On May 1, 2011, CIA Director Leon Panetta was in overall command of the single most important U.S. military operation since 9/11: the Navy SEAL Team 6 assault on a mysterious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was suspected to be hiding.
The SEALs were sneaking into Pakistan without the permission of its government on a covert, deniable mission in a country that was supposedly allied to the United States. Because U.S. law forbids the military to do this kind of work, the SEALs were turned over to the control of the CIA to become, in effect, spies under Panetta’s nominal control.
Yet isn’t the CIA’s real job to steal other countries’ secrets, rather than to carry out targeted killings?
A few years before the bin Laden operation, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the head of Joint Special Operations Command, had turned the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL Team 6 into a fighting machine in Iraq and Afghanistan that increasingly mounted operations to gather intelligence.
Yet aren’t Special Operations Forces the door kickers whom you send in to kill or capture terrorists rather than the guys who collect intelligence?
Since 9/11, a dramatic shift has occurred in how the United States deploys its military and intelligence forces. In The Way of the Knife, Mark Mazzetti documents the militarization of the CIA and the stepped-up intelligence focus of Special Operations Forces.
As Mazzetti observes in his deeply reported and crisply written account, over the past decade the CIA’s top priority was no longer gathering intelligence on foreign government and their countries, but man hunting.
The bin Laden operation was far from the only deadly mission Panetta presided over. Panetta’s tenure at CIA, Mazzetti writes, was known for its aggressive – some would come to believe reckless – campaign of targeted killings. Panetta authorized 216 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan that killed at least 1,196 people, mostly militants, but also a smaller number of civilians, according to a count by the New America Foundation.
Conversely, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was deeply irritated when the CIA rather than the military led the ground operation in late 2001 that ejected the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld came to the conclusion that the only answer was to make the Pentagon more like the CIA.
Focus on drone attacks
The emergence of a military-intelligence complex has proven devastating to al-Qaida and its affiliates. The CIA drone campaign in Pakistan has killed much of the al-Qaida leadership and largely eliminated Pakistan’s tribal regions as the key training ground for the group.
Meanwhile, Joint Special Operations Command not only killed bin Laden, but it largely destroyed the leadership of al-Qaida’s Iraqi affiliate, which had precipitated the civil war in Iraq by its numerous attacks on the Shiite community. That helped enable a steady decline in violence in Iraq since 2007.
If there is an Obama doctrine, it is to fight the war against al Qaida and its allies with drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and with small numbers of clandestine Special Operations Forces on the ground in countries such as Somalia. This new kind of fighting gives Mazzetti the title to his book. It’s a form of warfare that avoids messy, costly wars that topple governments and require years of American occupation.
The benefits are obvious: Few Americans are put at risk, and the costs are relatively low in a time of budgetary constraints. But as Mazzetti points outs, this type of fighting is not as surgical as some proponents believe, for it creates enemies just as it has obliterated them.
It also has lowered the bar for waging war.
CIA drone strikes are emblematic of this point. In Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons, drone attacks are deeply unpopular, angering many of the 180 million Pakistanis. This is a high cost to pay.
In 2010, there were a record 122 strikes in Pakistan, yet very few of the victims were leaders of al Qaida, suggesting that this tactic was being used without much thought for the larger strategic picture.
But some big payoffs emerge from the successful blending of the military and the CIA that are well illustrated by the execution of the bin Laden raid.
The first 15 minutes of the raid were consumed in killing bin Laden’s two bodyguards, his son and the al Qaida leader himself. But during the next 23 minutes, the SEALs picked up every computer, thumb drive and file they could lay their hands on. More than half of the time that the SEALs were on the ground in Pakistan, they were performing what is known as Sensitive Site Exploitation.
As a result, the CIA was then able to launch drone strikes – presided over by Panetta, not the military – that killed a number of al Qaida leaders, such as Atiyah Abd Al Rahman, who had appeared prominently in the documents the SEALs had recovered at the Abbottabad compound. The documents revealed that Rahman was not the middle-tier al Qaida official he had originally been pegged, but bin Laden’s chief of staff.
The Way of the Knife also reveals the many eccentric characters who emerged during this era of shifting portfolios and illustrates another important theme of the book: the privatization of intelligence operations, traditionally a core government function.
In this new environment, ambitious individuals take on outsized roles. Consider Michele Ballarin, a former Republican candidate for Congress and socialite living on a hundred-acre farm in the horse country of Virginia, who became obsessed with Somalia at the same time that both the CIA and JSOC were increasingly focusing on the rise of Al-Shabaab, the Somali al-Qaida affiliate that had taken much of the country.
Following a chance meeting with a group of Somali-Americans, Ballarin soon was traveling regularly to Somalia, toting her Louis Vuitton bags, outfitted in Gucci clothing and so dazzling the Somalis that they dubbed her Amira, the Arabic word for princess.
Soon, the Virginia socialite was embroiled in hostage negotiations with Somali pirates who had seized a ship carrying a clandestine cargo of Russian tanks worth many millions. And Ballarin was put on the Pentagon’s payroll to provide intelligence about Somalia’s many armed groups, although from Mazzetti’s account it is not clear that she discovered anything very useful.
Duane Dewey Clarridge, a CIA legend who had played a starring role during the Iran-Contra scandal, also seized an opportunity in the new world of government-sponsored private intelligence collection.
In 2009, the 77-year-old Clarridge, long retired and dismissive of the CIA as risk-averse, was running his own private spying operation along the Afghan-Pakistan border. He hatched a cockamamie plan to dig up evidence that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was a heroin addict, a rumor then floating around Kabul.
Under the scheme, Clarridge would insert an agent into Karzai’s palace to collect his beard trimmings and then would run drug tests on them. He dropped the plan when it became obvious that the Obama administration had no intention of pushing Karzai from power.
Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for the New York Times, asserts that the war on terror has damaged the CIA’s ability to understand the really important political developments in the Muslim world, such as the Arab Spring. As a senior Obama official explained, noting the agency’s emphasis on drone strikes and hunting down al Qaida leaders: The CIA missed Tunisia. They missed Egypt. They missed Libya.
And the increasingly intelligence-driven mission of Special Operations Forces is surely a net gain for U.S. national security interests, but balanced against this is the fact that these forces operate behind a screen of secrecy that makes them far less accountable than the conventional military is to Congress and the American public. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned a century ago, Sunlight is the best disinfectant.