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

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

The Way of the KnifeMazzetti’s book is an unflinching examination of the past and present shadow wars waged by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces. There are two interrelated themes: the CIA has become more like the U.S. military, and conversely, the U.S. military has become more like the CIA. So while “…the Central Intelligence Agency has become a killing machine, an organization consumed with man hunting” (p. 4), so too has the American military—particularly under Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld—ramped up its spying missions. The result is a paramilitary force composed of clandestine officers and special operations troops “sheep dipped” in layers of legal deniability.

The CIA was not always a killing machine. In the 1970s a variety of scandals surfaced under the Senate’s Church Committee surrounding the abuses of secret power: from domestic eavesdropping to plans to assassinate foreign leaders in Latin America. The result was a 1976 executive order banning the practice of assassination under Gerald Ford. With these reins, the CIA became “risk averse”. Indeed, when President Truman signed the 1947 National Security Act, he did not even want the CIA to become America’s secret army. But American presidents have used a clause written into the Act (“perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security”) – with considerable leeway.

Even with the rise of Islamic militancy in the 1980s, the CIA created a “fusion center” dedicated to international terrorism. This was a controversial move and divided opinion between intelligence-driven case officers in places like Islamabad and action-driven operatives at Langley. Director Casey ignored these internal objections and the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) was born on February 1, 1986. From the very beginning, the CTC worked closely with military special operations. Indeed, the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command (SOC) was founded a year after the CTC and “operatives from both organizations viewed each other as kindred souls, imbued with the spirit of Bill Donovan’s OSS”. Headed by Cofer Black, the CTC under the George W. Bush administration was chosen to be the heart of a global terrorist manhunt—regaining its deadly teeth. Lawmakers drew up secret memos that argued hunting and killing terrorists was an act of self-defense and did not therefore violate the 1976 assassination ban.

The initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was spearheaded by the CIA. The agency was intimately involved with tactical decisions at the White House—with CIA Director George Tenet regularly attending the President’s daily brief. But such high-level attention was making the agency’s focus increasingly tactical. “Targeting” no longer meant selecting a person for surveillance or information—it meant capturing or killing.

Gray Fox

Donald Rumsfeld was unhappy the CIA paramilitary teams had been first into Afghanistan: “The ability of the CIA to move more swiftly than the military with just a fraction of the Pentagon’s budget and manpower gnawed at Rumsfeld” (p. 19). In response, he wanted to change the Department of Defense to create a new way of waging war: one in the dark corners of the world away from declared war zones.

Rumsfeld’s criticism of the CIA was not entirely new, nor was his desire to run a parallel spy program in the military. During his first stint as Defense Secretary under Gerald Ford, Rumsfeld fought frequent turf battles with the CIA and White House. In 1981, the military’s Intelligence Support Activity (ISA) was created and given a large black budget and “permission to carry out secret spying operations without even having to notify the Joint Chiefs of Staff” (p.70).

JSOCThe CIA was suspicious of the military building an intelligence empire. Despite attempts to gut the unit, the ISA survived and would eventually become a cornerstone of Rumsfeld’s efforts to dramatically expand the Pentagon’s spying operations. By late 2001, the ISA had evolved into the secret spying unit codenamed Gray Fox, which specialized in eavesdropping and feeding data to the National Security Agency. Rumsfeld then increased funding for Gray Fox and ordered closer coordination with Joint Special Operations Command – the “operational arm” of SOC.

Not everyone in the administration was convinced that ramping up JSOC activities would be legal. The Pentagon’s activities are governed by Title 10 of the United States Code, and Congress has historically limited how the military operates outside of declared war zones. There was a concern that if soldiers were trapped by enemy forces they would be tried as spies rather than protected under Geneva Conventions. And after the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, Congress tried to put even more restrictions on secret operations.

But there was a loophole.

The Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991 required that all covert actions be authorized by a written presidential finding, and that the White House notify the House and Senate Intelligence Committees shortly after the finding. “And yet the 1991 act contained a significant loophole: it exempted the Pentagon from these burdensome requirements if the military was conducting secret operations it considered to be ‘traditional military activities’” (p.77). The law offered little guidance as to what constituted traditional military activities – partly because the Bush White House and Pentagon lobbied Congress to keep the language vague. As Mazzetti explains,

“These activities were ultimately defined as any operations carried out by the military that were connected to ‘ongoing’ or ‘anticipated’ hostilities. In other words, the Pentagon could justify sending troops to any country in the world if it could make the case that the United States was at war inside that country—or might be at some point in the future” (p.77).

The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force likewise granted Rumsfeld the license he was looking for to carry out a global war. He also got a boost for his empire of unconventional warfare after the 9/11 Commission recommended de-militarizing the CIA. Although Predator drones ultimately remained with the CIA, Rumsfeld was by now convinced he could “do what he wanted” under the banner of “traditional military activities”.

The Al Qaeda Network Execute Order

In 2004, the Secretary of Defense issued a secret directive, known internally at the Pentagon as the “Al Qaeda Network Execute Order” – “that expanded the powers of special-operations troops to kill, capture, and spy in more than a dozen countries” (pp. 128-129). The order gave JSOC, the new “model army” for a post 9/11 era, broad authority to launch operations across an arc of territory from North Africa all the way to the Philippines, including Syria, Somalia, Pakistan.

StanleyMcChrystalThe missions were highly classified, seldom publicly acknowledged, and irregularly briefed to members of Congress. JSOC saw its budget explode, and was now capable of running a war of its very own. Indeed, JSOC was already proving itself in Iraq under the command of Lt. General Stanley McChrystal’s, whose troops were decimating al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Mesopotamia through a series of aggressive raids. Or as their motto states: “Fighting for intelligence”. JSOC’s growth was also fuelled by an internal Pentagon report in 2005 (overseen by Rumsfeld), which stated that the military “must increase capabilities and capacities to conduct sustained operations in multiple, sensitive, non-permissive, and denied areas” (p. 131). The future fight “will take place in countries with which we are not at war” (p.131). After the 2004 AQNEO, the missions of the CIA and the missions of the military were increasingly blurred.

In 2006, the Pentagon and the CIA “carved” up the world to determine who was in charge of what front of the secret war. Sometimes they would work together. For example, in 2006, Navy SEALS were “sheep dipped” into Title 50 Authorities during a raid in Damadola village in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which was the site of a gathering of military leaders. The troops stormed the compound and took prisoners to Afghanistan. Other times the organizations worked apart. For example, in 2006, it was an American military drone that fired missiles at a suspected terror camp in the jungles of the Philippines.

By now the military oversaw a raft of intelligence, and regularly used phrases like “preparing the battlefield” and “collecting atmospherics” to avoid the direct attention of the CIA.

In 2009, CENTCOM Commander David Patreaus signed a secret directive that expanded military spying activities throughout the Muslim world to an even larger degree. The order was called the “Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order”, and it was part of a broad-based initiative during Obama’s first year to define the role of the military in countries beyond declared war zones, which had become chaotic in the years since Rumsfeld pushed for the Pentagon to become involved in human spying. It gave permission for highly classified units like Task Force Orange – the HUMINT gathering teams connected to JSOC, as well as private contractors, to “develop clandestine operational infrastructure that can be tasked to locate, identify, isolate, disrupt/destroy” extremist networks and individual leaders of terror groups. “Special-operations officers now had even broader authorities to run spying missions across the globe. These orders became a new blueprint for the secret wars that President Obama would come to embrace” (p. 207).

But if Rumsfeld was feeling he could do whatever he wanted, so too was the CIA making big changes in Pakistan.

From Capturing to Killing

MQ-1 PredatorIn May 2004, the spy agency’s inspector general published a damning 106-page on the agency’s detention and interrogation program. It was the beginning of the end for the program, as the CIA would soon switch to drone strikes. “After the killing of Nek Muhammad in Pakistan —carried out just a month after John Helgerson’s report was completed—the CIA began to see its future: not as the long-term jailers of America’s enemies but as a military organization that could erase them” (p.121). Assassination by drone was seen as something different than human slaughter “on the ground”: it was more objective, more rational, and more machine like: “Killing by remote control was the antithesis of the dirty, intimate work of interrogation. It somehow seemed cleaner, less personal” (p.121). And so a “morbid” kind of calculation was made: the CIA would be better off killing than jailing terror suspects.

By 2006, the CIA has set up a number of small bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas to sift through human intelligence to try and locate militants. These staff were known as “targeting analysts”. In 2006 the CIA ramped up its efforts to locate Osama bin Laden by expanding the number of case officers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Mike” took over the CTC in 2006, and set about increasing CIA spies in Pakistan without ISI knowledge. The information was starting to come thick and fast, although the ISI still imposed strict restrictions. It is worth noting that the ISI is not a monolith, but rather, is a complex organization spit between “Directorate C” and “Directorate S”. The C branch often helped with CIA operations. Allegedly, however, it was the S branch that nurtured links with the Taliban, Haqqani, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Almost nothing is written publicly about “Directorate S”.

Yet the CIA and ISI still worked closely in North Waziristan by 2006, sharing an abandoned school house in Miranshah. This would be the last real time the spy agencies worked together: in 2008 Bush signed a secret order to escalate the CIA’s covert drone war in Pakistan unilaterally. No longer would the CIA give Pakistan advance warning of drone strikes to the ISI. Richard Blee, former head of Alec Station, lamented that at the CIA “the ‘fuck you’ school took over”.

But it was Obama that leaned more heavily on CIA and JSOC operations than Bush. For him it was less politically risky than capturing, and without the staggering costs associated with ground troops. In the early months of the Obama administration, National Security Advisor James Jones led a project to create a centralized “kill list” for lethal operations beyond declared war zones. The “Jones Memo” as it became to be known was an early attempt to establish procedures for the conduct of a secret war—one that would grow and grow, and later become managed by increasingly bureaucratic technologies from the heart of the White House.


The Way of the Knife covers the double movement of a “paramilitarized” CIA and a “covertized” military. Sometimes this movement is in concert, other times it is in parallel. For example, in 2011 the CIA secretly built a drone base in Saudi Arabia in the hunt for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Until the base was ready, Yemen would be JSOC’s war. In May 2011 the Pentagon began sending armed drones from Ethiopia and Camp Lemonnier. David Patreaus, now CIA director, then ordered some of the agency’s fleet of Predator and Reaper drones from Pakistan to the newly built Saudi Arabia base. It was Patreaus that ordered the killing of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011. But his 16 year old son was killed by “accident”. And he wasn’t killed by the CIA either—he was struck by JSOC under a parallel drone program.

As Mazzetti writes,

“The CIA and the Pentagon now each jealously guard different parts of the shadow war’s architecture—a drone base in Djibouti, and other remote outposts—and are loath to relinquish any control as politicians embrace targeted-killing operations as the future of American warfare. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues its push into human spying. The Defense Intelligence Agency is hoping to build a new cadre of undercover spies, hundreds of them, for spying missions in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia” (p.314)

But we can add to this “carving up of the world” (and now Africa especially) a third actor: the privatized military-intelligence complex, which has boomed since Patreaus’ 2009 Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order legitimized the role of private contractors. Programs pioneered by Dewey Clarridge in Afghanistan are the tip of the iceberg of a large-scale intelligence infrastructure. Protecting the state is now increasingly farmed out to contractors. Corporations and private spies are very much a part of the future of America’s shadow wars—“sheep dipped” or not.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, CIA, History of Drones, Special Forces and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. robakers says:

    great review, from my limited experience I believe it is accurate.

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