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Soldiers and Spies

Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (New York: Penguin Press, 2013). Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013). It’s instructive to linger over the scene-setting, thematic quotations that book authors choose to open ...

C.E. Lewis/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images
C.E. Lewis/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (New York: Penguin Press, 2013).

Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013).

It’s instructive to linger over the scene-setting, thematic quotations that book authors choose to open their stories. It tells you something about where the tale is going. And where the author is coming from.

Mark Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for the New York Times, opens his new book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, with a passage from John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:

"Good intelligence work, Control had always preached, was gradual and rested on a kind of gentleness. The scalphunters were the exception to his own rule. They weren’t gradual and they weren’t gentle either…"

Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation magazine and the author of a previous book about the military contractor Blackwater, begins his new book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield with an observation from Voltaire:

"It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets."

These are ominous openings. They signal that the story you’re about to read wrestles with the darkest aspects of our human nature. What turns men into killers? What drives them from "gentleness" to savagery? How should we judge them for that?

They also tell you that each writer, who has been widely praised for the strength of his journalism, is after something more substantial here. Maybe even novelistic. You don’t invoke Le Carré and Voltaire without a hefty dose of ambition. Fortunately for Mazzetti and Scahill, their gambles largely pay off.

Taken together — and if you have the time, you really should read these books as companions — The Way of the Knife and Dirty Wars are among the most comprehensive and soul-searching histories of the now 12-year-old ‘Global War on Terrorism.’ The authors are covering the same ground, the same organizations, and frequently the same people. Each book examines how the Central Intelligence Agency and the Special Operations forces of the military took leading roles in the terror war and were fundamentally changed by it.

In broad strokes, the CIA turned from an espionage agency steeped in the intrigue of Cold War spying into a global hit squad, killing terrorists in the most unforgiving reaches of the globe with its 21st Century weapon of choice, a remotely-piloted aircraft armed with air-to-ground missiles. The military has always been in the killing business, but the war on terror turned soldiers into spies, made them collectors of intelligence, jailors and interrogators, and deposited them in a world of covert affairs and skullduggery for which they’d never been trained.

Neither the CIA nor the special operators chose this war, which, from the beginning, knew no borders. Soon after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, Scahill writes, "[Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld wanted plans drawn up to hit Somalia, Yemen, Latin America, Mauritania, Indonesia and beyond. …The world is a battlefield — that was the mantra."

It didn’t matter if the host governments of these nations invited American forces to clean up the dens of terrorist and fundamentalists, or their loose network of "supporters." The United States would find its authority through congressionally-enacted authorizations of force, secretive military and intelligence directives, and a broadly articulated doctrine of self-defense. The CIA and the special operators would be on point, and there was no peace in sight.

Practically from the beginning, it was clear that while the two forces might be after the same enemy, they weren’t fighting as partners. "By early 2002, Afghanistan was neither a daily shooting war nor a hopeful peace but a twilight conflict beset by competition and mistrust between soldiers and spies," Mazzetti writes. Navy SEALs and Marines spent eight days digging up graves in a fruitless search for Osama bin Laden, whom intelligence wrongly indicated might have been killed in a recent air strike. In a far costlier communication breakdown, Green Berets shot up a compound they thought was filled with Taliban gunmen. After they’d killed more than 40 fighters and returned to base, they discovered that days earlier the CIA had convinced the men to switch sides and fight with the Americans. The Green Berets never got the message.

The two sides were institutionally at odds. Mazzetti and Scahill chronicle the military’s effort to set up its own human spying networks in various countries, behind the backs of CIA station chiefs. There were predictable clashes, and much head-butting and chest-thumping, as the lines between the two sides started to blur, and at times neither was sure which business they should really be in.

The spies and the soldiers were like pubescent teenagers, clumsily responding to the rapid and explosive changes to life as they knew it. On these accounts, the authors agree. But it’s when they look for the reasons behind these cultural shifts, and the motivations of the spies and the soldiers and the higher-ups pulling their respective strings, that their stories diverge.

In Mazzetti’s account, which is the more empathetic, the responses of the CIA and the military seem biological, a set of almost organic responses to a changing environment. About the CIA’s decision to start killing suspected terrorists outside internationally recognized war zones, he writes that "each hit the CIA took for its detention-and-interrogation program pushed CIA leaders further to one side of a morbid calculation: that the agency would be far better off killing, rather than jailing, terror suspects." The CIA was run mostly by men who, like Le Carré’s aging spymaster Control, seemed utterly unprepared for the new war, and fought at every turn to preserve the agency to which they’d devoted their careers and pledged their lives. The CIA saw targeted killing with drones as "cleaner, less personal" than detention and interrogation. Killing was new business, to be sure, but doing it at a distance, and with deniability, echoed the old ways. Institutional preservation was their guiding instinct.

In Scahill’s story, which is generally more concerned with the military’s side of the tale, the transformation of special operations into a global "assassination machine" seems largely engineered by the government’s most powerful men, particularly Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who used the crisis of terrorism to create private, "unaccountable" armies. Scahill sees leaders who had a moral choice and took a dark path, because it freed them from the moorings of the Constitution and reset the balance in the separation of powers decidedly in favor of the President. For him, the special operators become a private death squad, answering only to their commander-in-chief, not the Congress, not the public. The response to crisis wasn’t about self-preservation, but seizing an opportunity to reengineer power in government.

Again, the authors’ choice of opening quotations is instructive. Mazzetti approaches the story with the fascinated, occasionally even cold remove of a newspaper reporter who is drawn to the cultural shifts in the spy game. It’s their mindset, how they slowly learned "the way of the knife," that most intrigues him. He’s drawn to the humanity of killing, and how it twists people, as evidenced by his choice to close the story, in cinematic fashion, on a face-to-face meeting with an Dewey Clarridge, a complicated and d
eeply flawed old Cold Warrior-turned-terrorist-hunter who represents as well as any single man the uneven evolution of the CIA.

Scahill, by comparison, is a moralist. He is a journalist in the tradition of the ink-stained wretch, throwing rocks at the castle walls from the outside. Bill Moyers has called him "a one-man truth squad." Scahill inserts himself at times into the narrative (the book has photographs of him reporting in the field, and he is the subject of a new documentary film about his work), but he’s not writing in the first-person for the sake of glory. When he asks, on the final pages, "How does a war like this ever end?" he does so with a personal stake. Like his subjects, Scahill has traveled to the frontlines of the dirty wars, and one gets the distinct impression he’d like to come home.   

It’s these subjective, stylistic differences that make the books such a palpable pair. The subject is the same, but the history is written through different lenses. The final results, however, are equally illuminating.

The books are also especially timely. Right now, the spies and the soldiers find themselves at a turning point. The armed forces are unwinding from a decade of war and relentless counterterrorism operations. The new Director of the CIA, John Brennan, himself a career intelligence officer who was schooled in the Cold War, has said he wants to emphasize the agency’s traditional work in espionage and bring the days of killing to an end.

The soldiers and the spies want to return to their old ways. They may succeed, but only if they haven’t lost them.

Shane Harris is a senior writer at The Washingtonian magazine and the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State. In September, he will be joining the New America Foundation as a Future Tense Fellow.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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