The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth

By: MAJ Anthony A. Keller, U.S. Army

Mark Mazzetti's nonfiction thriller The Way of the Knife cap- MAJ Anthony A. Keller, U.S. Army tures the essence of the relationship between the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), while engaging the reader in a contemporary and easily comprehensible read. Although cooperation between the CIA and JSOC developed long before 9/11, Mazzetti decodes the complexities and global reach of U.S. counterterrorism engagements and effectively demonstrates how the CIA transcended the "cloak-and-dagger" operations of the Cold War to forge a more dynamic relationship with JSOC. As a result, the two services have brought the full range of espionage, drone technology, and small wars to bear in support of U.S. national interests. Precision drone strikes and the use of small military elements from the Pentagon and the CIA's clandestine forces have made for a deadly combination in the fight against terrorism since 9/11.

Mazzetti describes how, in the first days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, members of the CIA and officials of the George W. Bush administration1 formulated a plan to begin the hunt for al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. The CIA and the Pakistani Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI) conducted joint operations beginning shortly after 9/11, based on intelligence acquired through the ISI's complex spy networks of tribal warlords and the use of U.S. surveillance drones. This was the beginning of CIA and JSOC operations to capture or kill Taliban leaders and al Qaeda operatives. Mazzetti illuminates not only the turbulent relationship between the CIA and the ISI but also the deeper and longer standing relationship that the Taliban maintained with the ISI. The loyalty of the ISI, he makes clear, will always lie with Pakistan and its national security; for its members, every other concern is secondary to that.

Mazzetti also examines how the CIA has evolved as an offensive organization, from the spy agency's infancy as the Office of Strategic Services during World War II to the modern CIA. He uses several case studies from the last 50 years, documenting covert operations from Latin America to Central Europe, to illustrate the Agency's gradual modernization. Mazzetti tells us that in November 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a secret document that allowed the CIA and JSOC to train Lebanese hit men in retaliation for the bombings against the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines (p. 51). While the author fails to clarify when exactly the rift between the CIA and the Pentagon began, he does point out that the more recent problems were not at the tactical level but primarily at the national policy level, between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the CIA leadership. "The confusion in Afghanistan [during the initial invasion] was partly the result of normal battlefield turmoil, but it had its origins in the jockeying between the Pentagon and the CIA for supremacy in the new American conflict. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld felt stung that CIA paramilitary teams had been the first into Afghanistan" (p. 18).

To make the spy game more complicated post-9/11, it now had a new player, JSOC, which reported directly to the Pentagon's Special Operations Command, but, more important, to Secretary Rumsfeld as well. By 2004, elements of JSOC had operatives around the globe, from South America, Africa, and Asia to the Middle East. The use of drone strikes along with small operational units of the CIA and JSOC became the modern-day cloak-and-dagger method used to hunt and exterminate al Qaeda operatives. Mazzetti notes, "In 2004, Rumsfeld issued a secret directive—known internally at the Pentagon as the ‘Al Qaeda Network Executive Order'—that expanded the powers of special operations troops to kill, capture, and spy in more than a dozen countries" (p. 128). The order gave JSOC broad authority to conduct operations on a global scale.

In the subsequent chapters regarding Pakistan, readers learn that Pakistan's game plan for supporting the Afghan insurgency was written in 1989, 12 years before the 9/11 attacks, in the library of the U.S. Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While a student at the college, General Ashfaq Kayani of the Pakistani Army wrote his thesis on the topic of Pakistani support for the Afghan resistance movement and the use of a proxy militia to fight against the Soviet occupation and the then-Communist Afghan government. This same game plan would be covertly implemented again by the ISI after 2001, but against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan and the new elected Afghan government, instead of the USSR and its puppet regime. It took three years after 9/11 for anyone in the United States to realize that the current head of the ISI, that same General Kayani, had been the author of the thesis.

As bureaucratic infighting continued in Washington, one gleam of hope for the future of counterterrorism was the fusion between the CIA and JSOC. Their cooperation proved successful in the capture and killing of high-level operatives from al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Pakistan and other regions of the globe. Mazzetti describes this relationship in terms of a masterpiece painting: it was perfect for what the White House wanted, which was a machine to capture or kill terrorists. The ability to share intelligence and resources allowed the CIA and JSOC to analyze critical intelligence in a timely manner and execute successful high-risk raids. War by proxy under covert U.S. guidance also became a template used by the Bush administration for operations in multiple regions of the globe. In Africa, for example, the use of Ethiopian troops in Somalia against al-Shabaab was critical to the Bush team's counterterrorism strategy.

The increasing use of drones by both the CIA and JSOC during counterterrorist operations has proved to be a less than perfect solution, not infrequently because of flawed intelligence. To illustrate this point, Mazzetti describes one particular operation in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A joint CIA-JSOC operation mistakenly killed the deputy governor of Ma'rib province, Jaber al-Shabwani, with a drone strike while he was meeting with AQAP operatives to discuss a truce. U.S. officials had been told—inaccurately— by their Yemeni counterparts that no one within the Yemeni government had a relationship with or was in negotiations with AQAP, and believed that the meeting was among high-level AQAP leaders only. Many of the successes of the CIA will never be known, but its failures are always publicly placed upon the Agency's shoulders.

Readers of this book should find themselves grateful for the role the CIA and JSOC play in support of U.S. national security policy. Mark Mazzetti captivates the reader by offering a historical perspective on the transformation of the CIA and the agency's powerful partnership with JSOC. I highly recommend The Way of the Knife for anyone, particularly any member of the Department of Defense, who doubts the resolve of the United States to combat international terrorism.

About the Author(s): Major Anthony A. Keller, U.S. Army Infantry, is currently studying in the Defense Analysis curriculum at NPS. He has served in Stryker and Air Assault units and the 75th Ranger Regiment as an infantry platoon leader, a Ranger rifle platoon leader, an infantry company commander, and a Ranger company commander.


1. Vice President Dick Cheney, legal advisor David Addington, and chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

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