CIA’s Dirty Scalpel

11 Apr

Frank ChurchMore and more I feel as if I live in a period of time, when vendetta is the moral code. In this case, the Central Intelligence Agency is getting payback for the reforms in the 1970s that unsuccessfully tried to trim its power.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the title, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, what’s the knife?

MARK MAZZETTI: The title is drawn from—it’s a departure from an analogy used by John Brennan, who is now the CIA director, but he gave a speech several years ago where he talked about—he was comparing the big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to these other kind of shadow wars, and he talked about instead of using a hammer, the United States will use a scalpel. And as I write in the book, the scalpel, of course, implies a surgical form of doing warfare or a war without costs and blunders or surgeries without complications. Knife fights are messier. And the—I chose the knife as a way to sort of describe this way of doing warfare that has benefits but also has costs.

AMY GOODMAN: And the secret army you’re referring to?

MARK MAZZETTI: Partly it’s the CIA, but it’s also partly the special operations troops who have expanded their authorities and expanded their missions around the world. And one of the sort of themes I talk about in the book is this great convergence that’s happened over the last 12 years since 9/11, where you had the CIA increasingly doing killing and the military increasingly doing spying. And so, you have the—the secret armies are those who are carrying out these missions outside of declared war zones.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are some of the things that you find out, that you reveal in the book, about what the CIA is doing now after 9/11 that it was not previously doing?

MARK MAZZETTI: One of the things that I try to track in the book is this sort of history of the CIA and carrying out lethal operations. And there was a big fight right before September 11th about whether the CIA should be back into the killing business, over the Predator and whether they should kill Osama bin Laden and then—and be in Afghanistan. And it’s kind of interesting. There was a whole generation of CIA officers who came out of—who got into the CIA in the ’70s after the Church investigations, where—which revealed all of the early assassination attempts by the CIA to kill Castro and others. And this generation had now come into prominence in the CIA, and there was this morality play about whether they should be using the Predator to—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, just to explain, Senator Frank Church said end the assassinations, right?

MARK MAZZETTI: That’s right, and the CIA did for several decades basically sort of give up its lethal authorities, or they were taken from them. President Ford signed a ban on assassinations of political leaders. So, pre-9/11, you had a CIA that was—you know, it had been cut back dramatically during the budget cuts of the ’90s, but they also really were—and many were concerned about whether it should be back into the killing business. So, obviously, 9/11 happened, and some of those concerns were swept aside. And what we’ve seen over time is the CIA has really very much been involved in these targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere, and in some ways has become better at it, more efficient at it, than parts of the military.

Peter Bergen reviewed Mazzetti’s book and offered these conclusions.

While the “The Way of the Knife” recounts the important shifts in the architecture of the U.S. military and intelligence communities, it also reveals the many eccentric characters who emerged during this era of shifting portfolios and illustrates another important theme of the book: the privatization of intelligence operations, which were traditionally a core government function.


Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for the New York Times, asserts that the “war on terror” has damaged the CIA’s ability to understand the really important political developments in the Muslim world, such as the Arab Spring. As a senior Obama official explained, noting the agency’s emphasis on drone strikes and hunting down al-Qaeda leaders: “The CIA missed Tunisia. They missed Egypt. They missed Libya.”

The increasingly intelligence-driven mission of Special Operations forces is surely a net gain for U.S. national security interests, but balanced against this is the fact that these forces operate behind a screen of secrecy that makes them far less accountable than the conventional military is to Congress and the American public. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned a century ago, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

I would add, that the United States has also erred repeatedly both by not heeding history’s lessons and continuing to apply past successes to situations where it doesn’t comprehend the changes. The Balkans campaign of the 90s became the justification for Libya, and Libya’s failed implementation hasn’t worried Syria’s proponents in the least. Some of this is just institutionalization and regulatory capture, except in this case the winners looked vanquished after the Church reforms.

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