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The Killing Years


The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti (Penguin Press 2013), 400 pages.

Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill (Nation Books 2013), 680 pages.

The young man reached across the table and pushed the timer’s red button. Looking up at the faces of a few members of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Farea Al-muslimi, a Yemeni youth activist and former U.S. exchange student, nervously began to speak. He told the senators that just a week before a U.S. drone had unnecessarily vaporized a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula along with three other men in his remote village, instantly turning the populace against the United States. What is considered risk-free by the national-security state, Al-muslimi warned, is anything but. “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America,” he testified.

In five short minutes, Al-muslimi had cut through the sterile, bureaucratic abstractions of the U.S. drone wars and delivered an impassioned plea to his second homeland: stop terrorizing innocent Yemenis with remote-control killing. His message could easily be spoken by any number of Afghans, Pakistanis, or Somalis as the U.S. global war on terrorism enters its twelfth year.

That plea, however, will probably be ignored by a Defense Department, a CIA, a White House, a Congress, and, unfortunately, a people enamored with the almost divine ability to eliminate their enemies from thousands of miles away with the push of a button, the killer watching from the safety of his monitor’s glow. Yet as Mark Mazzetti and Jeremy Scahill document in The Way of the Knife and Dirty Wars, the United States’s embrace of extrajudicial killing isn’t done only by drone, whether dispatched by the CIA or the Pentagon, but by terrorizing night raids by Special Forces under the authority of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.

Immoral mindset

Since al-Qaeda marred a brilliant blue September sky more than a decade ago, the two powerful centralized bureaucracies of the CIA and the Defense Department have mutated grotesquely into two ultra-violent leviathans, often fighting each other for supremacy. They now resemble one another and operate outside of democratic constraints of oversight and accountability, creating more enemies than they destroy. While Mazzetti and Scahill tell complementary, often overlapping stories, Mazzetti’s Way of the Knife concentrates on the CIA’s embrace of its Cold War-era role of global hitman, while Scahill is more concerned with the transformation of the JSOC from a training force into the president’s private death squad with its own awesome intelligence capability.

Central to both Mazzetti’s and Scahill’s stories is how two provisions under the U.S. Code separating “covert” and “clandestine” activities became essentially meaningless after 9/11 and eroded any kind of congressional oversight or accountability of U.S. kinetic operations far from any battlefield. Title 50 governs covert intelligence activities, which gives the White House “plausible deniability” after they are carried out. The rub, however, is that before a covert action can be carried out the White House must brief the House and Senate Intelligence Committees — requirements that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld disdained.

The way around requirements of oversight of covert actions was Title 10, which applies to “traditional military activities” that are “connected to ‘ongoing’ or ‘anticipated’ hostilities” and defines another kind of secret activity, clandestine operations. Such operations were attractive to Cheney and Rumsfeld because there were no congressional reporting requirements. Combine that with Congress’s passage of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda immediately after 9/11, which gave the president the authority to go after the organization anywhere on earth, and Title 10 provided a legal basis to deploy military assets in secret anywhere al-Qaeda was or could be. “Title 10 operations conducted in ‘Preparing the Battlespace’ had even fewer congressional requirements, and with the congressional resolution authorizing a global war, the National Command Authority could use its power to direct military operations without having to classify them as covert actions,” writes Scahill. “This had always been a gray area open for exploitation.” Cheney and Rumsfeld obliged by remaking the JSOC into a global killing machine.

JSOC personnel, according to Col. Walter Patrick Lang, who spent much of his military career in dark ops, constitute the Neanderthals of the U.S. military. The JSOC was modeled on Britain’s Special Air Service, its personnel, like SAS personnel, don’t go native; “they kill the natives,” he told Scahill. “These people are not very well educated about the larger picture of the effect that [their operations] have on the position of the United States in the world.” In stunning and graphic detail, Scahill recounts the rise of the JSOC, propelled by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s determination to build a personal army, largely unconstrained by international or domestic law, for an imperial presidency. “So if you have no one in any branch — whether it’s judicial, legislative or executive — who’s interested in upholding the law, then you can do pretty much what you want,” Col. Douglas Macgregor, who was on the Iraq war planning team, explained to Scahill. “And I think that’s ultimately what’s happened.”

One of the primary characteristics of a democracy is its adherence to the rule of law, not the rule of men. Scahill explores how disturbing the rule of men is, particularly when those men aren’t particularly moral creatures. His account of how the JSOC’s brutal tactics of mass arrests, long detentions, and torture throughout Iraq — particularly in Camp NAMA (“Nasty-Ass Military Area”) in pursuit of imaginary weapons of mass destruction and then in reaction to the country’s rising resistance — helped sustain and fuel the so-called insurgency is devastating. And as Iraq wound down, the JSOC went truly global, along with its bloody, immoral mindset. “If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four [other] people in the building, thirty-five people are going to die,” a military intelligence source tells Scahill. “That’s the mentality.”


And there are serious repercussions for conducting a secret and ultraviolent foreign policy when the cold logic of killing dominates the U.S. national-security state. While the overwhelming majority of Americans have no idea what their government is doing overseas, you can be sure people on the receiving end of America’s violence across the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia, whether directly or indirectly, understand that Washington is playing a significant role in their suffering. Much as it did during the Cold War, the United States has empowered and propped up brutal regimes and proxy forces to fight Islamic militants and terrorists, particularly in Somalia and Yemen. Blowback, naturally, ensued.

In Somalia the CIA funded the same warlords they fought in the early 1990s, which led to the Black Hawk Down debacle, to hunt down al-Qaeda and stem the rising Islamic Courts Union, which tried to solve the chaos of Somalia through Islamic, or sharia, law. What was the outcome of “running guns to some of the biggest thugs in Somalia?” in the words Michael Zorick, the State Department’s political officer for Somalia at the time. “[The]covert operation blew up in the CIA’s face,” writes Mazzetti. “Instead of weakening the Islamists, it tipped the balance in Somalia in the other direction. Somalis began to embrace the Islamic Courts Union as a way to rid the country of foreign influence and finally bring an end to the warlord rule that had balkanized the country.”

Washington’s disastrous meddling, however, continued by aiding Christian Ethiopia’s invasion of Muslim Somalia in 2006. “The idea,” one official said that year, “was to get the Ethiopians to fight our war.” But the invasion’s brutality only angered Somalis, empowering the rise of the al-Qaeda-aligned and -backed al Shabab militia. “Al Shabab would emerge as the premier jihadi force in Somalia — and would soon control more land than any other al Qaeda-affiliated group in history,” Scahill explains. “U.S. policy had backfired spectacularly, transforming a ragtag group of relative nobodies in Somalia, in just a few short years, into the new heroes of al Qaeda’s global struggle.”

In Yemen the United States erred by propping up the brutal Machiavellian regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in return for his approval of targeting al-Qaeda inside the country. In November 2002 the CIA conducted its first drone strike, killing the person alleged to be the mastermind behind the USS Cole attack in 2000 along with an American citizen in the vehicle. (Saleh lied about the attack, telling Yemenis that the truck was carrying a canister of gas, which triggered an explosion.)

In return for permission to carry out counterterrorism operations in Yemen, the United States funneled massive amounts of assistance to Saleh, including training for his special forces, which the autocrat used to kill Houthi rebels in the northwest and to further repress Yemen’s people. As happened in Iraq, Saleh’s imprisonment of hundreds of people for al-Qaeda affiliations turned Yemen’s prisons into radicalization factories. “These men were tossed in security prisons with other more experienced fighters who did much to radicalize their younger more impressionable fellow inmates in the shared cells,” Scahill quotes Yemeni expert Gregory Johnsen telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2010. Yet the wily Saleh was playing both sides. When the Houthi rebellion broke out, he brokered a deal with al-Qaeda: fight the rebels and the crackdown would end. That enabled al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, infamous for the 2009 underwear bomb plot against a Detroit-bound airliner, to arise.

The insider advantage

Reading Mazzetti and Scahill back to back also illuminates the tension between the mainstream media, represented by Mazzetti, and the independent press, represented by Scahill, when covering national-security matters. Mazzetti’s reportage is that of the consummate insider, with privileged access to those in and around Obama’s imperial court that writing for the New York Times provides. And that certainly carries benefits. The biggest revelation of The Way of the Knife is that Obama’s Orwellian-named targeted-killing program was expanded because the White House didn’t want to create more detainees and provoke liberal outrage by rendering captives to brutal governments for interrogation after banning the Bush administration’s torture program and promising to close Gitmo. “They never came out and said they would start killing people because they couldn’t interrogate them, but the implication was unmistakable,” said CIA lawyer John Rizzo, who sat in on meetings with Obama’s national-security team.

Obama would double down on drone strikes, ordering more in his first 10 months in office than Bush had during all eight years of his administration. An unknown proportion of the strikes were so-called signature strikes, where death shot down like lightning from the sky against people Obama’s national-security state didn’t even know the identities of. “In the early days, for our consciences we wanted to know who we were killing before anyone pulled the trigger,” Richard Blee, former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, told Mazzetti about the CIA’s role in the killing program. “Now, we’re lighting these people up all over the place.”

But Mazzetti’s proximity to power, however, is also a weakness, because the price of access is the need to retain it. A prime example of that is his recounting of how American-born Islamic preacher Anwar al-Awlaki found his way onto Obama’s kill list and was finally blown to bits by the CIA in the Yemeni wilderness. Despite providing no evidence that Awlaki had become more than a propagandist, Mazzetti matter-of-factly reports that “[because] al-Awlaki had a senior position inside al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] and had declared war on the United States … he no longer had a Constitutional right to due process.” Why? Because a classified Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel memo said so. Mazzetti, unfortunately, doesn’t dig deeper or provide the reader with a sense of how deeply disturbing and historic the decision to extrajudicially kill an American citizen far from any battlefield was.

The masquerade

Scahill, on the other hand, is rightly obsessed with Awlaki and his transformation from moderate imam, who preached at a suburban Virginia mosque just a few miles from the Pentagon on 9/11, and the firebrand preacher exhorting American Muslims to violently rise up against their government in retaliation for its attacks against Muslims worldwide. Rather than label him as evil incarnate, Scahill sees Awlaki as a human being, essentially a loving father infuriated by U.S. foreign policy who took a very dark turn. “It is difficult to watch the hours of footage and conclude that he was simply a good actor,” Scahill comments after watching videotapes of Awlaki, especially with his children.  (That Awlaki’s own son would perish in a drone strike two weeks after his own drone-derived death is worthy of Greek tragedy. Or as Obama’s former press secretary Robert Gibbs so eloquently put it, Abdulrahman “should have [had] a far more responsible father.”)

Scahill also paints a disturbing picture of what else fueled al-Awlaki’s virulent hatred of America. Under the direction of the United States in mid-2006, Saleh’s government arrested Awlaki and placed him in solitary confinement for his increasingly radical preaching, increasingly online and thus global, for 18 months. At the behest of Awlaki’s powerful tribe, Saleh finally released him in defiance of U.S. objections because the Saleh government had no evidence to warrant his incarceration. Before al-Awlaki was ever accused of helping to plan the 2009 underwear bomb plot or the 2010 cartridge bomb plot, Yemeni’s vice president told his father, Nasser, he had a choice when he was pressing for Anwar’s release: “Do you want to keep Anwar locked up or do you want me to release him ‘to be killed by an American drone?’” Little less than four years later, Awlaki would be dead, assassinated by his own country without any due process and without any evidence presented that he was a senior operational member of AQAP.

Scahill’s triumph is in vividly and empathetically describing how a man many Americans see as a traitorous ghoul could declare his former homeland the enemy. It’s always wise to acknowledge that one’s adversaries are flawed human beings who are probably operating on the assumption that they’re doing the moral thing too. Unfortunately, politics doesn’t allow this, although Scahill shows why it’s so important: Many of Awlaki’s criticisms of the United States are valid and, more important, demonstrate why there are people around the world intent on murdering Americans. It has nothing to do with America’s (fast-diminishing) freedoms. And as long as U.S. foreign policy remains as Mazzetti and Scahill document, Awlaki’s message will help inspire successive waves of Islamic militancy.

Many people worldwide see a bloodlust in the American mentality. For some it’s certainly the common conceit that “it’s better them than us.” But for others, there’s something darker lurking about: casual, catastrophic violence masquerading as patriotism and nobility. In their own ways, Mazzetti and Scahill turn this cancerous malignancy — represented by the CIA and the JSOC — over in their hands and examine it closely. It isn’t pretty. And it can’t end well. It occurs largely with no public outrage or protest as Americans empower incredibly violent men and women to deliver an illusion of security to us. “[The] kingdom of darkness … is nothing else but a confederacy of deceivers that, to obtain dominion over men in this present world, endeavour, by dark and erroneous doctrines, to extinguish in them the light,” wrote Thomas Hobbes in a passage from Leviathan that seems incredibly apt for today.

The country that at least rhetorically tried to adhere to John Quincy Adams’s maxim has indeed done just the opposite. And it is no surprise that when a nation goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy, it invariably finds them. Less often acknowledged, however, is that hunting monsters ensures that the full moon’s transformative light washes over the hunters as well, and in their metamorphosis they do unspeakable things in the shadows.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Matthew Harwood is a writer living in northern New Jersey. His work has appeared at The American Conservative, the Guardian, Reason, TomDispatch, among others. He is senior writer/editor at the American Civil Liberties Union.