Book review: Unmanned killers and the men behind them



  • 'THE WAY OF THE KNIFE: THE CIA, A SECRET ARMY, AND A WAR AT THE ENDS OF THE EARTH' by Mark Mazzetti; The Penguin Press ($29.95)

Over the past couple of years, numerous authors have reported on specific aspects of America's counterterrorism effort, including the Navy SEAL team operations, the bin Laden raid, other targeted killings and the drone strikes.

The virtue of Mark Mazzetti's new book, "The Way of the Knife," is the way in which it perceptively ties all these events together and paints the larger picture: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, America has gradually developed a new way of war, one that thoroughly relies on secret operations by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon. It "is now easier," Mazzetti writes, "for the United States to carry out killing operations at the ends of the Earth than at any time in its history."

Such actions are not unprecedented, as Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for The New York Times, acknowledges in his book. The CIA carried out large-scale paramilitary operations in Vietnam and supported them in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Pentagon has long engaged in spying.

But Mazzetti focuses on the distinctive, modern-day practice of targeted killing, particularly through the use of drone strikes. He explores the set of forces - political, legal and technological - that gave rise to America's increasing reliance on this tactic as a response to terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks, seeking to gather intelligence on al-Qaida and its leaders, the Bush administration pushed the CIA to develop the extensive program that intelligence officials called RDI - rendition, detention and interrogation. "The Way of the Knife" trenchantly analyzes how this program, which on occasion included torture, gave way under the Obama administration to an emphasis on drone attacks and targeted killing, which have so far attracted less controversy.

When the unmanned Predator had first been developed, some CIA officials were reluctant to use it (or pay for it). But Mazzetti sums up what the Predator meant to policy makers in the White House with a quote from the former counterterrorism official Richard A. Clarke. He told agency officials, in essence, that if a Predator gets shot down, the pilot would merely go home and snuggle up to his wife. "It's OK," Clarke said. "There's no POW issue here." The political environment of the early Obama years further propelled the administration toward drones and targeted killing. No "prominent member of President Obama's own party had criticized drone strikes, and Republicans were hardly in a position to challenge the new president for fighting too aggressive a campaign against terrorists," Mazzetti explains.

"The Way of the Knife" has some flaws. The narrative sometimes seems disjointed, because it occasionally bogs down in individual cases whose significance is unclear or in episodes that distract from the larger story. Overall, though, Mazzetti's book stands up as a portrait of the secret wars.

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