GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a new book about a major change in the way America fights.
The attacks of September 11th sparked a revolution of sorts at the Central Intelligence Agency, transforming it from an operation focused on stealing secrets to something closer to a paramilitary organization focused on hunting down and killing terrorists.
The Department of Defense has evolved as well, beefing up its global intelligence gathering capabilities, and at times conducting missions that were previously done by the spies of the CIA.
New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti tracks all this in “The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth.”
Margaret Warner sat down with him recently, and began by asking when it first became apparent that the line between spies and soldiers had blurred.
MARK MAZZETTI, “The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth”: I started covering the military just shortly before the September 11th attacks.
And in the months and years afterwards, what — a lot of what I was reporting on was these efforts by Donald Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, to basically get soldiers outside of the declared war zones, so basically send them around the world.
And that meant changing not only the authorities that the Pentagon had to do that, but to build the budgets and build the capabilities of special operations troops. And Rumsfeld really was furious at the Pentagon he inherited that it wasn’t equipped to fight this kind of war.
And so he was trying to push them more and more into intelligence gathering, manhunting. And there are some now famous memos that Rumsfeld wrote that sort of expressed his concern about these things. And then what we saw with the CIA was weak after 9/11. The — President Bush gave the CIA lethal authority to capture and kill al-Qaida leaders, which is something it hadn’t had for decades.
And so they become much more into the killing business and the military business.
MARGARET WARNER: More operational.
Now when did the CIA — they have started out capturing and interrogating terror suspects in these secret sites. When did they shift their focus and sort of embrace the policy of targeting and killing them instead?
MARK MAZZETTI: There’s a critical moment that I write about in 2004 when the CIA inspector general, John Helgerson, writes a pretty devastating report about the abuses in the CIA prisons.
And really it had this effect not only within the agency, but in the Bush administration. And, ultimately Congress, and, as we all know, the American public started learning the details. The first drone strike in Pakistan took place a month after that report.
Now, I don’t want to draw too direct a line and say one absolutely led to another, but there’s no question that this report, this internal report, led to — helped lead to a new direction for the CIA from capturing to killing.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you write about this, but briefly describe, what sort of debate was there within either the agency or the administration about the morality and legality of using drones to essentially carry out remote-control assassinations?
MARK MAZZETTI: You had a whole generation of CIA officers who had come in to the agency after the 1970s Church Committee investigations, which many people will remember sort of aired all the dirty laundry about assassination attempts, coup attempts in the early days of the CIA.
So many thought the CIA shouldn’t be doing this in terms of handling armed drones. Then, of course, 9/11 happens. President Bush gives the lethal authorities. And those concerns that played out before 9/11 were quickly swept aside.
And it — but it did take some time for the CIA really to escalate its killing operations even after the 9/11 attacks. Some of it was because, as we said, there was this interrogation focus, but it was also, their intelligence wasn’t particularly good in order to do these drone strikes. They had to broker secret deals with these countries in order to allow them to have the strikes.
And then finally the big moment was, at the end of the Bush administration, President Bush decides that he’s going to authorize the CIA to do drone strikes in Pakistan unilaterally, without even telling the Pakistanis, because he had reached a point of frustration.
MARGARET WARNER: You write about a number of the downsides, and one of the most important ones you found was that it — all this focus on targeting, finding specific terrorists took them away from the traditional work, in which they might come to, say, understand developments throughout the Muslim world, let’s say the Arab spring, for example, which the intelligence agencies missed.
MARK MAZZETTI: When the Arab spring happened, after the initial spark that happened in Tunisia that set up the Tunisian revolt, you had these cascading revolutions in Egypt, in Libya.
And there was a lot of concern in the administration that the agency was a step behind all along the way. And one of the things I write about in the book is that when you’re doing manhunting and you’re doing counterterrorism, you’re necessarily going to be being very close with foreign spy services. They’re going to help you find terror leaders or militants.
So you’re close with the Libyans and you’re close with the Egyptians. But those are the last people who are going to tell you that there’s a revolution on its way in the country. Right? And so …
MARGARET WARNER: Even if they know it. Sometimes, they miss it.
MARK MAZZETTI: Even if they know it, they might not tell the CIA.
So the question was how much the CIA or other intel agencies didn’t have its ear to the ground to predict or at least to update these revolts as they were happening.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the new director of the CIA, John Brennan, seemed to indicate at his hearing that he wanted to dial back on the drone — having the agency in the drone attack business. Do you think there is going to be a shift, and, if so, why?
MARK MAZZETTI: Well, I think that the pressure is increasing on President Obama to bring more transparency to these operations.
They remain in secret. And it’s amazing that even some members of the Intelligence Committees who have access to the highest-classification information in the U.S. government, they realized during the Brennan hearings that they didn’t have everything, and that they were pushing for more information.
So there’s pressure to at least bring more transparency. And Brennan has said that there is — there are functions the CIA is currently doing that it probably shouldn’t be doing. I think that this is going to be something that takes time, though, that not — that the CIA wouldn’t necessarily entirely get out of the targeted killing business.
It may give up aspects of it. And then the question is, well, how long does it really take the agency to be moving back in the other — the other direction? It could take years. But there’s no question that the secrecy of all this is something that I don’t think President Obama and the Obama administration is going to be able to maintain for very long.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark Mazzetti, thank you for joining us. And I look forward to continuing our conversation about “The Way of the Knife” online.
MARK MAZZETTI: Thanks very much.
GWEN IFILL: As Margaret mentioned, there is more of their conversation online, and you can find that on The Rundown.