The Way of the Knife

Investigating America’s shadow war.

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. By Mark Mazzetti, The Penguin Press HC, 2013, 400 pp. 

When the calls home stopped in November of 2011, friends assumed the worst for Jude Kenan Mohammad. A few years earlier, the young Pakistani-American born in North Carolina had come under the sway of a radicalized Islamic preacher, who taught him about violent jihad and urged him to seek out his roots in Pakistan. Soon, Mohammad departed for Pakistan’s tribal lands where, apart from some calls to family on the holidays, he all but disappeared.

In May, the White House finally acknowledged what many back in North Carolina had long come to believe: Mohammad had been killed by an American drone strike one and a half years earlier. There had been no trial, no public presentation of evidence. He would have been twenty-three years old.

Mohammad’s death was just one small piece of a decade-old, shadowy war started in the years following the September 11 attacks by President George W. Bush and expanded with unwavering intensity by his successor, Barack Obama. Waged high in the skies above rural Pakistan and Yemen, and in the back alleys of Somalia and Afghanistan, it is a war that has received virtually no scrutiny from the public, even as it summarily takes the lives of thousands of individuals, many of them innocent civilians—and a few, like Mohammad, American citizens.

A slew of new books seek to cast light on the private meeting rooms and hidden bunkers from which this covert war has been conducted, among them Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield; Daniel Klaidman’s Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency; and Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. Mazzetti’s is the most richly illustrative of the internal tensions and often careless decision making of America’s leaders in the last decade—and the least burdened by outrage.

The result, from the veteran New York Times national security reporter, is an even-handed tale of this era that will likely leave the reader outraged nonetheless. As senior members of the George W. Bush administration scrambled to confront a new terrorist reality after 9/11, they reshaped America’s military into a second spy agency, a task for which it was poorly equipped. Meanwhile, as Mazzetti scrupulously documents, the Central Intelligence Agency found itself converted from the delicate art of spycraft into a paramilitary “killing machine, an organization consumed with man hunting.”

“Increasingly they were mimicking each other,” Mazzetti writes of the ensuing confusion and discord in the world of black ops. “The CIA… becoming ever more a lethal, paramilitary organization, and the Pentagon ramping up its spying operations to support a special-operations war. There were no clear ground rules.”

Some of the details of how this came to pass may not surprise a close reader of the news. Eager to prosecute the “war on terror,” the Bush administration sought to cut through bureaucratic red tape wherever possible, without regard for the fact that much of it had been set up in the wake of past controversies. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked a man who would go on to become his chief of special operations whether it was legal for the Pentagon to conduct operations in countries with which the United States was not actively at war, the man replied that it was, comparing it favorably to Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos during the Indochina conflicts. Never mind that those strikes were among the most scandalous acts of Nixon’s scandal-laden tenure.

This idea that history repeats itself is a central theme of Mazzetti’s book. Back in the 1980s, before there was the infamous Blackwater organization, there was a little-known, off-the-books Pentagon spy unit known as Intelligence Support Activity. The unit’s secret budget and retired special operators became “the perfect ingredients for a toxic recipe,” Mazzetti writes. It was shut down within two years, after a blistering inspector general report complained that the government “should have learned the lesson of the 70s” about creating such units.

But “memories are short,” Mazzetti writes. Instead, over the past fifty years, a “familiar pattern” has played out: “Presidential approval of aggressive CIA operations, messy congressional investigations when the details of these operations were exposed, retrenchment and soul-searching at Langley, criticisms that the CIA had become risk averse, then another period of aggressive covert action.”

This concept of the inevitability of presidential overreach helps explain why these failings seem to continuously recur, but it can also have a distasteful exculpatory effect. And it does little to explain one of the greatest mysteries of the present era of unaccountable, secret warfare: how did a former constitutional law professor, who campaigned specifically on drawing down extrajudicial forms of warfare and detention, come to expand those very programs instead?

Here the book leaves its sole frustration, for even as Mazzetti details Obama’s shortcomings—the failure to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, the ratcheting up of the drone war to unprecedented levels—he chooses not to weigh in on whether such actions taken ten years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 deserve harsher scrutiny than ones taken in the immediate aftermath.

“The foundations of the secret war were laid by a conservative Republican president and embraced by a liberal Democratic one who became enamored of what he had inherited,” Mazzetti writes at one point. History will have to decide who deserves the harsher judgment.

Joshua Hersh is the Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for the Huffington Post. He previously covered foreign policy for the same publication in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @joshuahersh.