The Transformation of American Intelligence*

By Robert D. Chapman
Friday, May 2nd, 2014 @ 1:28AM

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Review of ‘The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth’ by Mark Mazzetti. New York: Penguin Press, 2013, 381 p. $29.95


After twelve years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s difficult to remember how it all started or figure out where it’s going.  As United States intelligence has turned topsy-turvy, Mark Mazzetti, a New York Times reporter, tries to answer these questions and many more in his book, The Way of the Knife.

The Beginning

The beginning of the war in Afghanistan now seems dark and murky. In brief, as Mazzetti recounts, Pakistan aided the Taliban against the Northern Alliance while its arch-rival, India, long supported the Northern Alliance to form an Indian proxy-state on Pakistan’s western border. I had forgotten India’s role in the Afghan war, and the fact that immediately after 11 September 2001 (9/11) India offered the United States the use its air bases to conduct the war.

Shortly after 9/11, according to Mazzetti, U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage forcefully and most arrogantly told General Mahmud Ahmed, the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI), that the U.S.

“wanted unfettered access to Pakistani airspace and the ability to carry out military and intelligence operations inside Pakistan.  America also wanted access to Pakistani ports, airstrips, and bases in the mountains along the border with Afghanistan. (p. 29)

For these demands, Ahmed replied, Pakistan would demand money, but he would take the American message to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.  (p. 29). But he did not tell Armitage that Musharraf looked favorably on the Taliban, which he viewed as the future of Afghanistan. (p. 31)

The ISI still hoped that another bloody Afghan war could be avoided. General Ahmed flew to Kandahar on a plane loaned by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He tried to convince the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who had lost one eye fighting the Soviets, to give up al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.  But Omar stingingly rebuked Ahmed, “You want to please the Americans and I want to please God.” (p. 32)

So war came to Afghanistan when America should have walked or run away from it. The Central Intelligence Agency  and Special Forces financed the Northern Alliance and began the war against the Taliban. This proved to be a war of conflicting interests. Treachery abounded. In mountainous terrain, a small, almost minuscule, army of insurgents battled the world’s most modern army to a standstill. In the process, the American Intelligence Community changed in a way that was never anticipated.  The Defense Intelligence Agency has taken on a greater role in gathering intelligence.  Mazzetti quotes W. George Jameson, a lawyer who spent more than three decades at the CIA: “Everything is backwards. …You’ve got an intelligence agency fighting a war and a military organization trying to gather on-the-ground intelligence.” (p. 314)

In detail, Mazzetti describes the frustrations, the events, and the men who changed American intelligence.

The Clarridge Factor

Duane “Dewey” Clarridge was once head of the CIA’s Latin American Division. I remember him. In a profession of dark suits, he oddly wore white, a distinguishing mark. A hard-charging, gin-drinking officer of the old school, he was in charge of the 1980s paramilitary Contra operation against Nicaragua’s Sandinista leadership. Unfortunately, at some point, the CIA, under Clarridge, mined a Nicaraguan harbor with explosive devices. When discovered, it created a national and global furor, and he lost his job as division chief. He claimed to have dreamt up the idea for the mining operation over a glass of gin and a cigar. But he didn’t lose his CIA employment.  Instead, in 1986, he went on to create the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center which, with time, would slowly unravel the Agency through its ever-increasing size and mission. Its officers, both men and women, turned to actually hunting terrorists.

In 1996, the Agency faced a reckoning for the aggressive operations in Latin America which Clarridge had overseen in the 1980s. An intelligence oversight board issued a report detailing human rights abuses carried out by CIA assets in Guatemala and, two years later, Clarridge was indicted for lying to Congress. He considered himself a scapegoat and lost whatever esteem he felt toward the CIA. President George H.W. Bush pardoned him in 1992.

Clarridge left the Agency in a huff but stayed connected to intelligence-related matters.  He remained strongly committed to the gung-ho side of action and, at times, was clearly on the wrong side of the fence. For example, he sided with Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, in advocating the sending of exiles and commandos into Iraq. He also raised money to prove that Saddam Hussein had oodles of chemical and biological weapons.

His luck changed when he teamed up with Michael Furlong, a former military officer who was trying to obtain funding for intelligence operations in Afghanistan. Wartime giveaway money was readily available through the military, and he was hugely successful. He obtained, first, $1 million in seed money, then $2.9 million, and finally a $22 million deal, overseen by Lockheed-Martin, for private intelligence operations.  Eventually, the money ran dry, but incredibly, throughout, Clarridge, operating from his home, half a world away in San Diego, ran agents and contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan and passed reports to the military. It was a remarkable feat. But in one instance, senior military officers believed a report Furlong submitted led to a drone strike, killing a dozen Arab men, including several who were double agents for Pakistan’s ISI.

Clarridge stayed in the intelligence business. He organized a front group called Eclipse and posted reports for military officers on his password-protected Website.

Private corporations and contractors collect an estimated 40 percent of U.S. intelligence. The cost is huge. (1)

Jose Rodriguez

Jose Rodriguez is one of the prominent CIA operatives who helped steer the Agency from an intelligence-gathering organization into a paramilitary force.  A native of Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaker, he was first employed in the Latin America Division.  Though he worked in the scandal-ridden Nicaragua operation at the time of Iran-Contra, he was too junior an officer to be swept up in the scandal. Although well-liked in the division he never distinguished himself as one of the best officers within his peer group. Nevertheless, he became the Chief of the Latin America Division. But he was soon in trouble.  Achildhood friend was arrested in the Dominican Republic on a drug charge and Rodriguez unwisely intervened to prevent his friend from being beaten by the Dominican police while in prison.  The Agency’s inspector general reprimanded Rodriguez for showing “a remarkable lack of judgment.” (pg 16) Like Clarridge, he was removed from his job but not the Agency.

Following the same path as Clarridge, he moved on into counterterrorism. At a barnstorming session, the question was where to build a prison to hold terrorist prisoners and, half in jest, Rodriguez suggested Guantanamo. The idea stuck, and Guantanamo became the prison camp for suspected high-level captives.

Mazzetti reports that, in 2004, Rodriguez

“even tried to resurrect a killing program that had been proposed, and then abandoned, during the first year after the September 11 attacks.  It was a plan to cobble together paramilitary hit squads to kill terror suspects across the globe, from Europe to the Middle East to South Asia.” (pp. 121-122).

But his plan put the cart before the horse. The Agency had no assassins within its ranks. Consequently, Director George J. Tenet did not authorize any assassination missions, and the program was temporarily shelved. (p. 122).

But Rodriguez decided to reopen the program in 2004, after arriving at, what Mazzetti describes as “an astonishing solution.  He decided to outsource the killing program to Blackwater,” a private company. (p. 122)

Rodriguez was promoted yet again, and now held the important job of head of the Directorate of Operations, running CIA covert-action and espionage operations across the globe. An important part of these operations became known as “renditions”– wherein a terrorist suspect is kidnapped by CIA personnel in a sovereign foreign country and taken to a secret prison in another country. (2)

Eventually, CIA renditions and torture led to public disclosure, and Congress, in 2005, passed the Detainee Treatment Act which banned “cruel, inhumane and degrading” treatment of any prisoner in American custody, including CIA black sites. Potentially, covert officers, working at CIA prisons, could be prosecuted for torture, and, as Mazzetti puts it, “the specter of criminal investigations and congressional hearings hung heavily over Langley.”  Responding quickly to stave off possible investigation, Rodriguez acted; he ordered the destruction of dozens of videotapes showing CIA officers conducting interrogations at black sites. He sent a “secret cable to the CIA’s Bangkok Station, where the tapes were being kept in a safe, and ordered that they be fed into an industrial-strength shredder.”  (pp. 126-127) The photographic evidence of the secret sites and those CIA officers who ran them was destroyed. Rodriguez thereby severely damaged whatever kind of criminal case Congress had in mind.

After his retirement from CIA, Rodriguez would publicly defend the secret jails and praise the information obtained from them. (3)

Michele “Amira” Ballarin

Michele Ballarin, a well-dressed American woman, lived a lavish lifestyle in Virginia. She first showed up in prominent political and security circles when Somali pirates captured a Ukrainian ship, then requested that she be the ransom negotiator. The Ukrainian government objected to her presence because she befuddled the negotiations and drove up the ransom costs, but she denied any financial interest in the transaction.

The issue is not that Ballarin in any way influenced the reshaping of American intelligence, but rather how audaciously she worked the intelligence system, particularly as U. S. military intelligence had just begun its journey into the world of propaganda.

Before this, in 2006, she had supported, or tried to support, a Sufi resistance movement in Somalia to fight the Sabaab, but it didn’t work out. Undaunted, she wove together a number of front companies and then hired former CIA and military consultants.  The following year, according to Mazzetti, Ballarin “wrote a letter to the CIA in which she announced herself as president of Gulf Security Group, a company based in the United Arab Emirates with a ‘singular objective’: hunting and killing ‘Al Qai’da terrorist networks, infrastructure and personnel in the Horn of Africa.” (p. 239)  She claimed that the job could be done with impunity, with the mission accomplished without fingerprint, footprint, or flag thereby providing total U.S. government deniability.

The CIA replied hurriedly, saying no and, as a precaution, adding that Ballerin’s letter was unsolicited.  But she was undeterred.  As Mazzetti asserts:

“As far-fetched as her offer seemed, Ballarin might just have had bad             timing.  Just a year earlier the CIA was still paying Erik Prince and             Enrique Prado for their roles in the killing program that had been             outsourced to Blackwater employees.” (p. 240)

The Army was forging its way into intelligence collection. With a newly- opened  base in Stuttgart, Germany, for the Africa Command,  it had only a few Africa assets.  For its part, the CIA could not, or did not want, to help the Army.  According to Mazzetti, “The CIA was consumed by the drone war in Pakistan and supporting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving the agency with few sources for spying in Somalia.” (p. 242)

Ballarin told the military she had a plan. She would deliver foodstuffs to the starving Somalis.  Her people would obtain the names and other identifying information of those receiving food, and they, in turn, would receive an identification card. The Army could enter the information thereby received into its computer base and thus compile a profile of Somalia’s complex tribal structure, possibly to be used to hunt al-Shabaab leaders.

Thinking this a good idea, the Army paid Ballarin $200,000, with a pledge to pay more if the program began to show promise.

Another plan was in the making. One night, Ballarin was sitting in her suite in a hotel in Djibouti when a group of Somalis knocked on her door. She was told a potential defector knew when and where al-Shabaab leaders were going to meet, and the defector and his men would kill them all. Of course, she was told, the defector and his men “would need some training with handguns, and silencers to assure that the operation could be carried out as discreetly as possible.” (p. 250)

When Ballarin presented the plan to the Americans, they balked. She couldn’t understand. All the conspirators wanted were silencers, and they would liquidate the whole terrorist organization. “This is an organic solution,” she asserted, adding “This is manna from heaven. Take it!” (p.  250)  But, no deal.

I would have loved to chat with that woman, drinking gin and tonics, and listening to her war stories.

Donald Rumsfeld

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was a frustrated man. He knew the military needed intelligence that the CIA was not providing.  Probably he was right.  As Mazzetti writes, in the 1983 invasion of little Grenada during Ronald Reagan’s administration, the CIA was unable to deliver any useful military intelligence.

Rumsfeld was impressed when he visited the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where a spectacular show of Special Forces and SEALs in action was staged for him, and he was impressed. He concluded that these well-trained soldiers, the Delta Force and Navy SEALs, could be sent anywhere in the world when needed.  But upon being told that he would need the CIA’s approval before sending troops to a hot spot, his reaction was described as “screwing himself into the ceiling.”  (p. 67)

Rumsfeld got a boost when the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission), as Mazzetti notes, “recommended …that the CIA be stripped of all of its paramilitary functions and that the Pentagon serve as the only agency carrying out clandestine warfare.” (p. 80) And Mazzetti point out, “Secret wars and drone strikes, the commission believed, were the job of the Pentagon.” (p. 80) The Commission did not believe that two separate capabilities were needed to perform the same mission.  This was exactly Rumsfeld’s opinion, but he did not press the issue. Instead, he now believed the Pentagon had the same spying authority as the CIA.

And Rumsfeld acted on his belief. By 2004, small JSOC military intelligence operatives were fanning out on spy missions across the globe. After 2004 any difference between the military’s mission and that of the CIA became more difficult to discern. Even in the propaganda field, when the CIA let its propaganda efforts atrophy, the military sought to fill the void. Sometimes the results were spectacularly bad.  In one case, Michael Furlong, again, headed to Baghdad to lead a $15 million project to create a television station, the Iraqi Media Network, which, according to Mazzetti, “was envisioned as a counterweight to Al Jazeera and other Arab networks that Washington perceived as having an anti-American bias.” (p. 180) The effort failed. The employees quit because they weren’t being paid, and the network had technical problems reaching Iraqi homes. The Pentagon had burned through $80 million in the effort; Furlong was removed.

Then Furlong teamed up with Jan Obrman, a Czech national, in JD Media Transmission Systems LLC,  “a company incorporated in the Seychelles Islands and set up to receive money transfers from the United States through a foreign bank account.” (p. 185) The new project, named U-Turn, involved creating war games, to be played on cell phones, that showed Arab police officers battling terrorists; the aim was to enhance the American image. Unfortunately, in real life, of the millions upon millions of dollars spent to enhance the image of Americans abroad, nothing was done to improve the image of the American contract security forces that were seen daily by almost every Iraqi and Afghan. Big men, mostly bearded or unshaven, wearing sleeveless T-Shirts, and tattooed, they mingled everywhere among the local populations, menacingly holding automatic rifles. All were well-paid, some earning over $200,000 per year. Certainly, the American image would have been enhanced had the contract gunmen been required to wash and wear clean clothing, as American soldiers did. (4)  Then, Furlong learned of the business opportunities offered to Native Americans. He had to have such a project. He arranged the formation of a firm, Wyandotte Net Tel, on a speck of land in eastern Oklahoma. The cost was in the millions and the results not much, probably nothing.

Surprisingly, Mark Mazzetti makes little mention of Robert Gates, who had once been Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and , later, Secretary of Defense under both President George W. Bush and his successor, Barack H. Obama. What his position was in regard to the CIA’s taking a more active paramilitary role while the Pentagon took on global spy missions is largely unknown, and will have to await the memoir he is currently writing.

Leon Panetta

During his time as CIA Director under President Obama, Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California and Chief of Staff  to President Bill Clinton,  had, according to Mazzetti, “taken to his new role as military commander, and his time at Langley would be known for the CIA’s aggressive—some would come to believe reckless—campaign of targeted killings.” (p. 228) Adds Mazzetti, Panetta “sought more armed drones and approval to ask Pakistan’s permission for the drones to fly over larger swaths of the tribal areas, what the CIA called ‘flight boxes’.” (p. 228)

Yet, despite his long political and government experience, his approach and arguments did not endear him to the State Department. And he was rude. For example, in an exchange with Cameron Munter, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, during a video-conference between Washington and Islamabad.

According to Mazzetti, Munter “began making his case that he should have veto power over specific drone strikes.  Using soccer terminology, he said he should get a ‘red card’ to scuttle proposed strikes.” (p. 292) But Panetta cut him “off midsentence, telling him that the CIA had the authority to do what it wanted in Pakistan.  It didn’t  need to get the ambassador’s approval for anything.” (p. 292)

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton then came to Munter’s defense. As Mazzetti explains, “She turned to Panetta and told him that he was wrong to assume he could steamroll the ambassador and launch strikes against his approval.”  But the former Clinton administration staff chief curtly responded “No, Hillary, it’s you who are flat wrong.” (p. 292)

Mazzetti cites other incidents where an overzealous CIA station chief took the same hostile attitude toward an ambassador under whom he was serving.  Regaining respect for embassy protocol when the Afghan war is over will undoubtedly take some time.

General David Petraeus

During the time General Petraeus was in charge of the U.S. Central Command, he ordered a preparation of the environment for future combat missions which he stated the CIA could not accomplish. He had human intelligence teams develop a clandestine operational structure to locate, identify, and disrupt or destroy extremist networks and individual leaders of terrorist groups.

Later, while commander of American forces in the Middle East, Petraeus worried about the growing influence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and he signed off on a classified order to expand military spying in Yemen and elsewhere. It authorized the military to conduct a host of unconventional missions in Yemen, from broader eavesdropping activities to paying off locals for information. Whether the CIA objected or otherwise argued over the military’s intrusion in what had formerly been its jurisdiction is unstated.

Panetta, while CIA director, was wedded to the “campaign of targeted killings,” (p. 228), but Mazzetti’s The Edge of the Knife is silent about the attitudes of his predecessors at the CIA and Defense, George J. Tenet and Robert Gates.  Meanwhile, the structure of the intelligence machine was quickly being revamped.

In the summer of 2011, Petraeus left the Army and took the helm at the CIA.  Over breakfast, his predecessor, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, warned him of changes in the Agency, saying that the CIA could conceivably become “no more than a smaller, more secretive version of the Pentagon.” (p. 299) And Mazzetti reports: “After a decade of secret war, Hayden said, man hunting and targeted-killing operations were consuming the CIA, and if that continued, the agency might one day be incapable of carrying out what was supposed to be its primary mission: spying.” (p. 300) “The CIA is not the OSS [the World War II Office of Strategic Services],” he cautioned.  “It’s the nation’s global intelligence service. And you’ve got to discipline yourself to carve out time to do something else besides counterterrorism.” (p. 300)

As Mazzetti comments, “Some senior CIA officials speak with pride about how the drone strikes in Pakistan have decimated al Qaeda, forcing the dwindling band of Osama bin Laden’s followers to find new places to hide—in Yemen or North Africa or Somia or some other other ungoverned part of the world.  Many believe that the drone program is the most effective cover-action program in CIA history.” (p. 318)  Yet, he adds: “But in the killing years since 2001, some of those who were present at the creation of the CIA’s drone program—and who cheered the lethal authorities the spy agency was handed after the September 11 attacks—had become deeply ambivalent.” (p. 318).

Many CIA officers did not want to return to the days of Iran-Contra, the bombing of harbors, and the killing of people. But, slowly and even willingly, they succumbed. Former CIA officer Richard Blee, a former head of the Agency’s Alec Station, which Mazzetti describes as “the unit inside the Counterterrorist Center with the specific mission of finding Osama bin Laden,” is quoted as saying “In the early days, for our consciences we wanted to know who we were killing before anyone pulled the trigger. Now, we’re lighting these people up all over the place… Every drone strike is an execution.  And if we are going to hand down death sentences, there ought to be some public accountability and some public discussion about the whole thing… And it should be a debate that Americans can understand.” (p. 319)

The Absence of Spies

Barack Obama’s administration has given indications of a possible shift of the killer drones to the military’s control, with the CIA reverting to its original role of collecting intelligence. Making changes won’t be an easy task, and may not even be possible without dire personal and financial cost. As Mazzetti comments, “Targeted killings have made the CIA the indispensable agency for the Obama administration and have even improved the agency’s image on other matters.”  (p. 315) In fact, he notes: “A nation fatigued by the long, bloody, and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed, by the end of President Obama’s first term, little concerned about the government’s escalation of clandestine warfare.  Quite the contrary… A large majority—69 percent of respondents [to a poll conducted by Professor Amy Zegart of Stanford University]—said they supported the American government secretly assassinating terrorists.” (p. 315)

Since 9/11, the CIA has doubled in size, with bountiful salaries and excellent retirements and benefits. In effect, it remains a noteworthy place of employment. But indications are that only a third of the CIA’s personnel are employed in intelligence collection. The rest are not spies, whatever their tasks. They were not trained as spies. Their work has often been as targeters, man-hunters, or in some technical or electronic capacity. Basically, they are not needed in intelligence collection. They number in the thousands, and, considering the continued growth of Intelligence Community, the number will likely rise into the tens of thousands of employees. And that doesn’t include all the private contractors.  What’s to be done with them?

Is the U.S. government prepared to terminate so many employees? Or void existing contracts with private security firms?  I think not.  And so the difficulties and challenges will certainly increase, as will the abuses and opportunities for huge mistakes, as detailed by Mark Mazzetti in The Way of the Knife.


1. Robert D. Chapman, “The Enormous Cost of Counterterrorism,” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter 2012-2013, pp. 828-836.

2. Reportedly, liaison services stopped giving terrorist leads to the CIA for fear the subjects would be “rendered.”  For example, Italy sentences five CIA officers in absentia for allegedly “rendering” a man from Italy to Egypt for torture and interrogation.  See Steve Hendricks, A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA On Trial (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).

3. See Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., with Bill Harlow, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives (New York: Threshhold Editions, 2012).

4. See Shawn Engbrecht, America’s Covert Warriors: Inside the World of Private Military Contractors (Washington: Potomac Books, 2011), pp. 201-203.

* This review was originally published in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Volume 27, Issue 1, 2014. It is available by payment here.

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, Middle East Conflicts, South Asia, U.S. Foreign Policy

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