Feature

Book of the week: The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti

“The new American way of war is here, but the debate about it has just begun.”

(Penguin, $30)

“The new American way of war is here, but the debate about it has just begun,” said The Economist. In a book that describes a shadowy world “with some verve and much new detail,” The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti shows us how roles have shifted in the military and among the nation’s intelligence agencies as drones and special operations units carry out more overseas missions. The CIA is “the big gorilla” in the reshuffled hierarchy, having shifted focus since 9/11 from intelligence-gathering to conducting or overseeing targeted capture and kill operations. Though President Obama forced the agency to shut down various overseas detention centers, he’s increased CIA power by embracing the new paradigm—a type of warfare “waged in far-off lands by spies, special forces, and robotized killing machines.”

The benefits of surgical warfare are obvious: “Few Americans are put at risk, and the costs are relatively low in a time of budgetary constraints,” said Peter Bergen in The Washington Post. Yet, as Mazzetti points out, there have been costs of other kinds. In nuclear-armed Pakistan, a vast majority of citizens, angered by drone strikes that have regularly killed civilians, now view America as their enemy. And the CIA’s focus on the war on terror seems to have led to damaging intelligence lapses as protests rocked the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Still, some “big payoffs” have emerged as the line between America’s military and intelligence operations has blurred. The Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden were operating under CIA command, and they spent much of their time at the terrorist’s compound gathering up computer evidence that soon enabled the agency to target and kill bin Laden’s chief of staff.

Mazzetti, who’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, manages to make even familiar stories seem fresh, said Jeff Stein in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Chapters unfold like a series of brisk magazine pieces,” providing intimate views of decisions made by Obama, former CIA chief Leon Panetta, and its current leader, John Brennan. We’re also introduced to a few oddball characters lower on the totem pole, such as a Pentagon psychologist who advocated turning Muslim teens away from extremism through pro-U.S. video games. Unfortunately, “not much is heard here from the innocent victims” of the new way of waging war. Mazzetti’s “highly engaging account” reveals many flaws in the strategy, but he shows little interest in building a thorough case against it.

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