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A Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter’s riveting account of the transformation of the CIA and America’s special operations forces into man-hunting and killing machines in the world’s dark spaces: the new American way of war
The most momentous change in American warfare over the past decade has taken place away from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, in the corners of the world where large armies can’t go. The Way of the Knife is the untold story of that shadow war: a campaign that has blurred the lines between soldiers and spies and lowered the bar for waging war across the globe. America has pursued its enemies with killer drones and special operations troops; trained privateers for assassination missions and used them to set up clandestine spying networks; and relied on mercurial dictators, untrustworthy foreign intelligence services, and proxy armies.
This new approach to war has been embraced by Washington as a lower risk, lower cost alternative to the messy wars of occupation and has been championed as a clean and surgical way of conflict. But the knife has created enemies just as it has killed them. It has fomented resentments among allies, fueled instability, and created new weapons unbound by the normal rules of accountability during wartime.
Mark Mazzetti tracks an astonishing cast of characters on the ground in the shadow war, from a CIA officer dropped into the tribal areas to learn the hard way how the spy games in Pakistan are played to the chain-smoking Pentagon official running an off-the-books spy operation, from a Virginia socialite whom the Pentagon hired to gather intelligence about militants in Somalia to a CIA contractor imprisoned in Lahore after going off the leash.
At the heart of the book is the story of two proud and rival entities, the CIA and the American military, elbowing each other for supremacy. Sometimes, as with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, their efforts have been perfectly coordinated. Other times, including the failed operations disclosed here for the first time, they have not. For better or worse, their struggles will define American national security in the years to come.
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MARK MAZZETTI is a national security correspondent for The New York Times. In 2009, he shared a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the intensifying violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Washington’s response, and he has won numerous other major journalism awards, including the George Polk Award (with colleague Dexter Filkins) and the Livingston Award, for breaking the story of the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes. Mazzetti has also written for the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, and The Economist. He lives in Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
3: CLOAK-AND-DAGGER MEN
“Certainly we don’t need a regiment of cloak-and-dagger men, earning their campaign ribbons—and, indeed, their promotions—by planning new exploits throughout the world. Theirs is a self-generating enterprise.”
—Senator Frank Church, 1976
There was a time, not very long ago, when the CIA was out of the killing business.
When Ross Newland joined the spy agency, in the late 1970s, the CIA wasn’t looking to pick any fights abroad. Newland was fresh out of graduate school, and the CIA was reeling from the body blows it had absorbed from congressional committees that had investigated the agency’s covert actions since its founding, in 1947. Congress was tightening its control over secret activities, and chastened CIA leaders began to refocus the agency’s activities on stealing the secrets of foreign regimes—traditional espionage—rather than overthrowing them or trying to kill their leaders.
President Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned to put an end to the CIA’s overseas adventures, had installed Admiral Stansfield Turner at Langley partly to rein in a spy agency he thought had run amok. Newland and a generation of CIA case officers who joined the agency during this period were told that the CIA would only invite trouble if it got back into the work of killing. By the end of his career, Newland would see the agency come full circle on the matter of lethal action, and he would come to question the wisdom of the CIA’s embrace of its role as the willing executioner of America’s enemies.
The CIA had been established with a relatively simple mission: collect and analyze intelligence so that American presidents could know each day about the various threats facing the United States. 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 authorized 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.
From the start, critics questioned whether the United States needed a spy service separate from the Defense Department. In defending the agency’s independence, CIA directors have pointed out what they have that the Pentagon does not. It has a cadre of undercover officers who can carry out covert missions overseas where the hand of the United States is hidden. The CIA answers directly to the president, the argument goes, and can carry out his orders more quickly, and more quietly, than the military. The residents of the Oval Office have turned to covert action hundreds of times, and often have come to regret it. But memories are short, new presidents arrive at the White House every four or eight years, and a familiar pattern played out over the second half of the twentieth century: presidential approval of aggressive CIA operations, messy congressional investigations when the details of those operations were exposed, retrenchment and soul-searching at Langley, criticisms that the CIA had become risk-averse, then another period of aggressive covert action. Sometimes the cycle began at the very start of a presidency. During his first week in office, President John F. Kennedy told his advisers he didn’t believe that the CIA was aggressive enough in Vietnam and set in motion a secret war against Hanoi that would eventually become the largest and most complex covert action of its time.
The CIA’s ambivalence about carrying out assassinations went back to the spy agency’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Created in 1942 under the leadership of its fierce commander, William J. Donovan, the OSS was a paramilitary organization first, espionage service second. Donovan’s “glorious amateurs” spent much of World War II sabotaging railways, blowing up bridges, and arming Nazi resisters throughout the European theater. Still, even Donovan got cold feet at the end of the war about a program to train assassins to kill Nazi leaders. By 1945, the OSS had trained about one hundred Wehrmacht deserters to hunt down German leaders—from Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring down to every SS officer above the rank of captain. For those organized killings, the agents working for the “Cross Project” would be paid two hundred dollars per month. But the teams were never sent into Germany; Donovan wrote to his staff that such a “wholesale assassination” program would “invite only trouble for the OSS.” Instead of killing top Nazis, Donovan said that they ought to be kidnapped and interrogated for intelligence. The war ended before any kidnappings could take place.
Decades later, the Senate committee led by Frank Church, of Idaho, had originally intended to look only at domestic abuses by the agency, such as illegal wiretaps. But in early 1975, President Gerald Ford made an offhand comment to reporters, saying that if investigators dug deep enough, they might uncover a number of CIA attempts to assassinate foreign leaders. When his remarks went public, the Church Committee made assassinations the principal focus of its hearings.
For six months, senators heard about plots to kill Patrice Lumumba, in the Congo, and to position an exploding seashell near where Fidel Castro snorkeled in Cuba. The iconic image of the hearings came when committee members passed around a pistol that the CIA had built to shoot poison darts and Senator Barry Goldwater pointed the gun into the air as he looked through its sights. CIA director William Colby tried to make clear that the weapon had never been used, but the image endured. Before the committee had even wrapped up its work, President Ford signed an executive order banning the government from carrying out assassinations of foreign heads of state or other foreign politicians.
If anything, President Ford’s assassination ban was his attempt to put limits on his Oval Office successors, to prevent future presidents from being too easily drawn into black operations. The Church Committee pointed out that, for all the CIA’s questionable activities during its early decades, it was always the White House encouraging reckless operations like coup attempts and killing foreign leaders. The CIA offered secrecy, and secrecy had always seduced American presidents.
As Senator Church wrote in his committee’s final report, “once the capability for covert activity is established, the pressures brought to bear on the President to use it are immense.” Church questioned whether America even needed the CIA at all. Instead of keeping a “regiment of cloak-and-dagger men” at the president’s disposal, Church believed that the State Department would be more than capable of taking on covert operations if the need arose but should do so only in the case of dire emergency, perhaps to “avert a nuclear holocaust or save a civilization.”
Church didn’t get his wish, but the CIA had been duly chastened by the time that Ross Newland graduated from Trinity College, in Connecticut, in the late 1970s. The son of an international businessman, he had spent most of his life living in Latin America and Spain, and spoke fluent Spanish. Given his upbringing and interest in international affairs, Newland figured that he might be destined for a career as a diplomat, but he chose first to pursue a master’s degree at the London School of Economics.
At an opulent holiday party in December 1978, at the residence of the American ambassador in Madrid, Newland was recruited to become a spy. He had flown from London to Madrid to see his parents, who were living in Spain, and during the party a man in his early fifties approached him and told him he worked at the embassy. After fifteen minutes of small talk, in both English and Spanish, the man asked Newland if he wanted to walk through the gardens of the residence and speak in private.
The man was Nestor Sanchez, the CIA’s station chief in Madrid and a veteran clandestine officer whose storied career in the secret service was in its twilight. An ardent anticommunist, Sanchez had joined the CIA not long after its founding and had been at the center of many of the covert operations investigated by the Church Committee. He had helped engineer the successful 1954 coup against Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, in Guatemala, and had given a poison-filled syringe disguised as a writing pen to a Cuban agent in an attempt to kill Castro.
Sanchez told Newland he might make a good CIA case officer and gave his name to the agency’s station in London. Three months later, Newland was sitting in a bare room at CIA headquarters waiting for his psychological evaluation. A man walked in, sat down, and asked Newland only two questions.
“So, you grew up in Mexico?”
“What’s the difference between an enchilada and a tostada?”
Though puzzled by the question, Newland nevertheless explained the difference between the two dishes. After a brief chat about Mexican food, Newland politely told his interviewer that they better start the psychological evaluation because he needed to get to his next interview.
“And he said, ‘No, we’re done,’” Newland remembers. Ross New-land was in the CIA.
He finished up at the London School of Economics and offi cially joined the spy agency on November 5, 1979. It was just a day after students in Iran stormed the American embassy and six weeks before Soviet paratroopers landed in Kabul as the vanguard of the hundreds of thousands of troops who would invade Afghanistan over the following months. The two events convulsed CIA headquarters, especially the fifty-three members of Ross Newland’s class. Top agency officials ordered all trainees except those fluent in a language not spoken in the Muslim world to be funneled toward assignments in the Middle East or Central Asia.
Because he spoke Spanish, Newland was one of a dozen trainees excluded from the “draft.” By the time Newland had completed his case-officer training, Ronald Reagan had become president and the CIA had a newfound interest in Latin America. Cocaine was fl owing over the border into the United States, and the Reagan administration was deeply worried about the growing power of leftist guerrilla movements in Central America. Newland had a mentor in Nestor Sanchez, who by then had left Madrid and taken over the CIA’s Latin America division. From his perch at headquarters Sanchez was able to guide Newland’s early career, and he put him at the center of the action.
He was sent first to Bolivia, then the world’s cocaine capital, where he was directed to cultivate sources in the drug cartels. He spent much of his time in the Bolivian lowlands, posing as an American businessman and trying to make friends among the drug-runners in the city of Santa Cruz. He drank with them, bet on cockfights, met their wives and mistresses, and drove with them out of the city to eat duck with mango and pineapple in ramshackle bungalows along the road leading into the jungle.
When he wasn’t in Santa Cruz, he was in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, awaiting the next coup attempt. The CIA station in Bolivia took pride in predicting each coup before it happened, and the agency officers there didn’t want to blow their perfect track record. But New-land got a bracing dose of reality about his place in the world when the one successful military overthrow during his tour in Bolivia earned only a small mention on the inside pages of The New York Times. The previous four attempts hadn’t even made it into the paper.
The Reagan administration had identified the Bolivian government as a partner in the war on drugs. But as he started to penetrate the Bolivian drug networks, Newland began to write intelligence reports about the rampant corruption among top officials in La Paz, many of whom were on the payroll of the cartels. The minister of the interior was protecting the drug kingpins from prosecution, and they were paying him off in ranches, jewels, and cash. The reports were hardly what the American ambassador in La Paz wanted to read.
For Newland, the experience in Bolivia was a first glimpse of how Washington’s policy of propping up corrupt governments to serve a singular goal—in this case the war on drugs—could undermine long-term American interests. He also began to question whether the CIA should really be in charge of the drug war, or whether the Reagan administration had just leaned on the agency because messy wars are best fought in secret. Two decades later he would have similar questions about the CIA’s role in the war against terrorists.
When Newland was dispatched to Bolivia, the CIA’s Latin America division was a relatively sleepy corner of the spy agency’s Directorate of Operations. But it would soon become the center of the CIA’s universe, largely because of dynamics many pay grades above Newland. In June 1981, Nestor Sanchez left the agency for the Pentagon. His replacement was Duane R. Clarridge, a gin-drinking and hard-charging spy of the old school who was exactly in the mold sought by William J. Casey, Ronald Reagan’s newly installed CIA chief. Known to all as “Dewey,” Clarridge grew up in a New Hampshire family of staunch Republicans (his nickname was a tribute to Governor Thomas E. Dewey, of New York) and earned degrees from Brown and Columbia before joining the CIA in 1955. He was eager to battle the Soviet Union on each shadowy front of the Cold War. By 1981, he had served undercover in Nepal, India, Turkey, and Italy, often posing as a businessman and using pseudonyms like Dewey Marone and Dax Preston LeBaron. With a high-octane personality and a preference for white suits and pocket squares, Clarridge attracted a following among younger undercover officers. He was fond of saying that the CIA’s clandestine service “marches for the president,” but his push for aggressive clandestine operations sometimes infuriated State Department diplomats. Clarridge’s boss in Rome, Ambassador Richard Gardner, called him “shallow and devious.”
When he returned to Washington, in 1981, Clarridge quickly developed a rapport with Casey. On Clarridge’s first day back at CIA headquarters, Casey called him into his office and said that the Reagan administration was worried about Cuba and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua “exporting revolution” throughout Central America, particularly to El Salvador. Within a week, Clarridge came back with a plan:
Take the war to Nicaragua.
Start killing Cubans.
Casey, a former OSS man, embraced the plan immediately. He told Clarridge to draft a secret finding for the president to sign, authorizing a covert war in Central America. It was very early into his presidency, but Ronald Reagan was already accelerating covert activities both in Latin America and in Afghanistan, where he increased support to the mujahedeen fighting Soviet troops. Reagan was initiating a new turn of the cycle: The “risk-averse” CIA was once again running secret wars abroad.
Clarridge was just the man to be in charge of the Central American front, and he used a CIA slush fund to buy guns, ammunition, mules, and heavy weapons for the Nicaraguan Contras, the rebels resisting the government. He worked closely with the Pentagon’s specia...
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