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Book Review: The Way Of The Knife


Fishing in troubled waters
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, June 13, 2013 13:31
Tags : The Way Of The Knife | Mark Mazzetti | 9/11 Commission | CIA | Osama bin Laden | Fidel Castro |

Somewhere in Mark Mazzetti’s 400-page scholarship on CIA and its changing role in the post-9/11 world, there is a scene where an ex-counterterrorism expert appears before the 9/11 Commission. Asked whether or not he would have allowed CIA to take out Osama bin Laden without giving him the chance to defend himself before the law, the officer exclaimed “No, absolutely no.” And to drive the point home, he further added, “We’re not Mossad.”

But what CIA did in the decade or so that followed took a heavy toll on the world and the agency itself. ‘The Way of The Knife’ delves there and more.

Those who have interest in such matters would recall a very famous yet controversial hearing in 1975 led by Senator Frank Church that aspired to look into violations by CIA inside the country. However, since President Ford, like several other Democrat Presidents who preceded or succeeded him, wanted to clip the wings of CIA; he suggested that the hearing must take into account CIA’s dirty war outside America’s shores, especially assassination attempts on heads of state. When skeletons like attempts on the life of Patrice Lumumba and Fidel Castro started tumbling out, Ford in an executive order banned any such adventure. A ban that was lifted in a similar executive order by President Dubya Bush.

“President Truman had not wanted the agency to become America’s secret army, but since a vague clause in the National Security Act of 1947 authorised the CIA to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security,” American presidents have used this “covert action” authority to dispatch the CIA on sabotage operations, propaganda campaigns, election rigging, and assassination attempts,” he writes.

The idea behind this ban, Mazzetti insists, was to keep CIA away from dirty jobs so that it can focus on quality intelligence gathering without getting gung-ho. Yet, the author rightly suggests, it missed predicting, much less affecting in any way, some of the most earthshaking events that followed, including the Iranian Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and, of course, 9/11.

Much of the book, at least the first half of it, documents the rather abrupt and sudden militarisation of the CIA on one hand and the rise in intelligence gathering of Special Operations forces. Bereft of jargon, the book basically tells us how post-9/11 the CIA and DOD started acting like each other. So in Mazzetti’s words, “CIA became a killing machine, an organization consumed with manhunting,” and DOD, particularly, JSOC, “has been dispersed into the dark spaces of American foreign policy, with commando teams running spying missions that Washington would never have dreamed of approving in the years before 9/11.” 

What is also interesting is that the transfer of presidency from Bush to Barack Obama could not so much as put a hiccup in the process. If anything, Obama only expedited the process that was anathema for his Democrat predecessors from Ford to Carter to Clinton.    

And this, in more ways than one, tells us why America’s sway and ability to influence events has diminished beyond belief. Take for example the case of CIA operative Raymond A. Davis, the former Green Beret who, while on a intelligence gathering mission in Pakistan, shot and killed two civilians, plunging the relationship between the US and Pakistan to a never before low. The chapter deals with the conflict between the Department of State and Pentagon and how the CIA station head in Islamabad not only undercut the American Ambassador Munter’s position but also jeopardised whatever little chance of trust building that was created.

Or for example the case of Dewey Clarridge, a former CIA operative from the Iran-contra days, who started working as a private intelligence gathering contractor whose over smartness almost ignited a mini-civil war in Afghanistan. And then there was Michele Ballarin, a Gucci and Louis Vuitton flashing Virginia socialite and a failed politician, who got herself entrenched in the internal affairs of Somalia.

While Mazzetti tells the story in racy prose, he never trivialises. However, after reading it cover to cover, one realizes that Mazzetti does have a soft corner for Langley’s old war horses in their fight against the new crop of sleuths. But that is understandable. After all, the Young Turks, in spite of technological and human intelligence advantage, equally failed to predict Arab Spring, Benghazi attack or the lifespan of the Assad regime in Syria.

Author: Mark Mazzetti

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-0-143-42081-1

Pages: 392

Price: Rs. 499

Publisher: Penguin

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017