Book Review: Mark Mazetti, “Way of the Knife”

Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, New York, Penguin. 2013.

In recent weeks we have seen much discussion of the US military drone programs, the expanding fleet of remote piloted aircraft operated throughout the world.

As a techie, I’ve always loved RC aircraft, robots, and remote operated devices. These toys have now been brought to use in the most serious ways, which moves them from “it’s so cool” to  “what the hell are we doing”.

The headline story is the use of drones to execute targeted killings (“signature” killings, specifically authorized by President Obama), in places not officially war zones, of people not in direct combat, and, most controversial of all, US citizens.

This topic is tangled in the overall “war on terror”, and the US secret wars everywhere (Sanger, D.W., Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, New York, Crown Publishers. 2012).  The secret war has danced on the edges of the law, developing parallel intelligence and paramilitary forces under the DOD and the CIA, as well as private forces available to both (Scahill, J., Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, New York, Avalon Publishing Group, Inc. 2007).

On May 23 we Heard President Obama speak on these issues, in a self-described effort to create a legal framework for future presidents (Baker, P., In Terror Shift, Obama Took a Long Path, in The New York times. 2013: May 27,

This speech, and its supposed policy implications, are much easier to understand if you read Mark Mazzetti’s “Way of the Knife”, written during the secret discussion leading to the speech. Mazzetti’s book could have been designed by the Obama administration to underpin the May speech.  (Given his earlier reporting, it appears that Mazzetti has been fed a lot of information by the administration, so it is not out of the question that they have used him to get their story out.)

To understand the drone wars, it is important to look back at where they come from.  Military use of pilotless aircraft has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, concurrent with technical developments.  Singer reports these developments, as the military and intelligence community came to understand the capabilities and economics of remote operated aircraft (Singer, P.W., [Wired for War}: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Centurey, New York, Penguin. 2009).

They must be extremely useful, since they are displacing piloted aircraft (pilots and aviators are a powerful force within the services), and even obsoleting spy satellites

The case is simple.  A drone can do the same job as a piloted aircraft, with almost no risk to US aircrews.  A drone is generally cheaper than a piloted aircraft, even neglecting the expense of aircrews.  Furthermore, drones can do the same job as satellites, usually a better job, and cost much, much less.

The advantages have relatively few drawbacks.  There are surely challenges for drone pilots, attempting to understand what is happening far away through electronic links.  Of course, remote operation faces latency issues, reducing reaction time and the ability to precisely track moving objects.

A bigger issue is that a drone operated at a distance blurs the conventional laws of war.  Theoretically, the joystick jockey commuting to an air-conditioned base at home is a legitimate military target—possibly endangering civilians.  (See, perhaps Singer 2007 on this point).

Finally, there is a psychological issue for decision makers.  Armed drones have proved to be effective at targeted strikes, making it possible to remotely execute lethal attacks on individuals no matter where they are. While remote killing is scarcely new, the effectiveness of drones has proved to be seductive.  If we can kill individuals with little risk, there is a temptation to turn national policy into a mafia-like hit list.

This last issue is what Mazzetti focuses on, and one of the points Obama wishes to legalize. (Mazzetti reports that when faced with the real prospect of leaving office in 2012, Obama was motivated to regularize the ad hoc decision making framework, rather than leave his successors a totally free hand.)

Actually, much of Mazzetti’s book is about the competition between the CIA and the DOD, on several fronts.  Originally, there was a separation of roles, with the CIA charged with gathering and analyzing information, and the Pentagon applying military force.  But effective war and international policy requires both, so there has always been pressures on the DOD to collect intelligence and the CIA to operate paramilitary forces.  Naturally, parallel, even duplicate activities developed, as the Pentagon deployed intelligence gathering units, and the CIA used paramilitary forces.  And various mercenary groups blur the distinction, by providing the same services to both DOD and CIA, possibly at the same time.

Mazzetti also points out that the two agencies operate under different legal authorities, giving each advantages and limitations in certain situations.  For example, US military forces cannot operate in friendly or neutral countries without serious repercussions. The CIA is under no such restriction. On the other hand, CIA activity is often deniable, which is a huge risk for their operatives.  While a captured soldier may expect to be imprisoned until exchanged or paroled, a captured spy expects to be tried for espionage or murder, best case.

Having duplicate programs is convenient then, enabling specific operations to be labeled as needed.  For example, the raid on Bin Laden was executed by Nave SEALs, which would constitute a military invasion of Pakistan (an act of war). So, voila, the SEALs were assigned to the CIA, making it an espionage operation–possibly still an act of war, but not a violation of US law.

In the case of drones, the Pentagon and the CIA have developed similar programs (i.e., duplicates), which obviously leads to the possibility of chaos and serious questions about who can legally operate drones where and for what purpose.

Drones have been called into play in areas outside declared war zones, for attacks that support “American interests”.  Again, the agencies have different legal frameworks.  The military has pushed the limits of its legal authority, asserting the right to conduct intelligence anywhere in the world that might become a battlefield—which is pretty much everywhere.  The CIA has become focused on man hunts to roll up terrorist groups, which would appear to violate its rules against assassinations.  (Neither the DOD or CIA are supposed to operate within the US. I’m sure there are legal loop holes when needed.)

From reading Mazzetti’s book, we can immediately understand Obama’s remarks, and the proposal to consolidate drones within the Pentagon.  The goal is to reduce the redundancy, reduce the CIA’s focus on targeted killings, and probably to get the CIA back on intelligence.  Also, placing lethal drones in the Pentagon makes them subject to a specific legal framework, rather than an ad hoc patchwork of authorities.

I don’t know enough about the details to judge them.  In any case, the President can propose whatever he wants, we’ll have to see how the Pentagon and CIA fare in the bureaucratic fights to come.

One last comment.  Mazzetti has two chapters on Somalia that are worth reading the book for alone.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Mark Mazetti, “Way of the Knife””

  1. And the beat goes on.

    Days after Obama’s speech, targeted killing continues in Pakistan, which is a de facto if no de jure war zone.

    And the fallout continues.

    After the CIA subverted public health workers in the desperate manhunt for Bin Laden, innocent Pakistanis are dying simply for implementing vaccination campaigns that would save thousands of lives.

    And in the US, remote operated aircraft meet increasing resistance, no matter how innocent or beneficial they could be.


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