A Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter’s riveting account of the transformation of the CIA and America’s special operations forces into man-hunting and killing machines in the world’s dark spaces: the new American way of war
The most momentous change in American warfare over the past decade has taken place away from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, in the corners of the world where large armies can’t go. The Way of the Knife is the untold story of that shadow war: a campaign that has blurred the lines between soldiers and spies and lowered the bar for waging war across the globe. America has pursued its enemies with killer drones and special operations troops; trained privateers for assassination missions and used them to set up clandestine spying networks; and relied on mercurial dictators, untrustworthy foreign intelligence services, and proxy armies.
This new approach to war has been embraced by Washington as a lower risk, lower cost alternative to the messy wars of occupation and has been championed as a clean and surgical way of conflict. But the knife has created enemies just as it has killed them. It has fomented resentments among allies, fueled instability, and created new weapons unbound by the normal rules of accountability during wartime.
Mark Mazzetti tracks an astonishing cast of characters on the ground in the shadow war, from a CIA officer dropped into the tribal areas to learn the hard way how the spy games in Pakistan are played to the chain-smoking Pentagon official running an off-the-books spy operation, from a Virginia socialite whom the Pentagon hired to gather intelligence about militants in Somalia to a CIA contractor imprisoned in Lahore after going off the leash.
At the heart of the book is the story of two proud and rival entities, the CIA and the American military, elbowing each other for supremacy. Sometimes, as with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, their efforts have been perfectly coordinated. Other times, including the failed operations disclosed here for the first time, they have not. For better or worse, their struggles will define American national security in the years to come.
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3: CLOAK-AND-DAGGER MEN
“Certainly we don’t need a regiment of cloak-and-dagger men, earning their campaign ribbons—and, indeed, their promotions—by planning new exploits throughout the world. Theirs is a self-generating enterprise.”
—Senator Frank Church, 1976
There was a time, not very long ago, when the CIA was out of the killing business.
When Ross Newland joined the spy agency, in the late 1970s, the CIA wasn’t looking to pick any fights abroad. Newland was fresh out of graduate school, and the CIA was reeling from the body blows it had absorbed from congressional committees that had investigated the agency’s covert actions since its founding, in 1947. Congress was tightening its control over secret activities, and chastened CIA leaders began to refocus the agency’s activities on stealing the secrets of foreign regimes—traditional espionage—rather than overthrowing them or trying to kill their leaders.
President Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned to put an end to the CIA’s overseas adventures, had installed Admiral Stansfield Turner at Langley partly to rein in a spy agency he thought had run amok. Newland and a generation of CIA case officers who joined the agency during this period were told that the CIA would only invite trouble if it got back into the work of killing. By the end of his career, Newland would see the agency come full circle on the matter of lethal action, and he would come to question the wisdom of the CIA’s embrace of its role as the willing executioner of America’s enemies.
The CIA had been established with a relatively simple mission: collect and analyze intelligence so that American presidents could know each day about the various threats facing the United States. President Truman had not wanted the agency to become America’s secret army, but since a vague clause in the National Security Act of 1947 authorized the CIA to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security,” American presidents have used this “covert action” authority to dispatch the CIA on sabotage operations, propaganda campaigns, election rigging, and assassination attempts.
From the start, critics questioned whether the United States needed a spy service separate from the Defense Department. In defending the agency’s independence, CIA directors have pointed out what they have that the Pentagon does not. It has a cadre of undercover officers who can carry out covert missions overseas where the hand of the United States is hidden. The CIA answers directly to the president, the argument goes, and can carry out his orders more quickly, and more quietly, than the military. The residents of the Oval Office have turned to covert action hundreds of times, and often have come to regret it. But memories are short, new presidents arrive at the White House every four or eight years, and a familiar pattern played out over the second half of the twentieth century: presidential approval of aggressive CIA operations, messy congressional investigations when the details of those operations were exposed, retrenchment and soul-searching at Langley, criticisms that the CIA had become risk-averse, then another period of aggressive covert action. Sometimes the cycle began at the very start of a presidency. During his first week in office, President John F. Kennedy told his advisers he didn’t believe that the CIA was aggressive enough in Vietnam and set in motion a secret war against Hanoi that would eventually become the largest and most complex covert action of its time.
The CIA’s ambivalence about carrying out assassinations went back to the spy agency’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Created in 1942 under the leadership of its fierce commander, William J. Donovan, the OSS was a paramilitary organization first, espionage service second. Donovan’s “glorious amateurs” spent much of World War II sabotaging railways, blowing up bridges, and arming Nazi resisters throughout the European theater. Still, even Donovan got cold feet at the end of the war about a program to train assassins to kill Nazi leaders. By 1945, the OSS had trained about one hundred Wehrmacht deserters to hunt down German leaders—from Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring down to every SS officer above the rank of captain. For those organized killings, the agents working for the “Cross Project” would be paid two hundred dollars per month. But the teams were never sent into Germany; Donovan wrote to his staff that such a “wholesale assassination” program would “invite only trouble for the OSS.” Instead of killing top Nazis, Donovan said that they ought to be kidnapped and interrogated for intelligence. The war ended before any kidnappings could take place.
Decades later, the Senate committee led by Frank Church, of Idaho, had originally intended to look only at domestic abuses by the agency, such as illegal wiretaps. But in early 1975, President Gerald Ford made an offhand comment to reporters, saying that if investigators dug deep enough, they might uncover a number of CIA attempts to assassinate foreign leaders. When his remarks went public, the Church Committee made assassinations the principal focus of its hearings.
For six months, senators heard about plots to kill Patrice Lumumba, in the Congo, and to position an exploding seashell near where Fidel Castro snorkeled in Cuba. The iconic image of the hearings came when committee members passed around a pistol that the CIA had built to shoot poison darts and Senator Barry Goldwater pointed the gun into the air as he looked through its sights. CIA director William Colby tried to make clear that the weapon had never been used, but the image endured. Before the committee had even wrapped up its work, President Ford signed an executive order banning the government from carrying out assassinations of foreign heads of state or other foreign politicians.
If anything, President Ford’s assassination ban was his attempt to put limits on his Oval Office successors, to prevent future presidents from being too easily drawn into black operations. The Church Committee pointed out that, for all the CIA’s questionable activities during its early decades, it was always the White House encouraging reckless operations like coup attempts and killing foreign leaders. The CIA offered secrecy, and secrecy had always seduced American presidents.
As Senator Church wrote in his committee’s final report, “once the capability for covert activity is established, the pressures brought to bear on the President to use it are immense.” Church questioned whether America even needed the CIA at all. Instead of keeping a “regiment of cloak-and-dagger men” at the president’s disposal, Church believed that the State Department would be more than capable of taking on covert operations if the need arose but should do so only in the case of dire emergency, perhaps to “avert a nuclear holocaust or save a civilization.”
Church didn’t get his wish, but the CIA had been duly chastened by the time that Ross Newland graduated from Trinity College, in Connecticut, in the late 1970s. The son of an international businessman, he had spent most of his life living in Latin America and Spain, and spoke fluent Spanish. Given his upbringing and interest in international affairs, Newland figured that he might be destined for a career as a diplomat, but he chose first to pursue a master’s degree at the London School of Economics.
At an opulent holiday party in December 1978, at the residence of the American ambassador in Madrid, Newland was recruited to become a spy. He had flown from London to Madrid to see his parents, who were living in Spain, and during the party a man in his early fifties approached him and told him he worked at the embassy. After fifteen minutes of small talk, in both English and Spanish, the man asked Newland if he wanted to walk through the gardens of the residence and speak in private.
The man was Nestor Sanchez, the CIA’s station chief in Madrid and a veteran clandestine officer whose storied career in the secret service was in its twilight. An ardent anticommunist, Sanchez had joined the CIA not long after its founding and had been at the center of many of the covert operations investigated by the Church Committee. He had helped engineer the successful 1954 coup against Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, in Guatemala, and had given a poison-filled syringe disguised as a writing pen to a Cuban agent in an attempt to kill Castro.
Sanchez told Newland he might make a good CIA case officer and gave his name to the agency’s station in London. Three months later, Newland was sitting in a bare room at CIA headquarters waiting for his psychological evaluation. A man walked in, sat down, and asked Newland only two questions.
“So, you grew up in Mexico?”
“What’s the difference between an enchilada and a tostada?”
Though puzzled by the question, Newland nevertheless explained the difference between the two dishes. After a brief chat about Mexican food, Newland politely told his interviewer that they better start the psychological evaluation because he needed to get to his next interview.
“And he said, ‘No, we’re done,’” Newland remembers. Ross New-land was in the CIA.
He finished up at the London School of Economics and offi cially joined the spy agency on November 5, 1979. It was just a day after students in Iran stormed the American embassy and six weeks before Soviet paratroopers landed in Kabul as the vanguard of the hundreds of thousands of troops who would invade Afghanistan over the following months. The two events convulsed CIA headquarters, especially the fifty-three members of Ross Newland’s class. Top agency officials ordered all trainees except those fluent in a language not spoken in the Muslim world to be funneled toward assignments in the Middle East or Central Asia.
Because he spoke Spanish, Newland was one of a dozen trainees excluded from the “draft.” By the time Newland had completed his case-officer training, Ronald Reagan had become president and the CIA had a newfound interest in Latin America. Cocaine was fl owing over the border into the United States, and the Reagan administration was deeply worried about the growing power of leftist guerrilla movements in Central America. Newland had a mentor in Nestor Sanchez, who by then had left Madrid and taken over the CIA’s Latin America division. From his perch at headquarters Sanchez was able to guide Newland’s early career, and he put him at the center of the action.
He was sent first to Bolivia, then the world’s cocaine capital, where he was directed to cultivate sources in the drug cartels. He spent much of his time in the Bolivian lowlands, posing as an American businessman and trying to make friends among the drug-runners in the city of Santa Cruz. He drank with them, bet on cockfights, met their wives and mistresses, and drove with them out of the city to eat duck with mango and pineapple in ramshackle bungalows along the road leading into the jungle.
When he wasn’t in Santa Cruz, he was in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, awaiting the next coup attempt. The CIA station in Bolivia took pride in predicting each coup before it happened, and the agency officers there didn’t want to blow their perfect track record. But New-land got a bracing dose of reality about his place in the world when the one successful military overthrow during his tour in Bolivia earned only a small mention on the inside pages of The New York Times. The previous four attempts hadn’t even made it into the paper.
The Reagan administration had identified the Bolivian government as a partner in the war on drugs. But as he started to penetrate the Bolivian drug networks, Newland began to write intelligence reports about the rampant corruption among top officials in La Paz, many of whom were on the payroll of the cartels. The minister of the interior was protecting the drug kingpins from prosecution, and they were paying him off in ranches, jewels, and cash. The reports were hardly what the American ambassador in La Paz wanted to read.
For Newland, the experience in Bolivia was a first glimpse of how Washington’s policy of propping up corrupt governments to serve a singular goal—in this case the war on drugs—could undermine long-term American interests. He also began to question whether the CIA should really be in charge of the drug war, or whether the Reagan administration had just leaned on the agency because messy wars are best fought in secret. Two decades later he would have similar questions about the CIA’s role in the war against terrorists.
When Newland was dispatched to Bolivia, the CIA’s Latin America division was a relatively sleepy corner of the spy agency’s Directorate of Operations. But it would soon become the center of the CIA’s universe, largely because of dynamics many pay grades above Newland. In June 1981, Nestor Sanchez left the agency for the Pentagon. His replacement was Duane R. Clarridge, a gin-drinking and hard-charging spy of the old school who was exactly in the mold sought by William J. Casey, Ronald Reagan’s newly installed CIA chief. Known to all as “Dewey,” Clarridge grew up in a New Hampshire family of staunch Republicans (his nickname was a tribute to Governor Thomas E. Dewey, of New York) and earned degrees from Brown and Columbia before joining the CIA in 1955. He was eager to battle the Soviet Union on each shadowy front of the Cold War. By 1981, he had served undercover in Nepal, India, Turkey, and Italy, often posing as a businessman and using pseudonyms like Dewey Marone and Dax Preston LeBaron. With a high-octane personality and a preference for white suits and pocket squares, Clarridge attracted a following among younger undercover officers. He was fond of saying that the CIA’s clandestine service “marches for the president,” but his push for aggressive clandestine operations sometimes infuriated State Department diplomats. Clarridge’s boss in Rome, Ambassador Richard Gardner, called him “shallow and devious.”
When he returned to Washington, in 1981, Clarridge quickly developed a rapport with Casey. On Clarridge’s first day back at CIA headquarters, Casey called him into his office and said that the Reagan administration was worried about Cuba and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua “exporting revolution” throughout Central America, particularly to El Salvador. Within a week, Clarridge came back with a plan:
Take the war to Nicaragua.
Start killing Cubans.
Casey, a former OSS man, embraced the plan immediately. He told Clarridge to draft a secret finding for the president to sign, authorizing a covert war in Central America. It was very early into his presidency, but Ronald Reagan was already accelerating covert activities both in Latin America and in Afghanistan, where he increased support to the mujahedeen fighting Soviet troops. Reagan was initiating a new turn of the cycle: The “risk-averse” CIA was once again running secret wars abroad.
Clarridge was just the man to be in charge of the Central American front, and he used a CIA slush fund to buy guns, ammunition, mules, and heavy weapons for the Nicaraguan Contras, the rebels resisting the government. He worked closely with the Pentagon’s special-operations troops, and with an aide at the White House National Security Council, Lt. Colonel Oliver North, to build the Contras up into a guerrilla force he hoped would preoccupy the Sandinista government and prevent it from spreading its influence around America’s backyard. The CIA’s budget for Nicaragua was tiny; Clarridge and the agency’s Latin America hands used to joke that the U.S. Navy pushed trash of greater value off its aircraft carriers in a single morning than the CIA had to spend in Nicaragua in an entire year.
Ross Newland and many of his peers at the CIA saw the wars in Central America as exactly what the spy agency needed to avoid. But by 1985 Newland’s work in the CIA’s Latin America division brought him to the heart of the covert wars of the Reagan era. He arrived in Costa Rica just months after a secret CIA operation to mine Nicaragua’s harbors had unleashed a fury in Congress and ultimately led lawmakers to put new rules in place about when the intelligence committees were to be notified about CIA covert-action programs.
The mining operation, which Dewey Clarridge claims he dreamt up over a glass of gin and a cigar, cost Clarridge his job as chief of the Latin America division. He moved laterally inside the CIA’s clandestine service, taking over CIA operations in Europe.
In Costa Rica, Newland saw firsthand the war that Dewey Clarridge had built. CIA officers in Costa Rica were managing the southern front of the Contra war; the northern operations were run out of Honduras. Congress had, by then, banned the Reagan administration from supporting the Nicaraguan rebels, but the CIA’s station chief in Costa Rica, Joe Fernandez, was working with Oliver North to deliver supplies to the rebels.
Newland’s job was to penetrate the government in the capital of Managua in order to determine the plans and intentions of senior Nicaraguan political and military officials—traditional espionage work. He met with agents, wrote intelligence reports about the strategy of the Sandinista government, and put those reports into the stream of classified cables going back to Langley.
What was bizarre, however, was that other CIA officers in charge of running the Contras were doing the exact same thing. American covert officers would make decisions about which Sandinista targets the Contras should hit and then write up intelligence reports predicting which targets were about to be hit. The cables were sent back to Washington, and, not surprisingly, the predictions were usually correct. The CIA was, in other words, generating its own intelligence.
“I thought this was so nuts,” Newland recalled. “That’s not the way we were taught. But that’s the way you do it in a paramilitary situation.”
The American effort in Nicaragua steadily unraveled amid revelations that money had been diverted to the Contras from the sale of HAWK missiles to Iran, a sale brokered by Oliver North in an attempt to secure the release of American hostages held in Beirut. Newland watched as the Iran–Contra investigation slowly ensnared his CIA bosses, past and present. His station chief in Bolivia, Jim Adkins, who had moved to Honduras to run Contra operations from the north, was fired from the agency when it emerged he had authorized helicopter flights to carry supplies into Nicaragua. Joe Fernandez was indicted on June 20, 1988, on counts of obstruction of justice and making false statements, although the charges were eventually dropped. Nestor Sanchez, Newland’s first mentor at the CIA, was suspected of involvement in the illegal operations while working at the Pentagon but was never charged with a crime.
The Contra debacle was a searing experience for Newland. He disagreed with much of what he witnessed in Central America, but he was bitter that agency officers were being bled dry defending themselves while senior White House officials escaped punishment. But it taught him a lesson that he would apply years later, when President George W. Bush authorized the CIA to carry out the most extensive covert-operations campaign in its history, after the September 11 attacks. That lesson? Get everything in writing.
“When we got into things like lethal authorities, detention policies, all of these things, I made sure this was signed up and down Pennsylvania Avenue,” he recalls. “Why? Because I had been there before.”
It would be another five years before Iran–Contra investigators would catch up to Dewey Clarridge and indict him on perjury charges. But before that, he convinced Casey to upend the agency’s bureaucracy to deal with a threat that neither the CIA nor the Pentagon had spent much time thinking about: Islamic terrorism.
In a two-year span beginning in 1983, terrorist groups with names
unfamiliar to most Americans went on a stunning international killing spree. The spate of attacks began when a bomb ripped through the American embassy in Beirut and killed sixty-three employees, including eight CIA officers. Later that year, a truck packed with explosives killed 241 Marines sleeping in their barracks in Beirut, an attack that had been ordered by an underground terror cell called the Islamic Jihad Organization (a cover name at the time for Hezbollah) to protest the military’s ill-advised deployment to Lebanon. In June 1985, Lebanese hijackers killed a U.S. Navy diver during the TWA Flight 847 hostage standoff, and in October 1985 a Palestinian terrorist known as Abu Abbas hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship, ordering the killing of a sixty-nine-year-old American tourist named Leon Klinghoffer. His body was thrown overboard.
Struggling for a response, Reagan officials considered giving the CIA the authority to hunt and kill Lebanese terrorists using teams of local hit men. Oliver North wrote a draft of a presidential finding that included language giving the CIA authority to “neutralize” militants with deadly force. Casey was intrigued by the idea of using Lebanese hit men, but his deputy was appalled. John McMahon, who still bore scars from the congressional investigations of the 1970s and had grown weary of Casey’s exploits, was enraged when he heard about the plan. He was sure that creating hit squads violated President Ford’s assassination ban. “Do you know what intelligence means to these people?” he asked Casey, referring to White House officials. “It’s tossing a bomb. It’s blowing up people.” And, he said, any blow-back from a decision to start killing terrorists would be felt not at the White House but at the CIA. “To the rest of the world,” he warned Casey, “it’s not administration policy, it’s not an NSC idea—it’s those crazy bastards at CIA.”
But Casey was not convinced by McMahon’s objections, and he threw his support behind Oliver North’s proposal. In November 1984, President Reagan signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command to go ahead with the training of Lebanese hit men. But the plan was never carried out, and the finding was ultimately rescinded by Reagan amid opposition from the State Department and the CIA’s old guard. Former CIA director Richard Helms, weighing in from his retirement, told an aide to Vice President George H. W. Bush that the United States should not adopt the Israeli model of “fighting terrorism with terrorism.”
Casey had hoped that the rash of terrorism would end as quickly as it began. But some CIA officers at the time thought that Casey simply didn’t understand the new threat, and a bloody Christmastime attack at the El Al ticket counters inside the Vienna and Rome airports in 1985 destroyed any hope that terrorism would fade away. Palestinian gunmen doped up on amphetamines killed nineteen people during the airport spree. The grisliness of the attacks was driven home to Americans through the death of an eleven-year-old American named Natasha Simpson. A terrorist shot the girl at close range as she lay in her father’s arms.
Shortly after the attacks in Vienna and Rome, Clarridge made his argument to Casey for a new CIA campaign against Islamic terrorism. Clarridge thought the agency was in a defensive crouch, and he won the director’s blessing to begin an expansive new war.
Clarridge’s proposal was to create a dedicated group inside the CIA devoted solely to international terrorism. It would be a “fusion center” where clandestine officers would work next to analysts, piecing together clues about possible threats and gathering intelligence in order to capture or kill terrorist leaders. What sounds like a standard bureaucratic reorganization was, at the time, quite controversial. The CIA is actually a fragmented, cliquish culture, more like a public high school than many inside the agency care to admit. Jockish paramilitary officers tend to shun the nerdy analysts, who regard the paramilitary operatives as knuckle-draggers. At the top of the pyramid are the case officers—the spies who go out into the world—who believe they are doing the real work of the CIA and like to boast that they don’t follow orders from desk jockeys at headquarters.
There was immediate resistance to Clarridge’s idea from clandestine officers with Middle East experience. They believed that the center would be staffed by officers who didn’t understand the nuances of the Islamic world and would create messes that the officers stationed overseas would have to clean up. Chasing terrorists, they sniffed, was police work, better suited to the FBI than the CIA. Finally, many officers simply didn’t trust Clarridge and saw the center as empire building. The Counterterrorist Center was, therefore, born amid the similar tensions that the CIA would experience after the September 11 attacks—between case officers in Islamabad and CTC operatives at Langley, between those pushing for unilateral operations and those warning that such operations could shatter delicate relations with foreign intelligence services.
Casey ignored the internal objections and approved Clarridge’s proposal, and the Counterterrorist Center began operations on February 1, 1986. The CTC’s birth narrative was familiar: The White House was struggling with a problem it couldn’t find an answer for, so it looked to the CIA for a solution. And the CIA was happy to oblige.
The creation of the CTC was also significant because, from the beginning, CTC officers worked closely with military special-operations troops and allowed the military to be a partner in clandestine missions. The Pentagon’s Special Operations Command was founded one year after the CTC, and operatives from both organizations viewed each other as kindred souls, imbued with the spirit of Bill Donovan’s OSS. Unlike other parts of the CIA, the Counterterrorist Center didn’t turn up its nose at the military. The Pentagon’s commandos were partners with the terrorist hunters at the CTC.
When the Counterterrorist Center began operations, there were no ongoing covert operations against international terrorist groups, and the CTC began working with Army paramilitary units like Delta Force to penetrate the Abu Nidal organization and Hezbollah. Lawyers working for President Reagan drew up secret legal memos concluding that hunting and killing terrorists did not violate the 1976 assassination ban, just as lawyers working for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama would do decades later. These terrorist groups were plotting attacks against Americans, the lawyers argued, so killing them would be self-defense, not assassination.
But getting the legal authorities is only one step, and it doesn’t guarantee that politicians will bless specific lethal operations. During the early years of the Counterterrorist Center, the White House had little political capital to spend convincing Congress of the need to kill terrorists in secret. The Iran–Contra investigations had sapped the energies from Reagan’s national-security team and given more clout to advisers like National Security Advisor Colin Powell and Secretary of State George Shultz, who urged against any more overseas exploits. There was no longer the stomach for a fight, recalled Fred Turco, who was Dewey Clarridge’s deputy at the CTC and later took over the center. “The wheels had fallen off for Reagan.”
Ross Newland left the jungles of Central America cynical about how the Iran–Contra scandal had shattered the agency’s clandestine service. But unlike his CIA bosses, he had not become enmeshed in the unfolding scandal; in fact, he received a promotion. He and several of his contemporaries were elevated to become chiefs of overseas stations in Eastern Europe, jobs that put them in charge of agency operations in various Soviet satellite states. Still in his early thirties, Newland became the youngest station chief in the history of the CIA’s division handling Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1988, the CIA didn’t see that as much of a risk.
“They put us there because they were pretty confident that nothing was going to happen,” said Newland. “And, boy, did they fuck up.”
Within a year, the Berlin Wall had crumbled and revolution had spread throughout Eastern Europe. As the CIA’s top officer in Romania, Newland was in charge of keeping the Bush administration informed about the collapse of the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, who fled Bucharest with his wife as crowds swelled in the streets during the week before Christmas 1989. On Christmas Day, with Romanian paratroopers holding Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu in custody, Newland found himself trying to convince the officers of the unit holding the couple not to execute them without at least conducting some kind of trial. At least, that’s what Newland’s bosses at Langley had told him to tell the Romanian troops. “And so we forced them to go through a trial, and it lasted, like, twenty minutes,” he said. When that formality was dispensed with, the platoon commander asked for three volunteers to form a firing squad. But when the Romanian dictator and his wife were put up against the wall, their hands bound behind their backs, the entire platoon opened fire.
With the end of the Cold War came the end of the CIA’s defining mission. Countering the advance of communism had been the agency’s lodestar, justifying decades of far-flung operations in Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe. The budget cuts to the Pentagon and CIA during the 1990s hit the agency’s clandestine service particularly hard, with overseas stations shuttered and the total number of CIA case officers slashed. Overall spending on human-intelligence collection was cut by 22 percent over the decade. President Clinton, America’s first baby-boomer president and a onetime Vietnam War protester, was a natural skeptic of the CIA and gave his spy chiefs little time during his first term. R. James Woolsey Jr., Clinton’s first CIA director, said that Clinton paid little attention to intelligence issues and had private meetings with his spy chief only once a year. “We had very little access, frankly,” Woolsey said. After he left the CIA he joked that the man who crashed a stolen Cessna plane on the South Lawn of the White House, in September 1994, was actually him trying to get a meeting with the president.
The agency was also still facing a reckoning for the aggressive operations in Latin America overseen by Dewey Clarridge in the 1980s. In 1996, an intelligence-oversight board issued a report detailing the extensive human-rights abuses carried out for more than a decade by CIA assets in Guatemala. It alleged that between 1984 and 1986 several CIA informants were alleged to have “ordered, planned, or participated in serious human-rights violations such as assassination, extrajudicial execution, torture, or kidnapping while they were assets— and that the CIA was contemporaneously aware of many of the allegations.” The Guatemala revelations had been trickling out for years, leading CIA director John M. Deutch to impose new restrictions on agency case officers consorting with unsavory characters. The drug lords with whom Ross Newland had once bet on cockfights in Bolivia would now be off-limits to CIA officers, as would terrorists who might be attempting to kill Americans.
Deutch, a chemist with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came to Langley from the Pentagon after President Clinton removed James Woolsey from the CIA job in 1995. He wanted to build spy satellites and overseas listening posts, not send clandestine officers on swashbuckling secret missions. He didn’t trust the agency’s clandestine service, and they treated him like a virus that had invaded the host body.
One of his initiatives was to have the CIA work more closely with the military on issues other than counterterrorism, which by the mid-nineties had returned to being an issue of little importance at the CIA.
Since the end of the Gulf War, in 1991, Pentagon generals had complained that the CIA had been useless in penetrating Saddam Hussein’s regime before the war broke out and just as bad in helping the military hunt Iraqi forces in the desert. Deutch ordered CIA officers to serve in military command posts around the globe to make sure that the agency was giving its best intelligence on global threats.
Deutch believed that the CIA’s role of supporting the military was so essential that in 1995 he also created a top-level job to serve as a liaison to the Pentagon, a post that would be held by a senior military officer. Some inside the agency joked that embedding CIA operatives inside military commands and flag officers inside the intelligence agency was the bureaucratic equivalent of a hostage swap.
The first military officer tapped for the CIA job was Vice Admiral Dennis C. Blair, a wiry Yankee from Kittery, Maine, who had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968 and went on to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, where he became friends with a young Bill Clinton. Blair met resistance almost immediately from CIA officers who were skeptical about the three-star admiral with a dim view of the CIA’s track record on covert action.
As Blair saw it, the agency should be focusing on collecting and analyzing intelligence, not on black operations that only served to get the United States in trouble. “Going back to the history of CIA covert operations, I think you can make the argument that if we had done none of them we would probably be better off, and certainly no worse off than we are today,” Blair would say years later.
Some at Langley saw Blair as a Pentagon mole. But his presence also raised bigger fears that the Pentagon would consume the agency and that the CIA would lose its spot as the president’s loyal intelligence service. The men, as Dewey Clarridge had said, marched for the president.
Blair soon found himself fighting battles with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations on the biggest issue of the time, the war in the Balkans. One of the fights was over a new surveillance tool the CIA had borrowed from the Air Force to spy in Bosnia, a gangly, insect-like airplane called the RQ-1 Predator. The CIA had been flying the Predator to spy on Serbian troop positions, and senior agency officers proposed installing video screens inside the White House to allow President Clinton and his aides to watch the live drone feed. Blair admired the CIA’s initiative in developing the Predator but thought it would be a waste of the president’s precious time watching a drone feed. He suspected that the CIA’s clandestine service was just trying to show off its new toy for President Clinton.
“What’s the president going to do with it?” Blair remembers asking. “And they said, ‘It needs to go into the White House in case the president wants to know what’s going on in Bosnia.’
“And I said, ‘That’s ridiculous! The president is not going to look through this little soda straw!’
Deutch ultimately sided with Blair, and the CIA never fed the Predator video into the White House. It was a silly fight, but for Blair, that episode and other battles he fought with the agency’s clandestine service were telling reminders that the Directorate of Operations would try to bite any arm trying to block its direct path to the Oval Office.
More than a decade later, with another Democratic president in charge, Blair would try once again to get between the CIA and the White House. It would be fatal to his career.
Table of Contents
Principal Characters xi
Prologue: The War Beyond 1
1 Permission to Kill 9
2 A Marriage Among Spies 25
3 Cloak-And-Dagger Men 43
4 Rumsfeld's Spies 63
5 The Angry Bird 85
6 A True Pashtun 103
7 Convergence 115
8 A War by Proxy 137
9 The Base 153
10 Games without Frontiers 175
11 The Old Man's Return 191
12 The Scalpel's Edge 213
13 The Scramble for Africa 237
14 The Unraveling 257
15 The Doctor and the Sheikh 279
16 Fire from the Sky 299
Epilogue: A Spy in Leisure World 323
A Note on Sources 335
Photo Credits 367
What People are Saying About This
The New York Times:
“Superb…the best account yet.”
“[An] indispensable CIA history.”
The Hindu (India):
Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War:
"The story of how the CIA got back into the killing business is as chilling and dramatic as a spy novelexcept it’s true. Mark Mazzetti has laid out an extraordinary tale, tracking the spies as they track the terrorists. The Way of the Knife is as close as you'll ever get to the real thing."
Jane Mayer, staff writer, The New Yorker; author of The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals:
"The Way of the Knife provides a stunning, inside account of the CIA's transformation after 9/11 from an intelligence agency into a global clandestine killing machine. Mazzetti, who is one of America's best national security reporters, has written a frightening, must-read book."
Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco and The Generals:
"The United States fought three wars after 9/11: Iraq, Afghanistan and the one in the shadows. This is an authoritative account of that that third war, conducted by the CIA and military Special Operators in Yemen, East Africa and, most of all, Pakistan. If you want to understand the world we live in, you need to read it."
“The definitive history of how the intelligence agency became something much more like a paramilitary wing—de-evolving, in a sense, back to the days when the agency's adventurism influenced foreign policy around the world. It's a fascinating expose of what information the U.S. was not collecting—and how an attempt to fill the gap fell through oversight mechanisms and complicated geopolitics in Pakistan.”
San Francisco Chronicle:
“A highly engaging account that should please the curious and experts alike. Mazzetti manages to give a fresh reading to such oft-told stories as the bureaucratic jousting among White House, CIA and Pentagon officials over killer drones, secret prisons, ‘harsh interrogations’ and going global with military assassins.”
“The new American way of war is here, but the debate about it has only just begun. In The Way of the Knife, Mr Mazzetti has made a valuable contribution to it.”
The New Republic:
“Essential background reading… there are many signs that the novel ‘military-intelligence complex’ that Mazzetti describes is becoming unacceptably controversial at home and abroad.”
"Mazzetti's is an assiduously compiled account that strings together some of the missing parts in the puzzle… The Way of the Knife is a tale full of intrigues."
The New York Times Book Review:
“A fascinating, trenchant, sometimes tragicomic account.”
The Age (Australia):
"An astounding tale that melds the immediacy of fiction with the authority of fact."
The Washington Post:
“[A] deeply reported and crisply written account… While 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.”
Los Angeles Times:
“Mazzetti finds new details and tracks the ominous blurring of traditional roles between soldiers and spies, the lush growth of a military-intelligence complex, and what the shift portends for the future....a valuable addition to a canon that is exposing America's use of lethal operations far from declared war zones."
“[A] fine account… Mazzetti describes in compelling detail the agency’s turf battles with the Pentagon, its awkward relations with its Pakistani counterpart, and its reliance on a motley collection of freelancers and private contractors.”
“Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife makes for an incisive guide to what he terms the 'shadow war' being waged in multiple countries around the world, away from prying eyes....[W]ith crisp, precision reporting, Mazzetti lays out a chronology of how one thing led to another after al-Qaeda’s asymmetric attacks in 2001 and the ruinously bloody and inconclusive invasions that followed exposed glaring weaknesses in both the American military and its intelligence services.”
“A well-reported, smoothly written book for anyone who wants to understand contemporary American military might and the widespread hatred for the U.S. that has been the result.”
The story of how the CIA got back into the killing business is as chilling and dramatic as a spy novelexcept it's true. Mark Mazzetti has laid out an extraordinary tale, tracking the spies as they track the terrorists. The Way of the Knife is as close as you'll ever get to the real thing. (Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War)