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Unmanned Killers, and the Men Behind Them

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Books of The Times Unmanned Killers, and the Men Behind Them

The Way of the Knife," by Mark Mazzetti


Published: April 24, 2013

Over the last couple of years, numerous authors have reported on specific aspects of America's counterterrorism effort, including the Navy SEAL team operations, the bin Laden raid, other targeted killings and the drone strikes.

Mark Mazzetti


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

By Mark Mazzetti

381 pages. The Penguin Press. $29.95.

The virtue of Mark Mazzetti's new book, "The Way of the Knife," is the way in which it perceptively ties all these events together and paints the larger picture: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, America has gradually developed a new way of war, one that thoroughly relies on secret operations by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon. It "is now easier," Mr. Mazzetti writes, "for the United States to carry out killing operations at the ends of the earth than at any time in its history."

Such actions are not unprecedented, as Mr. Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for The New York Times, acknowledges in his book. The C.I.A. carried out large-scale paramilitary operations in Vietnam and supported them in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Pentagon has long engaged in spying.

But Mr. Mazzetti focuses on the distinctive, modern-day practice of targeted killing, particularly through the use of drone strikes. He explores the set of forces political, legal and technological that gave rise to America's increasing reliance on this tactic as a response to terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks, seeking to gather intelligence on Al Qaeda and its leaders the Bush administration pushed the C.I.A. to develop the extensive program that intelligence officials called R.D.I. rendition, detention and interrogation. "The Way of the Knife" trenchantly analyzes how this program, which on occasion included torture, gave way under the Obama administration to an emphasis on drone attacks and targeted killing, which have so far attracted less controversy.

"Armed drones, and targeted killing in general, offered a new direction for a spy agency that had begun to feel burned by its years in the detention-and-interrogation business," Mr. Mazzetti writes. "Killing by remote control was the antithesis of the dry, intimate work of interrogation. It somehow seemed cleaner, less personal."

When the unmanned Predator had first been developed, some C.I.A. officials were reluctant to use it (or pay for it). But Mr. Mazzetti sums up what the Predator meant to policy makers in the White House with a quote from the former counterterrorism official Richard A. Clarke. He told agency officials, in essence, that if a Predator gets shot down, the pilot would merely go home and snuggle up to his wife. "It's O.K.," Mr. Clarke said. "There's no P.O.W. issue here." The political environment of the early Obama years further propelled the administration toward drones and targeted killing. No "prominent member of President Obama's own party had criticized drone strikes, and Republicans were hardly in a position to challenge the new president for fighting too aggressive a campaign against terrorists," Mr. Mazzetti explains.

Much of this book is devoted to the frequent battles within the United States government over the conduct of the secret wars. The principal protagonists have been America's two huge national-security agencies, the Pentagon and the C.I.A. although, in Mr. Mazzetti's account, there are also skirmishes between the American Embassy in Pakistan and Washington, between the State Department and the C.I.A., even between separate offices of the American Embassy in Kenya.

Some of these conflicts seem predictable and not particularly interesting. Yet Mr. Mazzetti effectively wades through the euphemisms and bureaucratic fog. When a Pentagon contractor sought to avoid infringing on the C.I.A.'s turf, he said that what he was doing was not spying or gathering intelligence, but rather collecting "atmospheric information."

"The Way of the Knife" has some flaws. The narrative sometimes seems disjointed, because it occasionally bogs down in individual cases whose significance is unclear or in episodes that distract from the larger story.

For example, there's Mr. Mazzetti's superb handling the best account yet of the case of Raymond Davis, the burly American spy jailed by Pakistani officials after he killed two men on the streets of Lahore. The book deftly explains how this case marked a fundamental turning point in American relations with Pakistan by showing that country's intelligence service the extent to which the C.I.A. was operating inside its borders without its permission or even its knowledge.

But then, by contrast, Mr. Mazzetti dwells unaccountably on a woman named Michele Ballarin, a Virginia socialite who dabbled in influencing American policy toward Somalia. At first glance, she seems an updated version of Joanne Herring, the Texas supporter of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan whose flamboyant character was played by Julia Roberts in "Charlie Wilson's War." But the book never makes clear Ms. Ballarin's background or motivations, and the recurring accounts of her activities never seem to go anywhere.

Another defect in "The Way of the Knife" is that it sometimes transmits the tall tales, hype or braggadocio of the people Mr. Mazzetti interviewed. The book reports, in passing, that a C.I.A. official "penetrated the K.G.B. with dozens of highly placed moles in the 1970s," although, based on cold war histories, that claim seems highly inflated even for the agency as a whole, much less an individual agent.

Similarly, another interviewee tells Mr. Mazzetti that "most of the C.I.A.'s informants in China were 80-year-old generals" although in the People's Liberation Army these days, there are few if any generals over 80 and, I'd wager, few if any of these are working for American intelligence. These highly dubious claims come not from the author himself, but the people he interviewed yet he might have showed some skepticism in reporting what they said.

Over all, though, Mr. Mazzetti's book stands up as a portrait of the secret wars. Recent developments have served to underscore the point of the book. The President's Intelligence Advisory Board warned last month that the C.I.A. has become too focused on drone strikes and paramilitary operations; it recommended a renewed focus on traditional spying and analysis in places like China.

"Many C.I.A. officers who joined the agency since Sept. 11, 2001, have experienced only man hunting and killing," writes Mr. Mazzetti. Perhaps, one can hope, the C.I.A. will bring this era to a close.

James Mann, is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is "The Obamians."Click here to enable desktop notifications for Gmail. Learn more Hide

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