A few years before the bin Laden operation, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. 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 — what McChrystal termed “a fight for knowledge.”
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 the 9/11 attacks, a dramatic shift has occurred in the way the United States deploys its military and intelligence forces. In his new book, “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 governments and their countries, but man hunting.” The bin Laden operation was far from the only deadly mission that 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.” He 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. Panetta, a devout Catholic, observed that he had “said more Hail Marys in the last two years than I have in my whole life.”Conversely, Defense Secretary Donald H. 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. He came to the conclusion that “the only answer was to make the Pentagon more like the CIA.”
The emergence of a “military-intelligence complex” has proved devastating to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The CIA drone campaign in Pakistan has killed much of the terror network’s leaders and largely eliminated Pakistan’s tribal regions as the key training ground for the group; as a result, al-Qaeda hasn’t been able to mount a successful assault on the West since the suicide attacks on the London transportation system in 2005.
Meanwhile, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) not only killed bin Laden, but also largely destroyed the vicious leadership of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, which had precipitated the civil war in Iraq by its numerous attacks on the Shia community. JSOC’s campaign against al-Qaeda played a key role in tamping down the Iraqi civil war and helped enable a steady decline in violence in Iraq since 2007.
Until recently this history had not been well understood because units like SEAL Team 6 that make up Joint Special Operations Command aren’t even officially acknowledged. McChrystal’s recent authoritative memoir, “My Share of the Task,” has done much to illuminate this important chapter in the evolution of American military operations.
If there is an “Obama doctrine,” it is to fight the war against al-Qaeda 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 of his book, “The Way of the Knife.” It’s a form of warfare that avoids “messy, costly wars that topple governments and require years of American occupation.”
The benefits of the way of the knife are obvious: Few Americans are put at risk, and the costs are relatively low in a time of budgetary constraints. But as Mazzetti points out, this type of knife fighting is not as surgical as some of its proponents think, for it “creates enemies just as it has obliterated them.” It also has “lowered the bar for waging war, and it is now easier for the United States to carry out killing operations at the ends of the earth than at any other time in its history.”
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, a record 122 strikes occurred in Pakistan, yet few of the victims were leaders of al-Qaeda, suggesting that this tactic was being used without much thought for the larger strategic picture. The CIA drone program, which was conceived of as a way to kill the leaders of militant groups, had evolved into a counterinsurgency air force that killed mostly lower-level members of the Taliban in Pakistan.
But some big payoffs emerge from the blending of the roles 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-Qaeda leader himself. But during the next 23 minutes, the SEALs picked up every computer, thumb drive and file they could lay their hands on in bin Laden’s compound. More than half of the time that the SEALs were on the ground in Pakistan they were performing what is known among intelligence professionals as SSE, or sensitive site exploitation.
As a result, the CIA was able to launch drone strikes — presided over by Panetta, not the military — that killed a number of al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda official he had originally been pegged, but bin Laden’s chief of staff.
While the “The Way of the Knife” recounts the important shifts in the architecture of the U.S. military and intelligence communities, it 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, which were traditionally a core government function.
In this new environment, ambitious individuals take on outsize roles. Consider Michele Ballarin, a former Republican candidate for Congress and socialite living on a 100-acre farm in Virginia’s horse country who became obsessed with Somalia at the same time that the CIA and JSOC were increasingly focusing on the rise of al-Shabab, a Somali al-Qaeda affiliate that had taken control of much of the country. Simultaneously, al-Shabab was recruiting dozens of U.S. citizens, predominately from the Somali diaspora in Minnesota.
Following a chance meeting with a group of Somali Americans, Ballarin became intrigued by their country and soon was traveling regularly to Somalia, outfitted in Gucci and toting Louis Vuitton bags, and so dazzling that the Somalis dubbed her “Amira,” Arabic for princess. Soon the Virginia socialite was embroiled in hostage negotiations with Somali pirates who had seized a ship carrying 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 it is unclear from Mazzetti’s account whether 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-Pakistani border. He hatched a plan to dig up evidence that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was a heroin addict, a rumor that was 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.
Working the phones late at night from his home in the San Diego suburbs, Clarridge maintained a network of spies who were gathering information on Taliban groups such as the Haqqani network. Through a Pentagon contract overseen by Lockheed Martin, Clarridge and his team were paid $22 million for their work and filed “hundreds of intelligence reports to military commanders in Afghanistan.” The CIA had always been unhappy about Clarridge’s freelance spying operation, and his contract was not renewed in 2010. He was angry that his former employer “seemed to be the reason that the operation had been shut down.”
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-Qaeda leaders: “The CIA missed Tunisia. They missed Egypt. They missed Libya.”
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.”
John Brennan, the new director of the CIA, who oversaw the drone program during his four-year tenure at the White House as President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, can draw on his many decades of intelligence experience to help reinforce the CIA’s traditional role of learning the secrets of others. For instance, one question the CIA needs to answer is: What precisely is going on in Syria right now? That’s the kind of intelligence policymakers need as the Obama administration contemplates how to prepare for the country’s future without Bashar al-Assad.
Peter Bergen is the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad” and a director at the New America Foundation.