Book Review:

July 5, 2015

The Way of the Knife

The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth

By Mark Mazzetti

Published By: The Penguin Press

On: April 9, 2013

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Reviewed By: Kate Peake

The Impact of Drones on National Security Policies and Practices

In light of recent terror attacks and anti-terror raids in Paris and Belgium, it is clear that international communities still have much to learn about understanding and preventing terrorist attacks.  Mark Mazzetti, as an American national security reporter, has dedicated much of the past decade to covering these issues through the lens of reporting and analyzing the United States’ various counterterrorism measures.  

In his 2013 book, The Way of the Knife, Mr. Mazzetti has insightfully woven the primary players, agencies, and events that shaped a decade of American warfare into a tale highlighting the changing face of warfare and the complementary need for increased international collaboration and diplomacy.  Mr. Mazzetti highlights the intersection of technology developments, policy practices, and the systemic weaknesses in U.S. security organizations, by focusing on challenges encountered by the CIA, Pentagon, and the White House as they implement new counterterrorism measures.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center, the White House sought new ways to gather intelligence about Al Qaeda and its leaders. As the book shows, this new war is not defined by traditional military operations, but requires paramilitary operations to gather intelligence needed to identify and execute suspected terrorists.  Methods used by the CIA and Pentagon changed the face of modern weaponry and military tactics through increased deployment and reliance on drones.    

The Way of the Knife tracks the changing relationship between the White House and the CIA in a narrative leading the reader to question the approach used by those two organizations, both pre- and post—9/11, to long-term planning and organizational restructuring.  In response to the threat of terrorism, the relationship between the White House and the CIA shifted as the Bush administration quickly ramped up its efforts to gather intelligence on Al Qaeda. The CIA engaged in restructuring and internal debate as its responsibilities and independence expanded to allow development of what has now become the controversial detention and interrogation program exposed in a recent critical report released by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. As the “detain and interrogate program” gained traction and attracted controversy, subsequent Administrations’ policies adapted to shift the CIA’s use of drone technology from intelligence gathering to targeted killing.  

Using a gripping narrative, Mr. Mazzetti outlines the CIA’s struggle to understand its identity in this changing landscape.  The organization’s desire to be invaluable to the White House, no matter its needs, conflicted with previous administrations’ executive orders, including the assassination ban enacted by President Ford in the 1970s.  With the development of the drone program, the Bush administration identified methods to maneuver around the previous ban, pressuring the CIA to adjust to a new primary role: the development and implementation of drone operations for intelligence gathering and targeted killing missions.  As the CIA adapts to its new role, readers might expect to see the CIA and Pentagon, both agencies concerned with protecting America’s interests, to collaborate.  Instead, Mr. Mazzetti describes two agencies that resent one another’s authorities and capabilities, working independently and often at odds to outmaneuver each other for superior recognition, funding, and power in the White House’s secret war on terror.

Mr. Mazzetti places the White House, Pentagon, and CIA’s development of new styles of secret paramilitary operations and drone warfare firmly within the wider context of past and current policy, public opinion and political climates. As more politicians, as well as the American public, criticized detention and interrogation policies, leaders within the CIA saw the use of drones as a new opportunity to create a more positive public identity while continuing the agency’s role as the White House’s preferred organization for swift executions. New technology pushed government action faster than government policy.  Before guidelines were established, or the need for guidelines was even realized, the 9/11 terror attacks had occurred, and the agency that had been banned from conducting assassinations in the 1970s was given the responsibility of running a drone program capable of executing suspected terrorists.

Mr. Mazzetti writes,

“killing by remote control was the antithesis of the dirty, intimate work of interrogation…the CIA began to see its future:  not as the long-term jailers of America’s enemies but as a military organization that could erase them.”

September 11th may have been the catalyst to push the CIA into operating the drone program, but once the program began, the CIA jealously guarded its new responsibilities and weaponry.  The increased reliance on secret operations and drone strikes began under the supervision of the Bush administration, and Mr. Mazzetti’s reports demonstrate no shift in policy towards the use of covert action during the transition into the Obama administration.  Instead,  

“[the] Obama administration approved every one of the covert-action programs that had been handed down by President Bush….even as the Obama administration discussed the future of the CIA’s covert-action programs, there was no thought about ending the targeted-killing efforts.”  

This blanket approval of the secret war was bolstered by Obama administration attempts to add legitimacy by establishing written procedures and guidelines “about who could be added to the kill list.” 

Throughout the various stages of the secret war, the Bush and Obama administrations did little to help ease the contentious relationship between the CIA and Pentagon.  Through multiple anecdotes and interviews Mr. Mazzetti demonstrates how the CIA resents the Pentagon’s protected ability to execute deadly strikes under military law, while the Pentagon resents the CIA’s ability to execute secret missions quickly and efficiently outside the geographical parameters that limit the U.S. military.  In a narrative that deftly navigates the bureaucratic infighting among and between agencies, Mr. Mazzetti paints a picture of two organizations that not only struggle to collaborate, but at times actively prevent each other from successfully completing missions.  

Conflicts between agencies unfold in scenes reminiscent of a Hollywood action thriller.  CIA operatives mislead the Army to arrest the wrong men in Afghanistan so CIA agents can attempt, unsuccessfully, to turn the real target into a double agent.  In another episode, the Pentagon sends a military intelligence team to Jordan without notifying the CIA station chief or the ambassador, damaging diplomatic relationships.  Mr. Mazzetti records one Pentagon official’s reflection about these military intelligence operations as, “We had all these guys running around trying to be James Bond, and it didn’t work very well.”  In every case, real damage was done to the public image of America and its attempts at diplomacy in foreign nations.

While The Way of the Knife’s primary purpose is to reveal the workings of America’s secret war, it also manages to be a suspenseful and shocking read.  Opening scenes transport the reader from Raymond Davis’ chaotic shootout on the streets of Pakistan into shadowy government meetings where CIA agents meet with White House representatives to propose mafia style hits on suspected terrorists.  At other moments, readers are exposed to startling revelations about civilian casualties through coincidences of time and place that end in tragic results.  This narrative style is a strength, as it keeps the reader gripped in the CIA’s and Pentagon’s paramilitary coming of age story, but can be distracting especially when Mr. Mazzetti’s interest in bigger than life characters or episodes can detract from the main narrative.  

For any reader seeking to understand the use of drone attacks and America’s approach to the war on terror, The Way of the Knife is an elucidating portrayal of the secret and explicit wars being waged by the American government.  Given the current climate of unrest in parts of the Middle East and ongoing terrorism threats, this book has an important role in revealing US decision-making strategies, agency organization, and policies surrounding weapons development, implementation, and accountability.  

The publication of the U.S. Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program begins the process for increased transparency and internal review.  In defense of the publication U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein stated, “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’ ”

Mr. Mazzetti’s book invites a wider audience to participate in this scrutiny and reflection by revealing the people, policies, and procedures that have governed America’s secret war and the true costs of drone warfare.

Kate Peake is a graduate of Saint Louis University, where she completed a dual degree program earning a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership. Her career in education has focused on issues surrounding educational equality and the promotion of literacy in St. Louis, MO. She has a BA from Earlham College.