The Way of the Knife: NYT’s Mark Mazzetti on the CIA’s Post-9/11 Move from Spying to Assassinations

In his new book, “The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth,” Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti tracks the transformation of the CIA and U.S. special operations forces into man-hunting and killing machines in the world’s dark spaces: the new American way of war. The book’s revelations include disclosing that the Pakistani government agreed to allow the drone attacks in return for the CIA’s assassination of Pakistani militant Nek Muhammad, who was not even a target of the United States. Mazzetti’s reporting on the violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan — and Washington’s response — won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. The year before, he was a Pulitzer finalist for his reporting on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: New details have emerged this week on the origins of the CIA drone war in Pakistan. The New York Times reports the Pakistani government agreed to allow the drone attacks in return for the CIA’s assassination of a Pakistani militant who was not even a target of the United States. The militant, Nek Muhammad, was killed by CIA Predator drone in 2004. Pakistan took credit for the attack under the terms of its agreement with the CIA. As part of the deal, the United States also agreed not to carry out strikes in areas of Pakistan where Kashmiri militants were trained for attacks in India.

AMY GOODMAN: The report is based on a new book by Mark Mazzetti called The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. It was published on Tuesday. The book examines the transformation of the CIA and America’s special operations forces into man-hunting and killing machines in the world’s dark spaces. The book also looks at U.S. targeted killings in Yemen and Somalia as well as secret spy operations inside Iran.

Mark Mazzetti joins us here in New York. He’s a national security correspondent for The New York Times, has broken a number of major stories in recent years, including the destruction of dozens of CIA interrogation tapes. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mark Mazzetti, welcome to Democracy Now!

MARK MAZZETTI: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the title, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, what’s the knife?

MARK MAZZETTI: The title is drawn from—it’s a departure from an analogy used by John Brennan, who is now the CIA director, but he gave a speech several years ago where he talked about—he was comparing the big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to these other kind of shadow wars, and he talked about instead of using a hammer, the United States will use a scalpel. And as I write in the book, the scalpel, of course, implies a surgical form of doing warfare or a war without costs and blunders or surgeries without complications. Knife fights are messier. And the—I chose the knife as a way to sort of describe this way of doing warfare that has benefits but also has costs.

AMY GOODMAN: And the secret army you’re referring to?

MARK MAZZETTI: Partly it’s the CIA, but it’s also partly the special operations troops who have expanded their authorities and expanded their missions around the world. And one of the sort of themes I talk about in the book is this great convergence that’s happened over the last 12 years since 9/11, where you had the CIA increasingly doing killing and the military increasingly doing spying. And so, you have the—the secret armies are those who are carrying out these missions outside of declared war zones.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are some of the things that you find out, that you reveal in the book, about what the CIA is doing now after 9/11 that it was not previously doing?

MARK MAZZETTI: One of the things that I try to track in the book is this sort of history of the CIA and carrying out lethal operations. And there was a big fight right before September 11th about whether the CIA should be back into the killing business, over the Predator and whether they should kill Osama bin Laden and then—and be in Afghanistan. And it’s kind of interesting. There was a whole generation of CIA officers who came out of—who got into the CIA in the ’70s after the Church investigations, where—which revealed all of the early assassination attempts by the CIA to kill Castro and others. And this generation had now come into prominence in the CIA, and there was this morality play about whether they should be using the Predator to—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, just to explain, Senator Frank Church said end the assassinations, right?

MARK MAZZETTI: That’s right, and the CIA did for several decades basically sort of give up its lethal authorities, or they were taken from them. President Ford signed a ban on assassinations of political leaders. So, pre-9/11, you had a CIA that was—you know, it had been cut back dramatically during the budget cuts of the ’90s, but they also really were—and many were concerned about whether it should be back into the killing business. So, obviously, 9/11 happened, and some of those concerns were swept aside. And what we’ve seen over time is the CIA has really very much been involved in these targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere, and in some ways has become better at it, more efficient at it, than parts of the military.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you also explain that right after 9/11, at a meeting at the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney at the time, he authorized the CIA to, quote, “create hit teams to kill terror suspects.” Can you explain what happened in that meeting, as you do in the book, and how controversial that suggestion was?

MARK MAZZETTI: It was a proposal that was put forth by a couple of CIA officers inside the agency’s Counterterrorism Center. And this came a few months after the president authorized the CIA, basically gave this broad covert action authority to capture or kill al-Qaeda members around the globe. One of the proposals the CIA came back with was putting together these teams that would go into foreign countries to track down and even kill suspected terror leaders, places where you couldn’t send an army, places where you couldn’t send a Predator, foreign capitals in Europe, elsewhere. And—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But also, these secret wars, the drone attacks, take place in countries principally that are at least officially allied with the U.S., is that correct?

MARK MAZZETTI: The drone attacks, well, certainly, yeah. I mean, in Pakistan—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the targeted killings, for that matter.

MARK MAZZETTI: And the targeted killings. And the proposal was certainly to, you know, go into countries that—where the United States was allied with, certainly. And what happened after that meeting was basically—it was early, and they hadn’t really fleshed out many details, but Vice President Cheney and his staff said, “OK, proceed with this program.” What happens then is they do some training, and they get into the war in Afghanistan, and that sort of diverts the CIA’s attention. They don’t, to my knowledge, actually carry out anything under this program. And then, in 2004, it becomes outsourced to Blackwater, the private security company, or at least a few senior officers of Blackwater, and including one of them who was in that meeting in late 2001 who had originally pitched it to the vice president. And so, it’s an interesting story about how the CIA was wrestling in these months after 9/11 to—they had these authorities they hadn’t had in decades, and they were trying to figure out—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But was it—was that unprecedented, the use of private contractors like Blackwater? Had the CIA or the—had they done that before?

MARK MAZZETTI: It’s—there’s probably aspects in the CIA’s history where they’ve—I mean, we know certainly that they’ve hired private citizens, that they’ve hired various factions to carry out these types of missions in its history. It was certainly unprecedented, or it hadn’t been decades since they got back into this. And Blackwater does become a close partner with the CIA for a number of years. And this was sort of one aspect of it. So it was a—it was a sort of incredible moment for them to then take this program and say, “OK, well, we’re going to, for deniability reasons, for some—to some degree, send it to a private company.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break; when we come back, look at how President Obama not only continued the shadow wars of the Bush administration, but expanded them. And we’re going to hear some stories, like the beginning of the book, the story of Ray Davis. Mark Mazzetti is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The New York Times. His new book, The Way of the Knife. Stay with us.