Book Synopsis: The 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 (Penguin Press: 2013)

by Carey Shenkman, a 2013 graduate of New York University School of Law 


In The Way of the Knife, Mark Mazzetti describes how in the years since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, “lawyers and policy makers ha[ve] steadily chipped away at the wall separating the work of soldiers and spies.” This thesis consists of three main arguments. First, Mazzetti describes how the CIA has slowly shifted over the last decade from conducting intelligence operations to using lethal operations. Second, he describes the growing role of the U.S. military in intelligence operations of its own. Relatedly, Mazzetti describes the tensions (as well as opportunities for cooperation) that have subsequently arisen between the CIA and the military. Third, Mazzetti presents the deteriorating relationship between the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

CIA’s Shift from Intelligence-Gathering to Lethal Operations

Mazzetti describes that, following the CIA’s attempted assassinations of various foreign leaders in the 1970s and investigations led by Senator Frank Church which “chastened” the CIA, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order in 1976 curtailing the agency’s power to engage in lethal operations. Mazzetti describes longstanding internal divisions within the agency since the Reagan administration. Clandestine officers with Middle East experience worried that unilateral lethal operations would hinder relationships with foreign intelligence agencies abroad and would “create messes that the officers stationed overseas would have to clean up.” Since the 1990s, many CIA officials still had a sour taste of past operations in the 1970s and 1980s and preferred that the agency focus on intelligence. Former CIA director Richard Helms argued the CIA should not be “fighting terrorism with terrorism.”

Despite these concerns, the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) was created within the CIA in 1986. Mazzetti considers the CTC significant in leading to early partnerships between the CIA and military special operation forces. Mazzetti takes notice of the coincidence of  ofofCTC’s formation and the creation of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command just a year later. From the beginning, CTC officers worked closely with military special operation troops. After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the CTC underwent “the most dramatic expansion in its history,” turning into the “beating heart” of the CIA. Mazzetti notes that President Bush appreciated the nimbleness of the CIA compared to the bureaucratic Pentagon. The author describes how the “traditional wartime chain of command” involving the White House, secretary of defense, and hundreds of staff developing a war plan could be circumvented by just the CIA director and a small group at the White House.

For several years, the CIA focused on capture, detention, and interrogation of suspected terrorists in secret prisons abroad. Importantly, Mazzetti attributes the turning point of the escalation of lethal operations to the CIA Inspector General’s 2004 review of detention and interrogation programs—which exposed the agency’s use of waterboarding and other forms of torture to internal and potentially external scrutiny. The CIA, Mazzetti notes, worried that it would be subject to legal action abroad and that the White House would not support the agency abroad or guarantee officers immunity from criminal liability at home. Forced to reconsider its strategies, the CIA looked to drones and lethal operations, which Mazzetti views as “offering a new direction for a spy agency that had begun to feel burned by its years in the detention-and-interrogation business.”

Mazzetti explains that lawyers under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have justified the CIA’s engagement in lethal operations as self-defense, rather than assassination, when the targets are terrorist groups plotting attacks against Americans. The Obama Administration continued many of the most significant covert programs inherited from the Bush Administration. Mazzetti describes these as a “blistering, years-long drone assault on the tribal areas” of Pakistan, and under Obama and his first CIA director Leon E. Panetta, the CIA continued to grow in the scope of its lethal operations. “The CIA gets what it wants,” said Obama. Mazzetti describes how the CIA successfully “killed a string of al Qaeda operatives,” noting that the White House was “impressed” by the CIA’s record of targeted killings in Pakistan and subsequently turned over to the agency the hunt for the “renegade American cleric” Anwar al-Awlaki.

Mazzetti also describes some of the failings of the CIA’s emphasis on targeted killings. For one, he states that the Arab Spring caught the CIA “flat-footed” and that the agency was “several steps behind the popular uprisings.” Mazzetti attributes this failing to the “downside of its reorientation toward counterterrorism” and to not having enough spies gathering intelligence. Additionally, Mazzetti critiques the CIA’s partnerships with “ruthless intelligence services throughout the Middle East and North Africa,” which he argues made it difficult for CIA officers to collect candid advice about domestic, anti-government unrest in partner countries.

The Growth of Intelligence Gathering in the Military and Tension with the CIA

The second major theme Mazzetti develops through The Way of the Knife is the development of intelligence gathering within the U.S. military and the subsequent mixture of rivalry and cooperation between the CIA and military. Mazzetti traces the development of intelligence gathering in the military to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s feeling blocked or preempted by the CIA. Mazzetti describes instances where special operation troops required “clearance from the CIA” before going into Afghanistan. He depicts Rumsfeld as a long-time critic of the CIA and “stung” that the agency’s operatives were the first into the country. In 2002, Army Green Berets raided a compound in Kandahar, killing more than forty men inside without realizing the men were recruited earlier by the CIA to fight against the Taliban. The Navy and CIA both led operations to capture a Taliban leader, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, with the Navy unaware of the CIA’s successful operation to apprehend him. These were among several occasions involving a lack of communication between the CIA and the military that sometimes led to botched or even fatal results. Mazzetti paints these instances as the foundation of a complex and often tense “turf war” between the two organizations.

Mazzetti reveals that Rumsfeld envied the CIA’s flexibility, and wanted to create similar flexibility within the Pentagon. He explains that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) provided Rumsfeld that opportunity. JSOC is a highly classified arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command comprised mostly of Army Delta Force operatives and members of  SEAL Team Six. Mazzetti describes that when the CIA was “weakened” by criticism of its secret detention programs in 2004, Rumsfeld signed a 2004 directive with the approval of the President—the Al Qaeda Network Executive Order—which gave JSOC broad authority to launch intelligence gathering and sometimes lethal operations all over world, from South America to Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Mazzetti explains that missions were “highly classified” and “irregularly briefed” to Congress. The budget for special operations more than doubled over six years. Mazzetti also reports that JSOC engaged in its own drone operations, using a target list distinct from, but often overlapping with, that of the CIA. In the case of Yemen, Mazzetti writes that “both were in Yemen carrying out nearly the exact same mission.”

Additionally, Mazzetti describes that by 2001, the Pentagon developed “Gray Fox,” a clandestine spying unit with several hundred undercover operatives stationed overseas. When he discovered the Gray Fox unit, Rumsfeld said, “If I had known you guys were doing all this before 9/11, I’d probably have thrown you all in jail.” Mazzetti notes that Rumsfeld was speaking of the clandestine nature of a spy agency within the Pentagon. After September 11, Mazzetti reports that Rumsfeld ordered an increased budget for the unit and closer coordination between Gray Fox and JSOC.

Mazzetti evaluates the legality of the division between the CIA and U.S. military. Pentagon operations are governed by Title 10 of the U.S. Code, limiting military operations outside warzones. Whereas, the CIA is governed by Title 50, allowing the President to send CIA officers “anywhere in the world.” Consequently, Mazzetti notes, if CIA operatives are captured, the U.S. government can deny affiliation with or knowledge of the operatives and let them “rot in jail.” He credits this legal distinction with the development of a new partnership where SEALs are “sheep-dipped” into the CIA under its Title 50 authority. When SEALs killed bin Laden, they were legally considered CIA operatives under the command of CIA director Panetta. Eventually, Mazzetti notes that it “became harder to see real differences between the mission of the military and the mission of the CIA.”

Ultimately, Mazzetti highlights a changing philosophy in the U.S. military that “emphasized speed over muscle” to “win the wars of the twenty-first century.” Indeed, according to a 2005 internal Pentagon study commissioned by Secretary Rumsfeld and cited by Mazzetti, former JSOC and CIA staff recommended that the military conduct special operation missions in countries where the United States was not at war. Former JSOC commander General Stanley McChrystal believed, according to Mazzetti, that effective military operations involved gathering intelligence during raids—through interrogations and computer forensics. This is precisely what happened during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, where numerous computers and hard drives were recovered.

The Deterioration of the CIA-Pakistani Intelligence Relationship

Mazzetti devotes significant attention to depicting the deteriorating relationship between the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence services, the ISI. He describes the two as close in the 1980s, when American and Pakistani spies cooperated against the Soviets. However, Mazzetti notes that the relationship fell apart in the 1990s, which he attributes to Washington “los[ing] interest” in post-Soviet Afghanstan and imposing harsh sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear program. Mazzetti writes that Pakistan began “nurturing” the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, which it saw as a “counterweight” against Pakistani factions supported by India.

After September 11, Mazzetti views the U.S.-Pakistani relationship as one of a bargain. The United States insisted on its “right to wage a secret war,” while the Pakistani government received substantial sums of money in exchange for cooperating with the U.S. efforts. At the time, according to Mazzetti, Pakistani spies anticipated that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would be a short-term affair. The success of some operations and capture of bin Laden lieutenants like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed led officials under President Bush to believe the partnership was working.

Mazzetti describes Pakistani institutions and actors as having their own interests. He portrays the ISI’s Directorate S, with which the CIA worked during the Soviet War, as an organization that helped nurture the Taliban and other militant groups. Since the United States would not be in Afghanistan forever, Mazzetti explains, the ISI wanted to balance helping the United States with appeasing and maintaining ties with groups that served the ISI’s own interests.

Mazzetti attributes the unraveling of the CIA-ISI relationship to events in July 2008, when CIA officers decided that they would not give Pakistan advance warning before launching missiles into tribal areas. Mazzetti also describes the illustrative Lahore incident. The CIA wanted to monitor the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, fearing their alignment with al Qaeda. Mazzetti reports that the ISI viewed the group as a buffer against India, putting the CIA and ISI in direct conflict. Raymond Davis, unbeknownst to the ISI, was a CIA operative monitoring Lashkar in Lahore. He was arrested after an incident, unrelated to his work, where he shot two men dead—Davis alleged that he acted in self-defense. The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, suggested the CIA disclose to the ISI that Davis was a CIA operative, but Mazzetti describes that CIA director Panetta declined to heed the ambassador’s advice. The incident exploded under intense Pakistani public pressure. Finally, after discussions among White House and other officials, Munter informed the head of the ISI that Davis was CIA, and the incident was quietly resolved via secret payments to the families of the men killed in the incident.

Mazzetti notes that drone strikes—particularly their timing and lack of notice—continued to harm diplomatic relations and public opinion. For instance, two days after Raymond Davis was released from prison, and without notice or warning, CIA drones fired missiles at a tribal council meeting in North Waziristan killing dozens.  Mazzetti describes the strike as a “thumb in the eye” for the ISI and notes that “many American officials believed that the strike had been botched, and that dozens of people died who shouldn’t have.” In response, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan, stated that the operation was carried out “with complete disregard to human life.” Mazzetti describes that subsequently, American consulates needed to close. According to Mazzetti, the U.S. ambassador increasingly believed the CIA was being reckless and compromising his own diplomatic work. Soon, the “relationship [between the CIA and the ISI] was dead” describes Mazzetti.

According to Mazzetti’s account, the transformation of the CIA toward lethal operations and the military toward intelligence gathering can be attributed to several factors: institutional pressures to combat terrorism more aggressively, the ambition of individual directors, and revision of existing strategies to adapt to legal limitations. In Mazzetti’s view, lethal operations have led to the deaths of some terrorist leaders but also many civilians. His account challenges the success of these policies due to their high costs, which include the negative effects on relations with the ISI in Pakistan, deficiencies in traditional intelligence gathering, and inter- and intra-agency conflicts. Mazzetti writes, “For better or worse, [the CIA and Pentagon’s] struggles will define American national security in the years to come.”

Daphne Eviatar on Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife:

The Way of the Knife uncloaks the seamy side of U.S. clandestine warfare, its oversold promises and underestimated perils. Mark Mazetti reveals how since the September 11 terrorist attacks, despite a longstanding ban on assassinations and US criticism of targeted killings by other countries, the CIA has become the president’s secret death squad—at times operating beyond his knowledge or control. Meanwhile, the military’s own creep into unaccountable clandestine operations has undermined the United States’ credibility and influence in the parts of the world where it’s most sorely needed. Mazetti exposes how the two agencies, in blurring their missions, have come to compete for control and resources to the point that they not only fail to communicate effectively but also, at times, work at cross-purposes, with deadly results. The CIA’s move away from intelligence collection toward targeted killing has also deprived the United States of critical information about real threats we actually face. Most importantly, the book reveals how the increasing emphasis on secret, deadly remote-controlled missions, while politically popular at home, seems destined to create a never-ending stream of new enemies abroad. The only winners in this secret war appear to be the growing ranks of military contractors called up to fight it.

Ryan Goodman  on Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife:

The Way of the Knife provides a powerful account of the factors that led the CIA to expand its paramilitary operations and the DOD to expand its intelligence operations following 9/11. Mazzetti shows how these developments resulted from a mix of forces – including conscious institutional design, personal ambitions, and unintended consequences of bureaucratic behavior. Mazzetti has an extraordinary ability to understand and describe these various organizational and individual dynamics. It is simply one of the best books in its genre—a must read.

A few of the book’s causal claims, however, admittedly require further investigation. For example, Mazzetti suggests that an Inspector General’s report, which raised legal concerns about CIA interrogation, was a crucial step in pushing the agency to prefer drones over detentions. However, given all the other factors that Mazzetti identifies—including the perceived effectiveness of drones and the reduced risk to US personnel—there is a strong argument that the shift toward such lethal operations was practically over-determined.  And, not only concerns about legal liability compelled the government to shift resources away from detention-and-interrogations. The apprehension and interrogation of suspects was arguably less important once the authority and capacity to use other techniques—such as signals intelligence—expanded.

As another example, Mazzetti suggests that the CIA failed to anticipate the Arab Spring, because the agency’s preoccupation with lethal operations diverted it from intelligence gathering. That, however, is a counterfactual proposition.  We will never know if the CIA could have predicted the Arab Spring. Indeed, the agency has missed many other major world developments—the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall—before armed drones were ever invented. And, the intelligence agencies of other countries also failed to predict the Arab Spring even though they were not diverted by paramilitary operations.

These concerns still do not detract from the book’s major contributions. The Way of the Knife provides a highly informed, analytically sharp investigation of a profound shift in US intelligence and war-fighting strategy. The book’s analysis of those broad themes is excellent, and the evidence that Mazzetti provides is generally compelling.

Further Reading


Further Reading

  1. Marc Ambinder, “Top revelations from The Way of the Knife,” The Week (April 10, 2013) Very positive
  2. Chris Barsanti, “‘The Way of the Knife’: Shadow Wars and Killer Robots,” PopMatters (June 26, 2013)  Very positive
  3. Peter Bergen, “Book review: The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth,” Washington Post (April 5, 2013)  Very positive
  4. Jon Dorschner, “The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth,” American Diplomacy (June 2013)  Somewhat positive
  5. Bob Drogin, “‘The Way of the Knife’ exposes America’s shadow wars,” Los Angeles Times (May 3, 2013)  Somewhat positive
  6. Andrea Garvey, “Book Review: The Way of the Knife,” Chesapeake Inspired (August 21, 2013)  Very positive  (blurb)
  7. Jack Goldsmith, “Book review: The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth,” Lawfare (May 1, 2013) Somewhat positive
  8. Jack Goldsmith, “How Obama Undermined the War on Terror,” New Republic (May 1, 2013)  Somewhat positive 
  9. Joshua Hersh, “The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth,” Cairo Review of Global Affairs (July 21, 2013)  Somewhat positive
  10. Stephen Holmes, “What’s in it for Obama?” London Review of Books (July 18, 2013) Mixed/neutral
  11. Fred Kaplan, “Killing Machine,” New York Times (May 10, 2013) Somewhat positive
  12. James Mann, “Unmanned Killers, and the Men Behind Them,” New York Times (April 24, 2013)  Somewhat positive
  13. Robert McGrath, “Book Review: Mark Mazzetti, ‘Way of the Knife’,” Robert McGrath (May 28, 2013)  Very positive
  14. Asha’ar Rehman, “Review of Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife,” Dawn (July 21, 2013) Somewhat positive
  15. Michael Robbins, “Review: ‘The Way of the Knife’ and ‘Drone Warfare’,” Chicago Tribune (April 20, 2013)  Somewhat positive
  16. Saurabh Kumar Shahi, “Book Review: The Way of the Knife,” Sunday Indian (June 13, 2013)  Somewhat positive
  17. Jeff Stein, “‘The Way of the Knife,’ by Mark Mazzetti,” San Francisco Chronicle (April 16, 2013)  Very positive
  18. Noah Veltman, “The Way of the Knife,” Very positive (blurb)
  19. Scott Whitmore, “My review of ‘The Way of the Knife’ by Mark Mazzetti,” Scott Whitmore, Writer (May 3, 2013) Very positive
  20. Joe Wolverton, “Pres. Obama’s Secret CIA Hit Squad Detailed in ‘The Way of the Knife’,” New American (June 19, 2013) Mixed/neutral