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CIA's role has shifted

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. By Mark Mazzetti. The Penguin Press, 293 pages, $29.95, hardcover.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was created to inform and warn presidents and other top policy makers about the forces and dynamics shaping world events. CIA operatives focused on gathering information, usually secretly, about local disruptions, popular movements around the globe and the likelihood of foreign leaders staying in power.

On occasion, the CIA helped promote the overthrow of democratically elected leaders, such as Mohammed Mossedgh in Iran in 1953, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1960 and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. 

But things have changed. After 9/11, Congress allowed "global war" efforts.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama shifted the CIA's top priority from "gathering intelligence on foreign governments" to "man hunting." The agency became a secret machine to locate and kill "terrorists."

This is the central theme of "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth," a new book by Mark Mazzetti, one of the nation's leading national security reporters, who writes for "The New York Times."

Today, the CIA and Pentagon both use higher levels of clandestine violence. The government also employs far more private military contractors than ever before.

American intelligence operations, meanwhile, have come to rely more  on unstable dictators and questionable foreign intelligence agencies. There is only minimal oversight over defense, especially for secret intelligence operations and private military contractors, or PMCs.

"Congress had approved billions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there was little Congressional oversight about how the money was spent," Mazzetti writes.

After 9/11, the United States fought two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nation also fought a third war -- a secret war in the shadows in places like Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

But in a region of the world defined by incredibly complex political relationships, the CIA seemed oblivious and unable to predict major developments.

"Like a desert sandstorm," Mazzetti writes, "the popular revolts spreading across the states of North Africa were in the process of burying decades of authoritarianism."

But the CIA had no idea, Mazzetti points out, about major revolts that would erupt in countries like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Morocco.

"It was the first mass uprising of the social-media age."

New war zones

During the first year of Obama's presidency, the U.S. Central Command issued a sweeping directive -- the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Executive Order -- as part of a broad initiative "to define the role of the American military in countries beyond declared war zones. ...

"Special-operations officers now had even broader authorities to run spying missions across the globe. These orders became a new blueprint for the secret wars that President Obama would come to embrace," Mazzetti writes.

Under Obama, the White House developed a centralized "kill list," that went beyond "declared war zones."

Critics have not been received warmly.

When Adm. Dennis Blair aired his growing concerns about the CIA's expanding secret military operations, Obama fired him.

"He was challenging one of the central pillars of President Obama's foreign policy: using the CIA as an instrument of secret war," Mazzetti writes.

Blair became Director of National Intelligence in 2009, then quickly roused tensions with both the CIA and the Pentagon when he questioned the growing number of covert-action operations.

During his presidency between 1974 and 1977, after Richard Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal, Republican Gerald Ford banned assassinations by government agents.

Today, Obama has given "America's secret agencies latitude to carry out extensive killing operations."

David Petraeus, Obama's CIA director for 14 months before he resigned when his affair with his biographer became public, bragged to Congress that the CIA was conducting more covert actions than at any time in its history.

John Brennan, a former top officer in the CIA, became Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser in the White House. For years, "The Way of the Knife" points out, Brennan supported the "brutal interrogation methods the CIA had used in secret prisons." 

Mazzetti is not opposed to collecting key information and points to various shortcomings.

On Christmas Day 2009, for example, young Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab flew out of Amsterdam with a bomb sown into his underwear. As the plane descended toward the Detroit airport, he failed to ignite the bomb properly and fortunately ended up only burning one of his own legs.

National discussions about our continued involvement in Afghanistan and other countries typically ignore the critical negative impacts wars have on the future of increasingly troubled areas like the Middle East and northern Africa.

Drones

Many foreign policy leaders and analysts, Mazzetti writes, believe the growing use of drones has been "the most effective covert-action program in CIA history."

But others have become "deeply ambivalent" about the growing number of drone missions.

In "Why Drones Fail," an article in the July/August 2013 issue of "Foreign Affairs," George Mason University Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin writes, "Because the targets of such strikes are so loosely defined, it seems inevitable that they will kill some civilians."

By portraying our drone strikes "as indiscriminate violence against Muslims," Cronin writes, "Al Qaeda uses the strikes that result in civilian deaths, and even those that don't, to frame Americans as immoral bullies. ... The United States is losing the war of perceptions."

Ivan Eland, a foreign policy scholar at the libertarian Independent Institute in Berkley, Calif., recently wrote, "The U.S. government itself generates most of the anti-U.S. terrorism -- with its interventionist foreign policy -- and then rides to the rescue with excessive spending on defense and homeland security," including "snooping programs and other restrictions on civil liberties."

The modern world has become increasingly complex and dangerous -- promoting many to advocate an increased use of force and violence to protect our national interests.

Yet, if the world is to become a more-friendly place, people must consider questions raised in Mazzetti's new book. 

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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