards, the USA, conducted a covert anti-communist war in Laos. While the CIA created a clandestine hilltribe army, the air support for these troops was provided by Air America, ostensibly a private airline that was owned by the agency. Small spotter planes flew to 100s of airstrips across Laos to distribute troops, aid and weapons while collecting vast amounts of opium grown by the mercenaries the US had hired, later refined into heroin and sold to US troops fighting in Vietnam. Robbins’ book, which is somewhat revisionist, nonetheless brilliantly tracks the history of the airline from its beginnings…

From the list:

The best books about Laos and the CIA's covert war there

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Book cover of How Democracies Die

How Democracies Die

By Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

Why this book?

These two authors are experts in comparative politics, and this book turns that lens on the US. I think this is important because it takes us out of the “US is different” mindset and because it is clear that threats to democracy are a global phenomenon. This book puts the US case in that context and shows us just how shaky our democracy currently is and why. 

From the list:

The best books on why American politics are terrible and what to do about it

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Book cover of Agents of Innocence

Agents of Innocence

By David Ignatius

Why this book?

Washington Post national security reporter Ignatius may not know the world of espionage better than anyone, but he writes about it better than anyone. Agents of Innocence is such a realistic and engaging depiction of the life of a CIA case officer that a copy of it is left in the room of each new arrival at Camp Peary, the CIA training facility. It’s about an idealistic young CIA officer posted to Beirut to penetrate the PLO, and, in the process, learns hard lessons, not least of which is that once human lives are at stake, idealism takes a back…

From the list:

The best spy books that will make you paranoid—with good reason

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