This book is about the fundamental changes that have occurred in the CIA and the US govt as to how to wage war against non-state enemies in the post 9/11 world. In presenting a composite picture of these changes, the author shows how the roles of the CIA and the Pentagon have overlapped and even switched. He raises moral and ethical questions associated with conducting 'war' on a country without ever declaring 'war', killing 'enemies' in foreign lands by remotely piloted drones and outsourcing espionage and killing to private firms and mercenaries. These are thought-provoking questions to ponder about.
Mark Mazetti traces the philosophy of the CIA over the past fifty years as follows: In the 1960s, the CIA was allowed to carry out assassinations overseas as part of its job. In the 70s, President Ford reversed all that, forbidding the CIA from being a killing machine and instead making it focus on intelligence gathering and spying as its primary job. However, 9/11 changed all that yet again, with the CIA getting into the business of tracking down Islamic extremists, incarcerating and torturing them overseas. The adverse reaction to this practice and the Congressional indictments that followed, made them choose the silver bullet of killing terrorists abroad again through remote-controlled drones without opting for on-the-ground assassination squads. In doing so, the American government has outsourced the basic functions of spycraft to private contractors, making the American way of war morph from clashes between tank columns - into the shadows, outside the declared war zones. In the process, the constraints on who can be killed, where they can be killed and when they can be killed have been conveniently blurred.
The author says that the challenge of Al-Qaeda has led the Pentagon, the CIA and the US Govt into paradoxical and inconsistent positions. The Clinton administration, though opposed to the CIA carrying out the assassination of Osama bin Laden through hit-squads, was okay with killing him through Tomahawk missiles. In the same way, President Obama, though a liberal, finds no contradiction in embracing and expanding the killing program through the drones, which has resulted in the deaths of substantial number of civilians, non-combatants and even allies, apart from suspected terrorists.
Mark Mazetti clearly believes that the CIA should not stray away from its primary mission of spying and gathering intelligence. He attributes this 'straying' as the reason for the CIA getting blind-sided by the Arab Spring events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2010-12. Though it is tempting to agree with this, I remember reading in Tim Werner's book, 'The Legacy of the Ashes', about the CIA getting blindsided by many world events even before 9/11. For example, the CIA did not foresee India going for an atomic blast in 1998. Nor did they foresee the sudden collapse of Communism in 1990-92 or even the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1991. The CIA has the image of an all-powerful God-like entity in the eyes of developing countries. However, in reality, it is probably just a massive bureaucracy struggling to make sure that its left-hand is aware of what the right-hand is doing.
I found the chapters on the CIA's role in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia quite absorbing and revelatory. The sections on Pakistan show that the US got quite fed up with the 'double game' of the ISI and the Pak army, resulting in giving full rein to the CIA to violate the country's borders. Years before the assault on Osama bin Laden in 2011, the Navy Seals had landed inside Pakistan and conducted operations in Damadola in the Bajaur agency without the Pak army ever being aware of it. This seems to have given the confidence for the later invasion to kill OBL. The US never informed President Musharraf of special operations that were carried out inside Pakistan. During the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, the CIA slipped in many covert officers into Pak without the ISI's knowledge under the cover of relief efforts. The book paints a dismal picture of Pak-US relations at all levels. There are fascinating accounts of how the CIA pursued al-Shabab in Somalia and killed the American citizen Anwar al-Aulaki in Yemen.
After reading the book, I am compelled to think that this spree of 'killing by remote control' could end dangerously, similar to making the atomic bomb and waging cyber-warfare. The atomic bomb was seen as a way to bring fascism to its end in Japan without loss of of American lives. But the nuclear weapon has since proliferated and has come to threaten all of us. Similarly, internet viruses like Stuxnet were deployed towards a 'bloodless' destruction of Iran's nuclear program. But, it also got out of control, resulting in more cyber espionage and state-sponsored viruses threatening the highly-networked infrastructures of the advanced industrial nations. We are likely to see in future many countries following the 'US lead' in waging war (without declaring war) and killing citizens of another country through remote controlled drones, exacerbating tensions among nations and power-blocks.
It is possible that the US has let another dangerous genie out of the bottle.