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CIA Changes from ‘Spooks’ to ‘Assassins’ (ABC-Australia Transcript)

Alex Constantine - July 31, 2013

New York Times national security correspondent, Mark Mazzetti, discusses the changing role of the CIA since 9/11 saying it has changed from being a spy agency into an organisation that conducts assassinations, often by using unmanned drones.


ABC TV Australia, Jul 24, 2013

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Tonight's guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Mazzetti is national security correspondent for the New York Times. He's written a new book: The Way of the Knife, examining the CIA's transformation into a manhunting and killing machine, pursuing enemies with drones and special forces. Well he joins us now from our Washington bureau.

Mark Mazzetti, thanks for being there.


TONY JONES: Now, it was in 2001 when President George W. Bush signed a secret order giving the CIA back its licence to kill. Why did they lose it in the first place?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, as I write about it in the book, the CIA has - it has an uneasy relationship with killing, one might say, and that in the 1970s a lot of the dirty laundry of the CIA was aired out - the early coup attempt and assassination plots that the agency had done during its first decades. And in the mid-'70s Congress sort of investigated a lot of those things and as a result they took away the agency's official licence to kill and President Ford in 1976 signed an assassination ban. So in the '80s and '90s the agency was, for the most part, going back to this more traditional espionage mission, and as I write about, that changed shortly after 9/11 and in the years since it really has transformed the spy agency.

TONY JONES: Yeah, we'll come to that in a moment, but they can't have been very good at their intelligence mission. They were completely wrong-footed by the fall of communism, they failed to foresee Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, they missed a lot of clues over what was going on prior to September 11. Perhaps they were actually just better at killing people.

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, you know, it's interesting, you know - they have become quite adept at the manhunting operation, and as you point out, in some ways it is easier to do. It is easier to track people and kill them if you have the technology like they do with armed predators. It's far more difficult to do strategic analysis, to do predictions, as you said, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. So it's sometimes tougher to spy than it is to hunt and kill.

TONY JONES: Now you write that the CIA has always had a fragmented culture split, as you put it, between paramilitary jocks and nerdy analysts. You make it sound a little bit like a US high school movie.

MARK MAZZETTI: Yeah, well in some ways it is. It's a closed culture, it's a very cliquish culture and there are these different tribes within the agency. There're the analysts, the paramilitaries and - but really, traditionally the case officers, who are the actual spies who go out into the field and recruit agents, they have ruled the roost of the CIA and still to a large extent do. The more operational the CIA gets, the more the Directorate of Operations which runs all the case officers has control. And that's certainly something we've seen in the last decade plus where the CIA has become so operational that those who are in charge of doing covert action have a tremendous amount of influence.

TONY JONES: How important was it - you mentioned this earlier, the predator drones, how important was it that that technology was actually perfected around the time that George Bush gave permission to the CIA to start killing people again?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well it ultimately became quite critical, and as I write about in one of the chapters, the development of the armed predator came over a number of years and there had been spy surveillance flights in Afghanistan using predators in 2000 and early 2001, but there was no armed capability, so they could see training camps in Southern Afghanistan, but they couldn't take any shots except from offshore submarines. So in the desert, in the Nevada Desert, a team of test pilots started developing the armed predator in the early part of 2001 and then once they had perfected that to that point, there were these fierce debates within the agency right really up to the point of 9/11 where the agency was wrestling with whether it should be getting back into the killing business, whether the CIA should be taking the shots, and again, harkening back to these earlier days of the agency when it was killing and a generation of CIA officers had come in after the '70s very uneasy with this idea and this prospect.

TONY JONES: If I understand it correctly, the first successful drone killing of a terrorist or alleged terrorist was in November of 2002, it was an Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen who was tagged as the mastermind of the bombing of the warship USS Cole. Did that assassination, which was successful, did it prove to the White House that this could be one of the most effective weapons of statecraft?

MARK MAZZETTI: It was certainly a key moment. I just wanted to clarify that this was the first strike outside of Afghanistan using a predator. So there had been up to that point several drone shots by the CIA in Afghanistan. But the reason why the 2002 strike in Yemen was so critical: because, as you said, it sort of proved to the Bush administration that this weapon could be used extensively, but also it sort of crossed the Rubicon in terms of waging this war outside of declared war zones. You had the CIA hunting and killing someone in a country where the US was not officially at war and so that really set the standard for what we would see over a decade, especially in Pakistan.

TONY JONES: Who is it that comes up with the lists of the targeted individuals who are to be killed and who signs off on those?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, in the Obama administration you've seen it very much consolidated in the Oval Office, or at least in the White House. John Brennan, who in the first term was the President's top counterterrorism advisor, managed - actually, there's more than one list. He managed the several lists drawn up by both the Pentagon and the CIA and decisions were made about who the CIA and the military should target. Brennan is now the CIA director and some of those lists are still maintained by the White House, but I should point out that the CIA still has a very large amount of authority to take out - to take shots on their own. So, for instance in Pakistan, if they're going to do a drone strike, they don't specifically have to ask the White House. The authority resides in the Director of the CIA.

TONY JONES: This is one of the - well, let's say the more ironic aspects of this that a Democrat President, supposedly one who believes in rights around the world and legality is the one who has expanded this drone program and the killing program generally far more than any previous president. How did that happen? What's the logic behind Obama's decision?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, one of the things Obama has - well, campaigned on in 2008 was to end the war in Iraq and the mentality largely in the Obama White House has been to get the US out of these big, messy, costly wars of occupation, even though Obama did approve a surge in Afghanistan in the beginning of his presidency. But this has been a way, as you said, that was developed under the Bush administration but really embraced under Obama. You've seen far more drone strikes under the Obama administration than you did under Bush, although Bush in the last six months of his presidency really did start the acceleration in Pakistan. But there have been hundreds of drone strikes under Obama. And it's hard to sort of figure out the psychology of why this fits Obama's mentality, but certainly he has said publicly, others have said publicly that they are far more willing to wage war outside of war zones in ways with predators and contractors and special operations groups if it gets the US to avoid something like another Afghanistan and another Iraq, and that really has been the Obama mentality.

TONY JONES: I've got to ask you this, Mark: what would be the consequences, do you believe, of expanding this killing program with robots and covert killings in other ways? Will it actually achieve what Obama wants, which is to end terrorism by killing all the terrorists, or the leaders, in any event, or will it actually just create a kind of new generation of angry young men out for revenge?

MARK MAZZETTI: You know, I think that that's entirely possible, it is something that intelligence analysts in the US are finally really looking at: the blowback possibility of this withering campaign of drone strikes. You've seen anecdotal evidence of, for instance in May, 2010 when a man tried to blow up a truck bomb in Times Square in New York City he went to court after he was caught and said that the reason he had done it was because of the drone campaign in Pakistan. That's one piece of evidence. However, it is something that bears close watching in the years ahead: is the effect creating more terrorists than are being killed? I think this is something that we're not gonna know maybe for several years, but there's certainly evidence of it.

TONY JONES: Now it's not only drones in this case, you also outline the emergence of what you call fringe characters playing outsized roles, one of them a former Green Beret called Raymond A. Davis. Now we know of him because he was caught in Pakistan having in traffic killed two Pakistanis he claimed were out to get him. That became incredibly controversial. Who was he? What was he doing there? Was he a CIA agent?

MARK MAZZETTI: So, what I've tried to do in the book is to tell a narrative story and to focus on people who the US has relied on to wage this shadow war because it is outside of war zones and you can't send in the Marines, so you use contractors, you use various fringe players, as you said, to wage this kind of war. So Raymond Davis was a CIA contractor, a part of this surge of CIA operatives in Pakistan around 2010 and 2011. 2011 in January, he shoots two people on the streets of Lahore, a third person is killed when a truck from the US consulate tries to rescue him and then shortly afterwards Raymond Davis is put in prison. I chose to spend a lot of time on the Raymond Davis episode because when I went to Pakistan to report for the book it's really something that is the defining episode maybe of the last decade in Pakistan in terms of defining the US relationship with Pakistan. In the US we spend so much time thinking about the Osama bin Laden raid, which happened later that year, but in Pakistan the Raymond Davis episode is such a searing moment because it seemed to lift the veil on this shadow war that the CIA had been waging, and so to close the story, the CIA ultimately was able to get Davis out of the country after some negotiations with the Pakistani Government and Davis was spirited to Afghanistan first and ultimately back to the US.

TONY JONES: Now, an even more extraordinary fringe character, it seems to me, is a business woman called Michele Ballarin - if I have the pronunciation right. Who is she and how did she get into the business of tracking and killing Al-Qaeda operatives in North Africa?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well - so Michelle was a - is an American businesswoman and an heiress to a somewhat large amount of money. She was once a Republican candidate for Congress in West Virginia. And then in the early part of the last decade became sort of obsessed with Somalia from meeting some Somali elders and quite taken with Sufism, which is a more moderate strain of Islam. She started to travel to Somalia over the course of the last decade and developed contacts on the ground there. And then in 2008 she convinced the Pentagon to hire her and her team to gather intelligence in Somalia that would be used to track militants in the country. She had previously proposed to set up hit squads, hit teams for the CIA and the CIA turned her down, so she was hired by the Pentagon to spy. She got involved in a number of different things including hostage negotiations with Somali pirates and there's some interesting cables that came out in the WikiLeaks data dump that sort of showed that she had become intimately involved in negotiating with Somali pirates to release some of the vessels that had been taken hostage.

TONY JONES: Mark, a final question because we all want to know how this kind of policy is going to evolve in what arguably'd be the next biggest foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration in that region: that is, the Syrian conflict. So many questions unresolved. Are they going to arm the rebels? How are they gonna do it? Are they gonna train them? Will they eventually start using predator drones in Syria? What do you think'll happen there?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well this goes back to the Obama mindset that I spoke to earlier. As I say, the White House is really determined to avoid deep American involvement in another war in the Middle East. They even at this point are resisting more militarised options, for instance using armed drones. They are at this point relying, they say, on arming the rebels, although that hasn't even happened yet. It is possible down the road you could see a drone campaign in Syria in lieu of American ground forces. This is the model that has been established over the last decade or so, this is a model, I think, that'll be used quite extensively in the future, not only by the US, but by a number of other countries.

TONY JONES: And briefly, we're nearly out of time, but do you suspect they will use those drones to try and assassinate the President of Syria, Assad?

MARK MAZZETTI: It's certainly a possibility, although, again, you'd have to find out specific intelligence about him, where he was at any given time and have very precise intelligence in order to take a strike. It would be quite an extraordinary decision to fly armed drones over Damascus and to kill Assad, but this war is likely to last for some time, so we'll see where it takes US policymakers.

TONY JONES: Mark Mazzetti, we'll have to leave you there. We're out of time. We thank you very much for taking the time to come and talk to us.

MARK MAZZETTI: Thank you very much.



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