Few today remember it, but as the sun rose over the eastern seaboard on September 11, 2001, it was understood that the Central Intelligence Agency spied on our nation’s enemies and the Department of Defense waged war on them.
Flash forward a dozen years to today, and those roles have to a large extent switched. The CIA’s main brief has become counter-terrorism, with great emphasis placed on capturing or killing those believed responsible for acts against the United States or who may be contemplating such acts. Spying and analyzing information created by such, the agency’s traditional roles, have taken a decided backseat.
This evolution is studied in The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti (@MarkMazzettiNYT), the Pulitzer Prize-winning national security correspondent for The New York Times. It is an excellent book, filled with fascinating details that in turns may anger, amaze or amuse the reader.
Mazzetti provides a brief but illuminating history of the Central Intelligence Agency, which rose from the World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS was action oriented, with agents taking the fight to the enemy through sabotage as well as arming resistance groups. That wartime focus on action was intended to be just a part of the newly-created CIA, a means of providing presidents with a way of quickly and quietly taking action, while the primary focus was on intelligence-gathering.
Having a dedicated group available to do whatever needed doing anywhere in the world proved irresistible for even the most moderate presidents, however, and that created a dangerous cycle:
The residents of the Oval Office have turned to covert action hundreds of times, and often have come to regret it. But memories are short, new presidents arrive at the White House every four or eight years, and a familiar pattern played out over the second half of the twentieth century: presidential approval of aggressive CIA operations, messy congressional investigations when the details of those operations were exposed, retrenchment and soul-searching at Langley, criticisms that the CIA had become risk-averse, then another period of aggressive covert action.
— Mazzetti, Mark (2013-04-09). The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (Kindle Locations 684-688). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
During the 1960s and 70s the agency was involved in clumsy assassination attempts as well as sponsoring coups and inciting rebellion, but it was the Iran-Contra affair that defined the mindset of many who were working at CIA on 9/11. To those who survived the internal purges and federal prosecution resulting from that embarrassing chapter (look it up, kids), the idea that the agency would create a huge paramilitary wing dedicated to hunting and killing — mostly by drone missile strike — would be pure fantasy.
The book isn’t just a look at the CIA. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, DoD was already facing a lingering identity crisis before 9/11 as the proponents of “traditional” (i.e., heavy armor formations) land warfare faced a world without a credible opponent. After the terrorist attacks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield yearned to have what the CIA had: a nimble force free to take action anywhere in the world. He already had specially-trained troops at Special Operations Command and through careful manipulation of existing and post-9/11 laws Rumsfield was able to expand the scope of his department to unheard-of levels.
But the one thing Rumsfield did not have available was information — intelligence — about the far-off places where he wanted to send his special operators. First off the CIA was doing less and less spying, and secondly both agencies were in competition for the same thing: the billions of dollars coming from Congress for the Global War on Terror. Ever willing to break free of conventional thinking, whether wise or not, Rumsfield set up his own intelligence-gathering operation within DoD.
There are some true “shake my head” moments detailed in the book, such as the Virginia socialite who decides to become a player in the anarchy of Somalia and the astounding development of outsourcing key intelligence and security activities to private contractors like Blackwater, as well as an examination of the drone program. The hot-and-cold relationship between Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the CIA is also a major piece of the book.
Throughout, Mazzetti’s prose is clear and his command of the subject total, making the book very readable as well as informative. I was pleased to see he maintains a journalist’s impartial stance, reporting information from all sides of the issues without bias or opinion. Frankly, the author doesn’t need to opine, as the people he interviewed are more than happy to lay out not only pros and cons but also their personal views.
Although still digesting the information, I believe this cautionary tale is well worth reading and I highly recommend it. The pendulum has swung so far from “risk-adverse” that I’m not sure what manner of event it would take to rein in the current CIA, or if we should. Still, the agency is like a weightlifter who only works one arm: the hunters and killers in the Counterterrorism shop are buff and muscular, while the analysts on the “intel” side are atrophied and weak. I’m not sure that’s wise.