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The Way of the Knife: NYT’s Mark Mazzetti on the CIA’s Post-9/11 Move from Spying to Assassinations

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In his new book, “The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth,” Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti tracks the transformation of the CIA and U.S. special operations forces into man-hunting and killing machines in the world’s dark spaces: the new American way of war. The book’s revelations include disclosing that the Pakistani government agreed to allow the drone attacks in return for the CIA’s assassination of Pakistani militant Nek Muhammad, who was not even a target of the United States. Mazzetti’s reporting on the violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan — and Washington’s response — won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. The year before, he was a Pulitzer finalist for his reporting on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: New details have emerged this week on the origins of the CIA drone war in Pakistan. The New York Times reports the Pakistani government agreed to allow the drone attacks in return for the CIA’s assassination of a Pakistani militant who was not even a target of the United States. The militant, Nek Muhammad, was killed by CIA Predator drone in 2004. Pakistan took credit for the attack under the terms of its agreement with the CIA. As part of the deal, the United States also agreed not to carry out strikes in areas of Pakistan where Kashmiri militants were trained for attacks in India.

AMY GOODMAN: The report is based on a new book by Mark Mazzetti called The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. It was published on Tuesday. The book examines the transformation of the CIA and America’s special operations forces into man-hunting and killing machines in the world’s dark spaces. The book also looks at U.S. targeted killings in Yemen and Somalia as well as secret spy operations inside Iran.

Mark Mazzetti joins us here in New York. He’s a national security correspondent for The New York Times, has broken a number of major stories in recent years, including the destruction of dozens of CIA interrogation tapes. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mark Mazzetti, welcome to Democracy Now!

MARK MAZZETTI: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the title, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, what’s the knife?

MARK MAZZETTI: The title is drawn from—it’s a departure from an analogy used by John Brennan, who is now the CIA director, but he gave a speech several years ago where he talked about—he was comparing the big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to these other kind of shadow wars, and he talked about instead of using a hammer, the United States will use a scalpel. And as I write in the book, the scalpel, of course, implies a surgical form of doing warfare or a war without costs and blunders or surgeries without complications. Knife fights are messier. And the—I chose the knife as a way to sort of describe this way of doing warfare that has benefits but also has costs.

AMY GOODMAN: And the secret army you’re referring to?

MARK MAZZETTI: Partly it’s the CIA, but it’s also partly the special operations troops who have expanded their authorities and expanded their missions around the world. And one of the sort of themes I talk about in the book is this great convergence that’s happened over the last 12 years since 9/11, where you had the CIA increasingly doing killing and the military increasingly doing spying. And so, you have the—the secret armies are those who are carrying out these missions outside of declared war zones.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are some of the things that you find out, that you reveal in the book, about what the CIA is doing now after 9/11 that it was not previously doing?

MARK MAZZETTI: One of the things that I try to track in the book is this sort of history of the CIA and carrying out lethal operations. And there was a big fight right before September 11th about whether the CIA should be back into the killing business, over the Predator and whether they should kill Osama bin Laden and then—and be in Afghanistan. And it’s kind of interesting. There was a whole generation of CIA officers who came out of—who got into the CIA in the ’70s after the Church investigations, where—which revealed all of the early assassination attempts by the CIA to kill Castro and others. And this generation had now come into prominence in the CIA, and there was this morality play about whether they should be using the Predator to—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, just to explain, Senator Frank Church said end the assassinations, right?

MARK MAZZETTI: That’s right, and the CIA did for several decades basically sort of give up its lethal authorities, or they were taken from them. President Ford signed a ban on assassinations of political leaders. So, pre-9/11, you had a CIA that was—you know, it had been cut back dramatically during the budget cuts of the '90s, but they also really were—and many were concerned about whether it should be back into the killing business. So, obviously, 9/11 happened, and some of those concerns were swept aside. And what we've seen over time is the CIA has really very much been involved in these targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere, and in some ways has become better at it, more efficient at it, than parts of the military.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you also explain that right after 9/11, at a meeting at the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney at the time, he authorized the CIA to, quote, “create hit teams to kill terror suspects.” Can you explain what happened in that meeting, as you do in the book, and how controversial that suggestion was?

MARK MAZZETTI: It was a proposal that was put forth by a couple of CIA officers inside the agency’s Counterterrorism Center. And this came a few months after the president authorized the CIA, basically gave this broad covert action authority to capture or kill al-Qaeda members around the globe. One of the proposals the CIA came back with was putting together these teams that would go into foreign countries to track down and even kill suspected terror leaders, places where you couldn’t send an army, places where you couldn’t send a Predator, foreign capitals in Europe, elsewhere. And—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But also, these secret wars, the drone attacks, take place in countries principally that are at least officially allied with the U.S., is that correct?

MARK MAZZETTI: The drone attacks, well, certainly, yeah. I mean, in Pakistan—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And the targeted killings, for that matter.

MARK MAZZETTI: And the targeted killings. And the proposal was certainly to, you know, go into countries that—where the United States was allied with, certainly. And what happened after that meeting was basically—it was early, and they hadn’t really fleshed out many details, but Vice President Cheney and his staff said, “OK, proceed with this program.” What happens then is they do some training, and they get into the war in Afghanistan, and that sort of diverts the CIA’s attention. They don’t, to my knowledge, actually carry out anything under this program. And then, in 2004, it becomes outsourced to Blackwater, the private security company, or at least a few senior officers of Blackwater, and including one of them who was in that meeting in late 2001 who had originally pitched it to the vice president. And so, it’s an interesting story about how the CIA was wrestling in these months after 9/11 to—they had these authorities they hadn’t had in decades, and they were trying to figure out—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But was it—was that unprecedented, the use of private contractors like Blackwater? Had the CIA or the—had they done that before?

MARK MAZZETTI: It’s—there’s probably aspects in the CIA’s history where they’ve—I mean, we know certainly that they’ve hired private citizens, that they’ve hired various factions to carry out these types of missions in its history. It was certainly unprecedented, or it hadn’t been decades since they got back into this. And Blackwater does become a close partner with the CIA for a number of years. And this was sort of one aspect of it. So it was a—it was a sort of incredible moment for them to then take this program and say, “OK, well, we’re going to, for deniability reasons, for some—to some degree, send it to a private company.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break; when we come back, look at how President Obama not only continued the shadow wars of the Bush administration, but expanded them. And we’re going to hear some stories, like the beginning of the book, the story of Ray Davis. Mark Mazzetti is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The New York Times. His new book, The Way of the Knife. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is the Pulitzer Prize New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti. He’s just come out with a new book this week, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth.

Can you talk, Mark, about the first drone strike in 2004, who it targeted, who the U.S. killed for?

MARK MAZZETTI: The CIA, up to 2004, had carried out a select number of drone strikes—in Afghanistan primarily, in the war in Afghanistan, and one in Yemen. But then that got shut down when the president of Yemen refused to continue to allow them. And for several years, the United States was pushing to get armed drones in Pakistan, because there was a—CIA officers were watching this collection of al-Qaeda operatives come from Afghanistan to Pakistan, but President Musharraf wasn’t allowing any armed drone flights. He was allowing surveillance, but not armed drone flights.

And at the same time, in early 2004, Nek Muhammad, who was a Pashtun tribal militant in South Waziristan, was raising his own militia to battle government troops in Pakistan. There were several very, very bloody battles in Wana and other parts of South Waziristan that happened after Musharraf decided to send—very reluctantly send troops into the tribal areas. They negotiated a peace deal between the Pakistani government and Nek Muhammad and his men. It didn’t last very long. And increasingly, the Pakistani government realized they needed to get rid of Nek Muhammad.

During this time, the CIA made a proposal to the ISI, Pakistanis’ spy service—Pakistan’s spy service, that was, in essence, you know, “We will help you with Nek Muhammad.” And Nek Muhammad certainly was something that—someone who the U.S. was watching and concerned about, and he had launched some attacks over the border in Afghanistan, but he was not a high-level al-Qaeda figure, and he was considered to be more Pakistan’s problem than he was the Americans’ problem. And basically, a deal was worked out where the United States would hunt down and kill Nek Muhammad. And this was sort of the foot in the door to allow armed drone attacks in Pakistan in narrow, what they call “flight boxes,” which are parts of the tribal areas where, through negotiation, the Pakistanis allowed the Americans to fly.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain the significance of this, killing for another country of someone who was not a target of the United States, not to mention the whole question of who the United States targets.

MARK MAZZETTI: It was—I mean, it was very interesting that the first—that the first strike in Pakistan was, I mean, not a senior al-Qaeda leader, but it was an enemy of the state of Pakistan. And, I mean, it should be pointed out that Nek Muhammad was certainly helping and facilitating aspects of al-Qaeda, but again, if you look at high-value target lists that the United States had at the time, he was not one of them. This really paved the way for what we’ve seen is the escalation of the drone wars. It took several years for them to escalate. It was not—there was maybe a handful or maybe a dozen drone strikes from that point in 2004 up until 2008, when at the end of the Bush administration President Bush really started ramping it up, and then President Obama ramped it up even further.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But can you also talk about the case of Raymond Davis? You say that that, what happened with him, a private contractor hired by the CIA, is more controversial in Pakistan even than the raid that captured and killed Osama bin Laden.

MARK MAZZETTI: When I went to Pakistan last year to do reporting for the book, I had been interested in the Raymond Davis episode, but it wasn’t until I went there and you talk to people—government officials, people on the street—that you realize that Raymond Davis, he has become sort of the bogeyman in Pakistan. It’s an episode that’s largely forgotten in the United States, because the Osama bin Laden raid happened about a month later, after Davis was released, and so that was forgotten. But Raymond Davis is—came to exemplify, in many—in the minds of many Pakistanis, that the sort of CIA had—was conducting this secret war in Pakistan under the noses of the government and that Davis was part of this army. He was in—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who he was and what happened.

MARK MAZZETTI: Yeah, so, Raymond Davis was a CIA contractor, a former special forces soldier, hired by the CIA, working in Lahore, Pakistan, where there was a group of CIA officers who were trying to gather intelligence about Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is a Pakistani militant group. Davis, in late January 2011, was navigating the streets of Lahore. There is conflicting, still, accounts of the story, but he was approached by two men, and he—whom he said were brandishing weapons, and he shot—he shot them. And then things, after that, even got further out of control when an American vehicle showed up at the scene to rescue Davis and killed a motorcyclist. So that would be a—that’s a third victim. And that car drives away, and Davis is left there, and then he’s quickly taken into custody by the police in Lahore.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But can we assume from this case that there are episodes like this that are more widespread—in other words, the use of private contractors who do the work like Raymond Davis was doing in Pakistan, except their work is just better concealed? He just happened to be caught, as it were.

MARK MAZZETTI: Yeah, certainly the CIA and the military have hired private contractors to do intelligence gathering. The private intelligence business is something that is booming. And what you saw was the CIA, after 9/11, was so stretched by these various wars, that’s why they would be turning to companies like Blackwater and other private security firms that could provide the resources. So, Davis—I mean, again, in Pakistan, the sort of—it was the sort of ultimate in conspiracies. He was a former soldier. He was a former Blackwater employee. He worked for the CIA. And so, it was—it seemed to confirm a lot of the worst conspiracies.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to President Obama in 2011 describing Raymond Davis as a diplomat.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With respect to Mr. Davis, our diplomat in Pakistan, we’ve got a very simple principle here that every country in the world that is party to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations has upheld in the past and should uphold in the future, and that is if our diplomats are in another country, then they are not subject to that country’s local prosecution.

AMY GOODMAN: So this so-called diplomat had just killed two people, and another person was killed or critically wounded.

MARK MAZZETTI: Killed, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Killed, so there’s three people.


AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what happened to Raymond Davis then and the significance of him working for the CIA at the time.

MARK MAZZETTI: So, what was happening at the time was the CIA had been sending a large number of its own people into Pakistan under various different false covers. The relationship between the CIA and the ISI, which, as I write in the book, started out actually as a pretty good relationship with some common interests, over time had become pretty toxic. And so, by early 2011, most of the CIA’s work in Pakistan was done without the cooperation of the ISI. So, the U.S. was basically getting people into the country with, as I said, false covers with different visas.

So Raymond Davis was admitted under a diplomatic passport. And so, when President Obama said he is a diplomat, technically that was correct, because he had some diplomatic status; however, there was a big dispute over whether he had diplomatic immunity—and, of course, he had just killed two people. So, it was—it became an international incident very quickly.

Once he’s in jail, the CIA and the Obama administration decide, well, we need to stonewall, we need to not tell the Pakistanis what he was doing. There were elements in the U.S. government who pushed to just come clean, get him out of the country. But then a whole fight ensues inside the U.S. government on what to do. And then, after a number of weeks, they do work out an arrangement: They come clean with the Pakistanis, they pay what they call blood money, and he is released from jail. The interesting thing that’s going on during this whole time is that—

AMY GOODMAN: One of the victims’ wives committed suicide over this. She never thought, she said, that the person who killed her husband would be brought to justice.

MARK MAZZETTI: That’s right. That’s right. And so that was another thing that inflamed passions in Pakistan, was when she killed herself. And this was one incident that—and I think the U.S. government started to say, “OK, this isn’t working. We have to get this guy out of the country. And the current strategy isn’t working.”

Now, all during this time—and which is one of the more puzzling aspects of why there was this strategy, because they’re watching this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where they’re discussing this possible raid against someone who might be Osama bin Laden. And why they didn’t just try to get him out of the country immediately, broker a deal immediately with the Pakistanis, is puzzling, when they had this whole other intelligence-gathering operation going on. And I’ve talked to a lot of American officials, and I’ve asked them why, and they say they don’t know why. In retrospect, they realize they made the wrong decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Michael Furlong.

MARK MAZZETTI: Michael Furlong is a—was a former Pentagon official, a senior civilian official, who worked in information operations, which are kind of psychological operations, propaganda, that type of thing, that the Pentagon increasingly started doing after the 9/11 attacks. The CIA used to be really into the propaganda business, but during budget cuts in the ’90s and actually because of the Internet, there were concerns inside the CIA about them doing this, because American citizens are reading things on the Internet. So, the CIA is not allowed to propagandize against the American public, so if you—if you try to plant a story in a foreign newspaper and an American reads it online, well, that can be technically against a law.

So, anyway, the Pentagon was able to do some of this. So, Furlong got into these operations. And as I describe in the book, he was able to sort of work with a number of different companies to build video games that the Pentagon was trying to distribute around the country—sorry, around the world, that were sort of pro-American-themed video games. But one of the aspects of the operation was, people would download them onto their cellphones, and the U.S. would be able to gather intelligence about the people who were downloading the games. And—


MARK MAZZETTI: Well, because they would go to websites, and the websites would be—they’d set up websites where the games would be downloaded from, and they could monitor their websites, and they could track some information about the users. At a later—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s amazing what you write. The game called Native Echo, “Every download would give the United States a window into the digital comings and goings of whomever was playing it, a cyber foothold that [could] allow American spies to potentially track and collect information on thousands of people.”

MARK MAZZETTI: Yeah, it was—it was a way to—there were two things they were trying to do. They were trying to, on one hand, get some pro-American themes out, but at the same time, you know, find out who’s using these games, who’s playing these games, and sort of—and then store them into databases. And so, that was something that Special Operations Command at the Pentagon really ramped up in around 2005 and 2006.

At a later time, about a year later, Furlong was in Afghanistan, back and forth between Afghanistan and his job in the United States, and sort of running this really private spying operation that was going on primarily in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan. The commander at the time in Afghanistan, General McKiernan, was very angry that the CIA wasn’t getting him any good intelligence about Pakistan. So Furlong, working with some others, basically hired their own people and were setting up intelligence networks in Pakistan, and those intelligence reports were then getting fed into classified Pentagon databases.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to read a comment from Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning at the State Department. At a recent meeting of the American Society for International Law, she called for Obama to be more transparent on drones. She said, quote, “The idea that this president would leave office having dramatically expanded the use of drones—including [against] American citizens—without any public standards and no checks and balances … that there are no checks, and there is no international agreement; I would find that to be both terrible and ultimately will undermine a great deal of what this president will have done for good.” So, before we conclude, can you comment on what Anne-Marie Slaughter has said and whether you think drone strikes are likely to diminish with the U.S. drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, or whether in fact they’re likely to expand?

MARK MAZZETTI: I think you’ll see them continue in Pakistan, certainly as long as there are U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And I would think that the United States would at least try to preserve the option of using them in the future. Now, whether Pakistan’s government once and for all says no, we will have to see whether that happens. I do think that Anne-Marie Slaughter’s quote is indicative of a feeling in Washington, in parts of the government, that there needs to be greater transparency and accountability to these strikes. President Obama in his State of the Union address said it’s coming, and there—you know, we will take steps to be more transparent with the Congress and with the American public. Thus far, we haven’t seen what the plan is.

But one of the things that’s striking as a reporter when we were covering the John Brennan confirmation hearings was that members of Congress, members of the intelligence committees, who have the highest levels of classification clearance, they hadn’t even seen the memos, the legal opinions that justified things like the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and others. And it’s really—it’s really striking that—and they’re the only ones who are allowed to know about these things. I mean, the most of Congress doesn’t even have the clearance to have these discussions. But the committees themselves don’t have the clearance. And so that was really striking. And so, we’ll see whether there is a greater push for more transparency.

AMY GOODMAN: And you, as a reporter, Mark—we see the greatest crackdown on whistleblowers that we have ever seen under any president: President Obama’s administration is going after more whistleblowers than all presidential administrations combined in the past. And the role of journalists, how do you feel, as you try to cover these issues? Do you feel the crackdown?

MARK MAZZETTI: It’s harder. There’s no question. It’s harder and harder. People are—this crackdown has perhaps had its intended effect, which was maybe not to go prosecute the cases that have been brought, but also to scare others into not talking. And so, I find that in the last couple years covering national security issues, you just find people who were perhaps once more eager to talk or willing to talk, for reasons that—not just because they were whistleblowers, but because they thought it was important for reporters to have context and information about some of these operations—those people are increasingly less likely to talk.

AMY GOODMAN: And you, yourself, being prosecuted or put under a kind of spotlight from the administration?

MARK MAZZETTI: I mean, it’s certainly worrisome for us and is worrisome that, you know, they go after—they go after sources, and it brings the reporters into it, as well. I think we’re at a critical time here to—you know, hopefully this ends. But, you know, once there is a momentum in some of these cases, the Justice Department works in its own ways, and so people, once they make cases, they tend to try to make other cases. And so, that’s what some—that’s what’s concerning for us.

AMY GOODMAN: And what you were most surprised by in this reporting, in the reporting you’ve been doing? I mean, you won a number of awards for exposing the destruction of interrogation videotapes. Maybe you could go from that to what most surprised to in your latest investigations.

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, the tapes story was just something that in covering the beat, you talk to enough people and do—you know, sometimes it’s fortuitous when you talk to someone or talk to a couple people who give you hints of things, and then you report it more, and then pretty soon you think you have a story. And that’s what happened in that—

AMY GOODMAN: And those videotapes were videotapes of?

MARK MAZZETTI: Oh, sorry, so the videotapes were videotapes of two al-Qaeda detainees, the first two detainees in CIA custody in Thailand, and they were taken in 2002. And then, some of—and they did show some of the techniques like waterboarding. And they said they then sat in a safe in the CIA station in Thailand for several years, as the CIA was pushing to basically get rid of them. And some members of Congress had known about them and warned, you know, “You shouldn’t do this.” And then, after several years, as the pressure built and as increasing public scrutiny—there was increased public scrutiny into the CIA interrogation program, Jose Rodriguez, who was the head of the clandestine service, talked to some lawyers within the agency, decided that he had the authority to order the destruction and sent the cable out to Thailand, where the tapes were sitting in the safe, and the tapes were destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: And what you were most surprised by now?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, I think one of the things that most surprised me in doing the book, and what I tried to focus on, was that you—when you do this kind of war and you’re in wars outside of traditional war zones and outside of traditional places where the military can go, you tend to rely on a lot of different characters and a lot of—the Michael Furlongs, Duane Clarridge, who was a former CIA officer who was involved in this private spying operation. There’s a woman named Michele Ballarin who I write about, who was a—was hired by the Pentagon to gather intelligence in Somalia and then was—

AMY GOODMAN: She had run for Congress in West Virginia.

MARK MAZZETTI: She had run for Congress in the ’80s in West Virginia and lives out in an estate in Virginia and then got involved in pirate hostage negotiations. So, I tried to have at least—to give readers some sense of the flavor of the type of characters that are involved in this shadow war. And so, some of the most fun I had in the book was actually trying to highlight some of these stories, which are sort of untold over the last 12 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, I know you have to go, but the story you just told about the destruction of the tapes—


AMY GOODMAN: —the CIA officer directly involved in the 2005 decision to destroy the tapes becoming—occupying the top position within the CIA’s clandestine service?

MARK MAZZETTI: Right. So she, at the time, was the chief of staff of Jose Rodriguez. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And she is?

MARK MAZZETTI: And she—she is?

AMY GOODMAN: Her name?

MARK MAZZETTI: I can’t report her name. She is still undercover. And, I mean, several reporters do know her name, and thus far no one has chosen to disclose it. But she is now the head of the clandestine service, acting head of the clandestine service. And at the end, she is—John Brennan is now deciding whether to make her the permanent head of the clandestine service. But she did have a very, very intimate role not only in this episode, but in the Counterterrorism Center, its growth over the last decade inside the CIA.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Mazzetti, we want to thank you very much for being with us.

MARK MAZZETTI: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: National security correspondent for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. His book has come out this week, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. An exerpt was published in the Times this Sunday called “A Secret Deal on Drones, Sealed in Blood.” Another excerpt appears in this weekend’s Times Magazine called “How a Single Spy Helped Turn Pakistan Against the United States.” We will link to these at democracynow.org.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Israeli journalist Amira Hass joins us in studio. Stay with us.

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