Vol. 1 No. 1 | Winter 2014
The Story of America's Secret Killing Machines
Review of Mark Mazzetti's The Way of the Knife
Robert Haddick | 20 December 2013
Following the truck bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, officials of the Clinton Administration at the White House grappled with what to do about a shadowy suspect named Osama bin Laden. These officials turned first to the Central Intelligence Agency, whose upper management was led by a generation of predominately hyper-cautious administrators first recruited in the late-1970s, after the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee had aired all of the Agency’s dirty laundry from the Cold War.
The Agency’s officials responded to the White House’s request to erase the bin Laden problem with indignation. “We don’t want to do covert action … We don’t want to be involved in killing people. Because we’re not like that. We’re not Mossad,” was how Richard Clarke, the top White House official for counterterrorism at the time, recalled the Agency’s response. Indeed, one former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center would later tell the 9/11 Commission that he would have refused a direct order to kill bin Laden in the years before the September 11, 2001 attacks.[i]
Of course, the 9/11 attacks changed all of that. Almost immediately, the CIA and the Pentagon found themselves locked in a bureaucratic competition over who could more aggressively exact revenge on bin Laden and fight back against the then-ominous global terrorist threat. That competition led both institutions to assemble finely-tuned killing machines, which U.S. policymakers across the ideological spectrum eagerly let loose in the world’s badlands.
In his book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, Mark Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for the New York Times, narrates how the CIA and the Pentagon built their respective covert military forces, where these secret armies (and air forces) have plied their deadly trade, and how policymakers and field operators have attempted to deal with some of the unexpected and troublesome consequences of the resulting long campaigns. Along the way, Mazzetti introduces the reader to a long cast of creative and colorful characters, in a way that shows reality is always far more interesting – and occasionally more disturbing – than any Hollywood spy movie ever could be.
Mazzetti states that the formation and rapid expansion of the CIA’s killing machine began immediately after the 9/11 attacks. The CIA led the way into northern Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 because it was the only agency with connections to the anti-Taliban Afghan Northern Alliance. The CIA’s ability to move fast and organize a successful paramilitary campaign against the Taliban impressed the Bush Administration. Soon thereafter, the Agency, with full approval of White House officials, drew up lists of Al Qaeda members marked for capture or death. Many of those captured in the early years were harshly interrogated at then-secret sites in Thailand, Romania, and elsewhere before being transferred for long-term confinement at Guantanamo Bay.[ii]
In the months after 9/11, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought to define how his department would fight the new stateless enemy, an adversary that in theory could lurk anywhere on the globe. For his battle against Al Qaeda, Rumsfeld searched for a precise and swift knife and found it in the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Informed that JSOC, consisting of the Army’s Delta Force and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (aka “SEAL Team Six”), was prepared only for very short hostage rescue missions and not long-term campaigning, Rumsfeld and the Congress delivered exponential increases in funding for the special operators to get them ready for the very long war to come.
Mazzetti argues that, as happens in nature, the two killing machines found niches in which to thrive and adapt around the world. By the end of the decade, the CIA became the killing specialist inside Pakistan, home to the world’s most dangerous terrorist networks and over a hundred nuclear warheads. Its scalpel, the Predator drone armed with the Hellfire guided missile, soon grew into a veritable air force, tracking terror suspects 24/7, observing their networks and connections, and then blasting them after their behaviors had revealed enough. The Pentagon sent its knife, JSOC, to Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, JSOC perfected the surprise night raid on suspected terrorist safe houses. McChrystal also perfected intelligence “fusion,” the rapid interagency analysis of information collected from raids, with the intention of executing quick follow-up strikes. After years of hunting, neither agency ran out of targets; adversaries replaced their losses with new field commanders and splintered into new groups, each new growth was tracked and struck.
For some in the CIA, the election of Barack Obama brought hope that the agency could wash its hands of killing. These Agency officials hoped that the Pentagon would take over the Predator air force and do what military forces, and not intelligence services, are supposed to do, kill people and break things. Meanwhile the CIA would return to its proper job, recruiting foreign intelligence sources. After a decade of painful experience, many of the Agency’s officers concluded that the CIA’s killing machine, while blasting away at the terrorists, was also blowing up the ability of its officers in the clandestine service to recruit and run agents and gather the basic human intelligence that policymakers constantly demanded.
These officers were stunned to find out how quickly Obama learned to love his Predators. Leon Panetta, the former liberal congressman from northern California and Obama’s first CIA director, had enough experience to never forget the first rule of any organization – find out what the boss wants and make sure he gets it. What Obama wanted – and what, we should expect, virtually all political leaders in the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan era will want – was a tool that could tamp down and disrupt the terror threat in a way that did not require tens of thousands of American foot soldiers, dozens of new coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base each month, and annual supplemental war funding exceeding $100 billion every year.
For political leaders, what’s not to like about drones? The attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 only reinforced the Obama Administration’s endorsement of this path of least resistance. Although it was impossible to stop every plot, what was important was to show the public that the Administration was aggressively fighting the terrorist threat every day. After all, no political leader would want to have to explain why he wasn’t doing so the day after a bomber makes a successful strike. So while Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq, he reinforced JSOC’s man-hunting in Afghanistan and sharply accelerated the drone campaign over Pakistan. From 2008 to 2010 drone strikes in Pakistan increased by 239 percent.[iii]
The enormous expansion in funding for intelligence and special operations forces that occurred over the past decade attracted its share of colorful and quirky characters, who Mazzetti thankfully weaves into his story. The author tells the story of Michael Furlong, a retired Army psychological warfare officer, who as a civilian contractor, established, much to the CIA’s displeasure, his own agent network in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In this endeavor, he was assisted by Dewey Clarridge, a legendary Cold War-era CIA officer and recipient of a presidential pardon for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan Administration. Even more odd is the tale of Michele Ballarin, a wealthy socialite from Virginia’s horse country, who took an interest in Somalia and managed to secure a contract from the Pentagon for clandestine work in East Africa. Last but hardly the least, Mazzetti describes how the war allowed Erik Prince to build Blackwater USA from a shooting range operator in rural North Carolina into a critical security contractor and out-sourcing outlet for the CIA and the State Department.
The Way of the Knife further explains how the CIA’s and Pentagon’s killing machines were hardened through bureaucratic competition. In the early years, Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials lacked confidence in the CIA’s intelligence and sought to free their department from a dependency on the CIA’s conclusions. The result was a greatly expanded human collection effort at the Pentagon, employing if necessary, outside contractors such as Furlong, Clarridge, and Ballarin. For its part, the CIA feared being trampled by its massive and expanding brother down the Potomac River. Acquiring its own drone air force was one way to keep up.
Still, while the CIA and the Pentagon competed, they eventually found ways to cooperate. Lawyers debated the geographic scope of authority granted to the Pentagon by the “Authorization to Use Military Force” (AUMF) passed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks. By contrast, the CIA’s authorities to conduct covert actions under Title 50 of the United States Code were much broader. Thus was created the practice of “sheep dipping,” whereby the Pentagon’s soldiers would occasionally be legally seconded to the CIA when the Agency required additional muscle. Such an arrangement attached the Navy’s SEALs to the civilian CIA director Leon Panetta, who then commanded the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
After more than a decade of counterterrorism operations, the U.S. government has found itself adopting some of the practices of its irregular adversaries. America’s counterterrorism operations are becoming increasingly “civilianized.” The casualties and expense of the long conventional military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have made such an approach in the future politically unthinkable. By contrast, policymakers are now comfortably familiar with their stealthy JSOC commandos, the CIA’s civilian drone air force, and the networks of contractors, paramilitaries, and auxiliaries that support them behind the scenes.
Irregular adversaries and terrorists long ago adopted civilian guise in order to escape detection. As non-state actors, they either don’t recognize frontiers, or employ them as shields to create sanctuaries for themselves. Now nation-states have created civilianized military forces in response to these tactics.[iv] Conventional armies have become mostly unusable against irregular adversaries. Instead, nation-states are now using many pages out of the irregulars’ playbook. Their operations are now borderless, covert, and usually in civilian guise. Even their air force, the CIA’s drone fleet, is a civilian operation, an air operation the Agency will apparently retain for some time.[v]
The legal framework for the U.S. government’s borderless, covert, and civilianized form of warfare is now in place. A liberal legal interpretation of the Authorization to Use Military Force bill, combined with the CIA’s Title 50 authority, place no geographic limits on the government’s irregular combat operations. Harold Koh, once a strong critic of the Bush Administration’s war policies while Dean of the Yale Law School, later provided a vigorous legal defense of the government’s worldwide drone strikes, even against American citizens, once he became the State Department’s legal adviser in the Obama Administration.[vi] And according to Mazzetti, CIA lawyers concluded that it would be perfectly legal for the Agency to delegate any required killing to private contractors such as Blackwater USA.[vii]
The Way of the Knife tells the whole story of the U.S. government’s counter-terror killing machines, how they began and what they have become. As a journalist, Mazzetti interviews the principals, colorful characters, and faithfully tells their stories. As such, The Way of the Knife is still the “first draft of history” – a deeper analysis of U.S. counterterrorism policy and its implications will have to await another treatment. But Mazzetti’s book is an essential primer on how the U.S. government now fights its irregular wars, and how it created the killing machines that enable it to do so.
[i] Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013), 88.
[ii] Ibid, 118-121.
[vii] Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife, 124-125.
Robert Haddick is a contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. From January 2009 to September 2012 he was Managing Editor of Small Wars Journal. During this time, he wrote the “This Week at War” column for Foreign Policy. Haddick was a U.S. Marine Corps officer, served in the 3rd and 23rd Marine Regiments, and deployed to Asia and Africa. He has advised the State Department, the National Intelligence Council, and U.S. Central Command.