US spy agency a law unto itself

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 5:24pm


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

by Mark Mazzetti

Penguin Press

In The Way of the Knife, Mark Mazzetti pulls back some of the veils from America's shadow wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. The full story probably won't emerge for years, and this often colourful account raises as many questions as it answers. But Mazzetti, who covers national security at The New York Times, finds new details and tracks the ominous blurring of traditional roles between soldiers and spies, the growth of a military intelligence complex, and what the shift portends for the future.

Soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the CIA was killing people in Afghanistan with a new weapon: a Predator drone armed with a Hellfire missile. It was the perfect weapon for a spy service: it killed from afar, out of public view, and without accountability. It was the start of remote-controlled war (although not "killer robots", as Mazzetti incorrectly writes), the policy President Barack Obama ultimately embraced.

With the dawn of the drone age, the CIA got a licence to kill. Since then, the author warns, it has become "a killing machine, an organisation consumed with man hunting". The CIA director has become a "military commander running a clandestine global war with … very little oversight". It is the "willing executioner of America's enemies". It has "gone on a killing spree". And so on.

The drones hit hardest in northwest Pakistan, partly because the CIA obtained White House approval to carry out missile strikes there even if it didn't know who it was killing. So-called signature strikes targeted patterns of activity, such as clusters of "military-aged males" at a suspected militant camp. It's one reason the CIA claims it has killed almost no civilians: it lists everyone as a combatant unless explicit intelligence posthumously proves him innocent. Needless to say, most Pakistanis don't agree.

In the meantime, the CIA - which famously learned about the toppling of the Berlin Wall on CNN - was caught flat-footed by the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 that ousted pro-Western autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, and ultimately drew the US into a war in Libya. And later that year, America's estimated US$80-billion-a-year spy system failed to learn for several days that Kim Jong-il, leader of nuclear-armed North Korea, had died.

The military, in turn, "has been dispersed into the dark spaces of American foreign policy", Mazzetti writes, and is running more spying missions than ever before. It's a tricky business because spies operate under a US law that allows secrecy and lying, and the military fights under a separate legal code. So the Pentagon has relied chiefly on private contractors, one more colourful than the next, and the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. Operating in almost total secrecy, JSOC got its own stealth air force, its own communications satellites, its own drones.

Most Americans learned of JSOC only after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in Pakistan. The CIA ran the assault to give the Navy Seals legal cover for the covert mission. A CIA operation is one thing; a military raid could be an act of war.

Soon after, Obama reshuffled his senior national security team. The results symbolised how intertwined US military and intelligence operations have become. He moved the CIA director, Leon Panetta, over to the Pentagon, and named US Army General David Petraeus, the most lauded general of his generation (until a sex scandal brought him down), to head the CIA.

During his brief tenure, Petraeus expanded the drone fleet and told Congress the CIA was conducting more covert action operations than at any time in its history.

Petraeus oversaw the first targeted killing by the CIA of a US citizen, an al-Qaeda operational leader named Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen. The same drone strike (two CIA Predators locked onto the vehicles with lasers and a Reaper drone fired the missiles) killed another American, Samir Khan, who was not on the US kill list.

Two weeks later, a JSOC drone launched a missile at an open-air restaurant. Among the dead - and also not a target - was Awlaki's 16-year-old son, born in Denver. The CIA and JSOC were running two distinct, competing drone wars in Yemen and killed three Americans.

Most Americans, fatigued by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seem little concerned about the shadow wars. They should be. As a former CIA officer explains: "Every drone strike is an execution. And if we are going to hand down death sentences, there ought to be some public accountability and some public discussion about the whole thing." Except for books like this, there is neither.