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Review by Jon P. Dorschner

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: New York, 2013, ISBN 978-1594204802, 400 pp. $29.95 (Hardcover), $9.99 (Kindle).               

This book’s author, Mark Mazzetti, is National Security Correspondent for the New York Times, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  This is his first book.  It represents a genre that we are all familiar with, hard-hitting, topical books meant to define the debate regarding cutting edge issues in international affairs.  Mazzetti has a particular political point of view regarding American foreign policy that he is trying to communicate.  Although the book is primarily a descriptive narrative and does not contain specific foreign policy prescriptions, these are implied.  In that regard, it is not just a compendium of useful knowledge, but a call to action.

This genre is not aimed at scholars or foreign policy professionals.  Its intended audience is curious Americans trying to make sense of current developments, and encompasses many readers of the New York Times.  Mazzetti reiterates his basic premise numerous times, namely that we have entered a dangerous new era in intelligence.  Describing a line of causality, Mazzetti asserts that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration threw all caution aside and ordered the CIA to do whatever it needed to do to capture or kill those responsible.  Mazzetti describes how the CIA subsequently kidnapped suspects and handed them over to friendly intelligence services for torture, or for confinement in CIA “black sites” around the world (and at Guantanamo).  These methods ultimately proved counterproductive when the torture came to light and the United States could not figure out what to do with growing numbers of terrorist suspects.  Held as “enemy combatants” rather than criminals, the suspects were often denied due process, making it extremely difficult to wrap up their cases.  This is playing out at Guantanamo.  President Obama is facing growing numbers of detainees on hunger strike, wants to close the facility, and is finding it difficult to do so.

Mazzetti asserts that once the Bush Administration determined that holding terrorist suspects without charge indefinitely had become a liability, it was desperate for a better solution.  Growing advances in drone technology seemed to provide a way out.  Drones provided the President with the capability to kill terrorists anywhere on earth.  The action was swift and certain, ending the need for detentions.  Instead, the United States constructed a “kill list.”  Drone strikes became instruments of counter-terrorism policy under President Bush, but were vastly expanded under President Obama.

Prior to 9/11, the CIA was not in the killing business and its covert action capability was withering on the vine.  According to Mazzetti, the 9/11 attacks brought big changes to the Agency.  In the 1970’s revelations of Cold War excesses by the CIA shocked the nation.  Congress conducted well-publicized investigations, and public anger led to calls to rein in the spies.  The CIA was founded to provide intelligence to the President.  Covert action not supposed to be authorized, but was only possible due to vague language in the CIA charter.  However, the unique ability of the CIA to conduct covert activities anywhere in the world has proven too tempting for American presidents, both Republican and Democrat.  Even Presidents with an avowed aversion to covert action become seduced by it.  Covert action has become a method of dealing with complex crises that escape easy solution.  Critics claim that they invariable do more harm than good.  Mazzetti agrees, and claims that the current shift towards targeted killing and covert wars in the name of counterterrorism will prove the most harmful covert actions of all.

Mazzetti describes a world turned upside down.  In the post 9/11 world, the CIA controls a fleet of drones based around the world dedicated to eliminating those on the White House kill list.  The CIA also controls small armies of local paid soldiers in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other locales fighting a war in the shadows against Islamic terrorist groups.  These missions have overwhelmed the Agency.  It has reassigned more and more personnel from traditional espionage to counter-terrorism missions.  With insufficient personnel, the CIA is increasingly relying on contractors.  According to Mazzetti, the CIA had at one point so many personnel assigned to Pakistan, conducting so many disparate missions, that no one in the country had a handle on how many there were or where they were located.  This was a recipe for disaster that blew up when contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two petty thieves in Lahore, Pakistan and an innocent Pakistani was hit and killed by a CIA vehicle in a rescue attempt.

Mazzetti places these developments within the context of the relationship between the CIA and Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).  ISI is part of the army, which has a paranoid fear of India.  The Pakistani Army cultivates a wide variety of Islamic groups as “assets” to be utilized in the never-ending war against Indian domination.  ISI’s “Directorate S” cultivates these groups and runs the covert war against India.  Determined to keep India frozen out of Afghanistan, ISI created and supported the Taliban to install a Pakistan friendly regime there.  After 9/11, Pakistan was compelled to support the “war on terror,” or face American reprisal.  Pakistan reluctantly supported the United States, but had little faith in U.S. assertions of a quick victory.  Rather, Pakistanis in the know quickly concluded that the U.S. would overstretch in Afghanistan, become bogged down and depart in disgust.  Determined to stay in the game after the American departure, Pakistan held on to its assets, such as the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, even when they attacked and killed American troops in Afghanistan and American tourists in Mumbai.

Americans have soured on the relationship with Pakistan and nowhere is this more apparent than within the CIA.  Having concluded that ISI supports anti-American terrorists, the CIA sent its operatives to Pakistan to spy on Pakistani intelligence.  These missions were undertaken without ISI’s knowledge or consent.  The arrest of Raymond Davis and the successful CIA-led mission to kill Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, have convinced most Pakistanis that the Agency is conducting a secret war against them.

Mazzetti not only describes changes within the CIA, he maintains that the Army has launched its own clandestine service.  He claims that as the CIA began to neglect espionage in favor of covert action, the Army moved to take up the slack.  After 9/11 a flood of black money allowed the Defense Department and the CIA to set up competing and often overlapping programs.  For example, the Army has its own fleet of armed drones and conducts its own counter-terrorism missions in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  The inherent danger of this set up became apparent in Yemen.  On September 30, 2011, a CIA drone strike killed American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.  Several weeks later, the Army drone program killed his sixteen-year-old son in Yemen without coordinating with the CIA.

While this book is well written and well researched, there was very little in it that I had not already heard about.  That is because it is written for a different audience.  If you, like me, have dealt with these subjects as part of your work, this may not be worth your time.  The publication of this book is part of a trend.  Segments of the liberal left, who have been strong supporters of the President, have soured on his counterterrorism strategy.  They have come to view the drone program as nothing more than assassination of suspects without due process.  The civilian casualties caused by the program and the killing of innocent persons in mistaken strikes also upsets them.  For them, the killing of Awlaki and his son was the last straw.  They question how the American government can claim the right to kill an American citizen abroad.  Mazzetti’s is not the only book dealing with this subject and reflecting growing liberal anger.  Jeremy Scahill, National Security Correspondent of The Nation magazine published another book at approximately the same time, (Dirty Wars, The World is a Battlefield, Nation Books, April 23, 2013).

Experts at think tanks have also begun to question the wisdom of the drone policy.  They have recommended that the United States government step back and curtail drone attacks.  Many experts have concluded that drone attacks cause more harm than good and should be reserved only for a few high value targets.

Traditionally, American conservatives have been more amenable to military action than liberals.  President Obama can expect little or no criticism from the right for his increasing reliance on covert action.  One only has to look at growing Republican support for American military intervention in Syria.  However, those on the left are increasingly concerned about the direction Obama is headed and he can expect growing opposition from members of his own party.  This book aims to be at the cutting edge of foreign policy and has put its finger firmly on the pulse of liberal thinking.End.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects.

From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer.

A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington.

From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.

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