Thursday, 23 May 2013

Broadsword book review: The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti

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

Publisher     :   The Penguin Press, New York, 2013-05-15

Page length :    381
Cost            :    USD 29.95 (Rs 1,662)

The Way of the Knife tells the riveting tale of how America’s efforts in the War on Terror fundamentally transformed the US national security establishment. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), fearing retribution from US investigators for its growing reliance on torture, morphed into a killing unit that launched Hellfire missiles from Predator drones at terrorists sheltering in no-go areas. Meanwhile the Pentagon, a killing machine that was starved for targets, increasingly focused on setting up its own intelligence units that would locate Al Qaeda targets for Special Forces strikes.

It tells the story of how functional boundaries between national security organisations got blurred as agencies like the CIA and the Pentagon that were structured primarily to combat conventional threats struggled to take on new enemies like Al Qaeda, the Iraqi resistance and the Taliban.

And it tells --- like never before --- the inside story of the Predator drone, which changed from an intelligence gathering to a killing machine after an incident in 2000 when an early unarmed Predator spotted who analysts agreed was bin Laden dismounting from a convoy at the Al Qaeda training camp at Tarnak Farm near Kandahar. But it would take six hours for a Tomahawk missile to be launched from an American submarine in the Arabian Sea, and to travel to Tarnak --- by when Osama would be long gone. Clearly, the Predator had to not just see but to kill as well. The first Predator-launched Hellfire missile was tested successfully in Feb 2001 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Mazzetti recounts in intricate details the moral and ethical debates within the CIA as the Predator fleet effectively provided the intelligence agency with its own air force. Controlled remotely through satellite signals transmitted from US-based operations centres, the Predator was a weapon of war that required nobody to go to war. Richard Clarke, the Counterterrorism Coordinator for the president, argued in favour of the drone, “(I)f the Predator gets shot down, the pilot goes home and f*#ks his wife. It’s OK. There’s no POW issue here.”

The author, Mark Mazzetti, Pulitzer Prize winning national security correspondent of The New York Times, has long enjoyed deep access to the CIA and the Pentagon, which are the prime focus of this book. While such linkages generate priceless inside information they can also damage the objectivity that is central to a journalist’s or author’s worth. Mazzetti has faced sharp criticism for unquestioningly accepting the word of his sources. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, he indirectly justified the use of torture by gullibly reporting the official line that Osama had been tracked down thanks to information obtained through torture. Soon after that Mazzetti’s colleague, the widely respected columnist Maureen Dowd, asked him to fact-check a column that she was writing on the movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Mazzetti emailed Dowd’s pre-publication draft to the CIA’s spokesperson, with the message, “see, nothing to worry about,” and “this didn't come from me... and please delete after you read.”

Nevertheless it is hard not to be impressed by how Mazzetti weaves together a ringside view of multiple events into the larger theme of this book: how organisations adapt during acute stress, making cynical calculations, ethical compromises and functional adjustments to safeguard their corporate interests. A discredited CIA, facing the blame for 9/11, launched a detention-and-interrogation programme that violated every ethical canon except those in its lawyers’ books. So much so that, in June 2003, CIA lawyers advised the White House against issuing even a bland statement of support on a day that the UN had set aside to support torture victims, knowing that the interrogation methods it was using were widely considered torture. After a scathing internal report on its interrogation methods in May 2004, CIA officers became convinced that they would be called to account some day. That was when the CIA adopted armed drones and targeted killings as its new direction. As Mazzetti writes, “Killing by remote control was the antithesis of the dirty, intimate work of interrogation.”

The Way of the Knife also offers an exciting account of the secret war in the tribal areas of South and North Waziristan, detailing the double and triple game that the Pakistan Army was playing there. A web of American agents operating from bases guarded by the Pakistan Army could see that their protectors were also their prison wardens. Repeatedly striking peace deals with Waziri militants, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan was dictating terms to the men in khaki, setting timings for their convoys and other moves. A nice portrait is of the spider at the centre of the web, ISI chief Lt Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, a “rumpled and unpretentious (man)… with sad, hollow eyes and stooped shoulders… (who) golfed obsessively and went everywhere trailing a cloud of cigarette smoke.”

Written in the terse, readable prose of a professional reporter who is trained not to waste a word, this book is a must for serious students of international security and Pakistan in particular. The lack of atmosphere and colour in the writing is compensated for by a wealth of anecdotal detail. And given how carefully Mazzetti was servicing his contacts, most those anecdotes would be correct.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

earned the trust... to be entrusted... security of... nation & its citizen... what it takes... to keep it so...