Mark Mazzetti’s Way of the Knife tracks the development of the dual Joint Special Operations Command and Central Intelligence Agency campaign against Al Qaeda. Mazzetti tells of how the War on Terror changed both organizations, making each more lethal while at the same time compromising substantial elements of their original missions. Mazzetti’s book, one of many that describes the development of the SOF and drone campaigns, focuses not only on the organizational competition, but also on a variety of “colorful” personalities in and around the war.
The Pointy End of the State
This is essentially an organizational history of the SOF and UAV components of the War on Terror, and of how the demands of fighting an unconventional adversary transformed two organs of the US national security state. After 9/11, the Bush administration and the rest of the “deep state” grasped for means to strike back against Al Qaeda. The invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq constituted one prong of this response, but these invasions were clumsy tools for solving the much more narrow problem of targeting and defeating the Al Qaeda network itself. Invading Afghanistan could force Al Qaeda to move, and invading Iraq (in the fantasies of the neocons) could set fire to a series of cultural and political changes in the Arab world that would make Al Qaeda impossible, but neither could destroy the network as it then existed.
The government responded in two ways. First, the CIA militarized existing capabilities, breaking a series of norms and taboos that had held since the 1970s. Effectively, the CIA got back into the business of killing people, only now with makeshift drones and highly trained operatives. But Donald Rumsfeld was unsatisfied with an outcome that left the CIA in control of the sharpest parts of the war against Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld and the neocons around him had, since the 1970s, harbored a distrust of the CIA. Rumsfeld also sought to bring killing capacity directly under his own control at DoD. They didn’t believe that the CIA was culturally equipped to fight Al Qaeda, and in any case knew that DoD could draw on far greater resources.
This resulted in a significant boom for Special Operations Forces, which received substantial resources and bureaucratic attention. Under Stanley McChrystal, JSOC became nearly autonomous from the rest of DoD, with its own intelligence collection capabilities, procurement system, and command structure. McChrystal believed this was necessary in order to develop an organization as quick and as flexible as the terrorist groups it was fighting. JSOC required organic assets and autonomy in order to operate effectively in conditions of minimal and quickly shifting intelligence.
This lack of coordination created problems with the rest of occupation forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. JSOC would conduct raids in the middle of long-term pacification operations without notifying local forces, which severely disrupted the ability of other units to build rapport with the local population. However, it also gave JSOC the agility to fight AQ networks in both theaters of operation.
It goes without saying that Rumsfeld was less interested in civilian control as an abstract principle than in having them under his direct control. As it detached itself from the enormous Pentagon bureaucracy, JSOC became more like the CIA. However, JSOC operated outside the conventional (albeit limited) means for maintaining executive and Congressional oversight of the intelligence community.
Over time, the CIA responded to the increased effectiveness and assertiveness of JSOC by increasing its own degree of militarization. Before 2001, killing people was not the primary mission of the CIA. Today it is, both because of the demands of civilian policymakers and because of competition with DoD. The two organizations eventually developed cooperative arrangements, such that JSOC could loan assets to the CIA when legal concerns prevented the former from operating. The raid that killed Osama Bin Laden involved just such an arrangement. Private contractors also played a role, with both JSOC and the CIA taking advantage of relationships with private firms and individuals associated with the broader intelligence community.
Drones, SOF, and Obama
There’s no question that there have been organizational payoffs. Both JSOC and the CIA are better at killing people than there were in 2001, and probably better at identifying the appropriate targets. It’s altogether less than obvious that the CIA is good at anything else. Mazzetti suggests that the CIA’s militarization makes it less capable in carrying out traditional intelligence tasks. He doesn’t write very much about the NSA, but it’s possible that part of the explanation for the NSA’s growing mission set lies in the reduced capacity of the CIA to carry out its traditional tasks.
Although this structure emerged from roots in the Bush administration, it really came into its own under Obama, as it became clear that the administration would (eventually) prefer a smaller footprint in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA could offer Obama an alternative to two problems. First, killing people eliminated the pesky need for putting them in prison. Dead terrorists could tell fewer tales, but neither did they need to go to Gitmo. Second, the CIA and JSOC gave Obama ways to fight terrorists (and ward off domestic critics) without retaining large scale forces abroad. Accordingly, Obama and Panetta were more than willing to allow JSOC and the CIA to continue and expand their campaigns.
From an institutional point of view, both the development of modern JSOC and the militarization of the CIA are interesting stories, with potentially important lessons. With respect to the former, 9/11 and the support of Rumsfeld offered Stan McChrystal the opportunity to fashion something radical and new; an organization that could take advantage of the combination of very high human capital (the extremely talented and skilled members of US special operations forces) with the latest technological and intelligence advances. Shorn of much of the Pentagon bureaucracy but still maintaining access to its enormous resources, the new JSOC could do truly remarkable things when set loose. Whether those things comported with a broader, long-term view of American grand strategy is a different question.
With respect to the CIA, I think that it would have been more helpful to approach the question from a factional point of view than a generational. Obviously, the two are related; factions often map imperfectly onto generations, as was the case with fighter and bomber factions in the USAF. With the CIA, it seems that the shift happened too quickly to suggest that the organization was simply responding to outside pressures. Rather, I imagine that factions within the CIA were entirely comfortable with a more militarized posture, and that the combination of the failure to predict 9/11 and the competition from JSOC gave these factions the ammunition they needed to push the organization in the way they wanted.
There’s also the question of how this matters for the flexibility of US airpower institutions. Debate over whether drone strikes remain more appropriately in the DoD or the CIA continue. It’s less than obvious that the DoD is better than the CIA at drone strikes, at least in terms of collateral damage. Putting DoD fully in charge of drones is attractive from an international law point of view, as it drags the campaign from the shadowy intelligence world into the much more visible defense world. However, some of the most recent evidence suggests that CIA does a better job of conducting due diligence with respect to developing intelligence prior to strikes, and to conducting the strikes themselves. It’s surely interesting that the United States is undertaking what amounts to a strategic air campaign without making the traditional Air Force (or Navy) its focus.
This isn’t the only book on the development and growth of the SOF and drone campaigns during the War on Terror, but it’s a good one. Mazzetti maintains a respectful distance from his material, but while he’s clearly impressed with how effective
JSOC and the CIA have become, he’s obviously less committed to the idea that this has served the strategic interests of the United States well. This comes through effectively in his portraits of the various private contractors who’ve become associated with the intelligence community. But Mazzetti’s account also suggests concern with how both campaigns have escaped effective civilian oversight, both through bureaucratic means and through Congressional disinterest. It’s worth your time.