DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When the CIA came into being in 1947, its mandate was to gather intelligence on foreign governments - in other words, spy. Mark Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for the New York Times, has written a book charting how the agency has evolved from that mission. It's called "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth." The book is out today, and my colleague, Renee Montagne, spoke with the author about it.
RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: The book begins with a quote from John le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," outlining the philosophy of his British spy chief, Control.
MARK MAZZETTI: Good intelligence work, Control had always preached, was gradual and rested on a kind of gentleness. The scalp hunters were the exception to his own rule. They weren't gradual, and they weren't gentle either.
MONTAGNE: Mark Mazzetti says the scalp hunters were those who practiced targeted killing, either in person or by some other deadly means. And in the '50s and '60s, the CIA did plot to kill several foreign leaders. Most famously Fidel Castro. Among the attempts: planting an exploding seashell near where he snorkeled. But as these stories emerged in the 1970s, Senator Frank Church led a Senate investigation of the CIA which helped put an end to the worst abuses of the scalp hunters, including an outright ban on assassinations of foreign leaders. Then came the attacks of 9/11 and the beginning of what Mazzetti calls a shadow war. His book begins with a group of CIA officers in the White House Situation Room laying out a plan to Vice President Dick Cheney.
MAZZETTI: It is a plan to hunt down and kill people around the world. And the idea was if the CIA found people, you know, where the military couldn't go or they couldn't send drones - you know, this could be in European cities, it could be in populated areas - that the CIA would cobble together hit teams to go kill those people. Now, some of this has been reported before, but for the book I describe a scene which hasn't been reported, where Cheney is sort of giving this authorization, and it's the scene where it's the beginning of the new CIA, where the CIA is identifying targets to hunt and kill.
MONTAGNE: It certainly read like the rules of engagement had taken a sharp turn.
MAZZETTI: No, that's exactly true. I mean one of the things that I try to draw out in the book is how much prior to 9/11 there really was tension in the CIA about whether they should get back into the killing business. A whole generation of officers who had come in after the Church committee - so some who came in the late '70s - sort of were trained in traditional spycraft, were trained that - and taught that, you know, the CIA doesn't kill people, the military kills people. By 9/11 a lot of those officers had reached senior levels at the CIA. So in the fights over whether they should kill Osama bin Laden before 9/11 with a Predator, there's sort of a morality play at the CIA about whether they should be doing - whether the CIA, a spy agency, should be doing this. So what you see after 9/11, you know, famously the cliche is the gloves came off. And it's true.
MONTAGNE: Right. And with the vice president authorizing hit squads, did that make it legal?
MAZZETTI: Well, the authorizations were quite broad after 9/11 - that the CIA got, that Congress authorized the military to use, was to go find, capture or kill al-Qaida. Now, I should point out that the hit squads had various incarnations over the years. Originally it was a CIA operation, then it was eventually outsourced to Blackwater, the contractor. There's no evidence that this specific program was ever used, or that these squads actually every carried out an operation. But there was this feeling after 9/11 that, sure, it's legal, the authorizations were there. Our authorizations are incredibly broad to go do this around the globe, and if you can identify someone as associated with al-Qaida, even tangentially, then you're authorized to capture or kill them. I think it's something that we're wrestling with now, or the government is wrestling with now, is these authorizations that were put in place in the frantic days after 9/11 are still in place.
MONTAGNE: Although, while there may not ever have been hit squads formed in the sense we understand them, there are those drones.
MAZZETTI: That's right. I mean the CIA has become a machine for killing in many ways. The counterterrorism center has become in many ways the sort of beating heart of the agency that does manhunting. And the drone operations are something that two successive White Houses have embraced. You could argue the current administration, the Obama administration, has embraced it even more than its predecessor. And these questions of should the CIA stay in the killing business, should they be focused on drone strikes, and - or should that be something that the military should do - it is something that is unresolved but is certainly being discussed.
MONTAGNE: Well, has this focus on counterterrorism in recent years, does that mean that the agency has so many fewer spies that it doesn't really function very well as a spy agency? I'm just thinking now of the Arab Spring, which really no one predicted, but which you would have hoped America's intelligence agency, the CIA, would have known something about or be able to predict somewhat.
MAZZETTI: One of the things I write about in the book is how behind the curve the CIA was on the Arab Spring. And this caused a lot of frustration at the White House, where the CIA was incapable of sort of getting a grasp on these revolts. And this is a big concern, not only in the CIA but in the White House, other parts of the American government, that the traditional missions of the CIA are being atrophied, or are atrophying, because of this intense focus on manhunting.
MONTAGNE: Just finally - where do you see the CIA going next with this secret war?
MAZZETTI: Well, one of the interesting things that's playing out now is that John Brennan, who was President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, now is the CIA director, has made it clear to some degree in his congressional hearing that he does have concerns about the direction of the CIA, that it should not be focusing on traditional military activities. That being said, John Brennan has also been at the center, over the last four years, of this escalation of drone strikes. But now that he's out at Langley - and he is a CIA veteran - it will be interesting to see if he does try to reign it in. There's some evidence that he's trying to do that, but I think this is something that could take years. And even if you were to, tomorrow, say, OK, the CIA is out of the killing business, we have a whole generation of CIA officers who came in since 9/11 who have learned manhunting and killing, and it's not so easy to retrain people in traditional spy missions. So this is really something that will take a long time even if the CIA were to end it tomorrow.
MONTAGNE: Mark Mazzetti is national security correspondent for the New York Times, and his new book is "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth." It's out today. Thanks very much for joining us.
MAZZETTI: Thanks so much for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.