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Interview: Author Mark Mazzetti On The CIA And America's Shadow War

The CIA seal in the lobby of CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia
The CIA seal in the lobby of CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mark Mazzetti’s new book, "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth," looks at how the CIA’s role has changed since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. He traces its evolution from an agency charged with gathering foreign intelligence into one with a primary mission to hunt and kill terrorists and militants.

RFE/RL's Heather Maher spoke to Mazzetti from the Washington bureau of "The New York Times," where he is national security correspondent.

RFE/RL: Your book opens with a description of a pivotal meeting in then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, soon after 9/11. Can you give us some details?

Mark Mazzetti: The meeting took place a few months after September 11 [2001], and by that point the CIA had already been handed lethal authority by President [George W.] Bush -- a week after September 11, President Bush signed what they call a "presidential finding" authorizing the CIA to capture or kill Al-Qaeda operatives around the globe.

The meeting I describe in Chapter 1 of the book is a few months after that, and the CIA is basically proposing what to do with this authority, and it’s to use these hit teams -- for lack of a better term -- where they would put groups of people into countries to go kill off Al-Qaeda members or people that the president wanted to kill. And this was a meeting with Vice President Cheney and his staff, and after that meeting Vice President Cheney gave the go-ahead to carry out the training. It was basically, go ahead, proceed with your plan.
"New York Times" reporter and author Mark Mazzetti
"New York Times" reporter and author Mark Mazzetti

RFE/RL: You call today's CIA "a machine for killing" and write that the lines separating U.S intelligence operations from military operations have been all but erased. How did that happen?

Mazzetti: The CIA had gotten out of the killing business for a period of time after a lot of the revelations of the 1970s that came out during congressional hearings [that] aired some of the CIA’s dirty laundry. And [after that] a generation of CIA officers really were trained in the classic espionage tools. But then after 9/11, the Counterterrorism Center of the CIA really became the beating heart of the agency, and [was] performing paramilitary functions.

On the flip side, the military has dramatically expanded its own human intelligence collection, authorities, and operations. Around 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, saw the Pentagon as it existed and thought it was totally ill-equipped to deal with a war that was global and where you needed to send troops all over the place. Rumsfeld said we need to be in places where there are not "hot" wars, and so part of it was training special operations troops to be more like spies, to gather intelligence in some of the dark corners of the world.

RFE/RL: Is that why Special Operations Forces carried out the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound but did so under the direction of the CIA?

Mazzetti: Yes, and this had happened before -- where, in order to get U.S. troops into places like Pakistan to do discreet operations, they would be, the colloquial term would be "sheep-dipped." In other words, bureaucratically, in an instant you’re turned into a CIA operative, which gives you more authority to operate in [foreign] countries. Literally, the soldiers became spies.

The most famous example is, as you said, the bin Laden raid [in May 2011], where it was an operation executed by the American military but the CIA director had control, it was under CIA authority. So you had U.S. troops in a country where the United States is not at war, yet they are carrying out this military operation deep in the heart of this country.

RFE/RL: This blurring of roles seems like it must cause the military and CIA to get in each other’s way in some places. Have there been cases of that?

Mazzetti: There have been. I think that there’s a lot better collaboration today than there was the first few years after September 11. There were a lot of people sort of running over each other. Rumsfeld would send special operations troops into countries and not tell the CIA station chief or the American ambassador and there were a lot of crossed signals.

I recount a point in the book, in around 2005-06, where they realized that there was a problem. And the CIA and the Pentagon kind of got together and brokered deals where, on a country-by-country basis, they said, "OK, we’ll be in charge here and you’ll be in charge there; and if our guys have to operate in this country -- for instance, in Pakistan -- we’ll be under CIA control." So that was part of the period where things did get better. But you certainly see a lot of overlap, redundancy, competition that remains between the CIA and the Pentagon.

RFE/RL: You also make the case that the CIA's expanded role in hunting down terrorists has come at the expense of intelligence gathering?

Mazzetti: There are opportunity costs for everything, and when you have a CIA that’s been given, by the White House, the primary mission to go hunt and kill, you are going to be missing out on some of the things the CIA is supposed to be doing, which is collecting intelligence about what’s happening in the world and telling the president in advance of that happening.

It would be, I think, an unfair criticism to say the CIA should have predicted that there was this spark in Tunisia and what that spark would be -- that’s fortune-telling. But at the same time, once the Tunisian revolution happened you had this sort of cascading revolutions around the Arab world. And I think the criticism that was certainly lodged by senior people at the White House was that the CIA was behind the curve; the revolutions were happening, the CIA was one step behind.

RFE/RL: President Barack Obama has greatly expanded the CIA drone program and angered some in Congress with his targeted "kill" lists and legal argument for killing Americans abroad. Is there an internal debate in the administration about this?

Mazzetti: There’s no question that pressure is building on President Obama to explain the program better and to make it a little bit more transparent and a little more accountable. You started hearing it earlier this year and it is starting to, I think, increase. There’s a debate over whether the CIA should be getting out of this business entirely, which I don’t think will happen. I think that the CIA may hand off some missions to the military, but I don’t think that Obama or a future president is going to totally take that away from the CIA. And then there’s this debate over how much Congress should know and how much the American people should know.

RFE/RL: Is there also a debate within the CIA? The new director, John Brennan, played a big role in Obama's targeted-killing program. What direction do you see him taking the agency?

Mazzetti: There’s certainly concern inside the CIA about how much the CIA has been transformed. And there’s certainly concern among CIA officers of Brennan’s generation who are advising him that there need to be some changes.

As you said, Brennan has been intimately and deeply involved in these operations for the last four years in this job at the White House that gave him extraordinary power over targeted killings. So we will see whether, as he has indicated, whether he wants the CIA out of this business or at least to dial some of it back.

But I do think that it’s going to take some time because I think that there’s still going to be the interest in keeping the CIA doing some of this, because it’s better for secrecy if they want to remain secret.

At the same time, it’s hard to change because you have a generation of CIA officers -- the post-9/11 generation -- who have so much been socialized by war and socialized by man-hunting. And these things take a long time to learn. And if you’re going to teach them new skills, it’s going to take them time to do that, too. So changing the CIA, if indeed there is a change, it might take another generation.

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