The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth
Mark Mazzetti
Penguin Press, $29.95 (cloth)

Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield
Jeremy Scahill
Nation Books, $29.99 (cloth)

In September 2011, a barrage of Hellfire missiles fired from a U.S. Predator drone struck and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a 30-year-old American citizen, as his car was crossing an expanse of desert in Yemen. The strike generated intense controversy and has become a focal point in the debate over U.S. drone killings, which number approximately 4,000 individuals since 9/11, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Drone strikes and other covert “kill or capture” operations have come to define President Obama’s approach to national security, much as the military detention of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo did his predecessor’s.

For the most part, drone operations have been carried out in secret. Special forces operating under the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)—which was authorized by a classified 2004 order to kill, capture, and spy in more than a dozen countries—have been major players. So too has the CIA, which has engaged in covert operations not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia as part of a global war fought without defined battlefields or a clear end.

These secret operations are the subject of Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth and Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. The books, both by investigative journalists, provide fresh insights into the ways in which drones are altering the United States’ approach to war and the institutions that wage it. But their biggest contribution is to highlight how drones help to mask the absence of an effective long-term strategy for dealing with terrorism, an absence that President Obama acknowledged in his May 23 speech at the National Defense University even as he defended the drone program’s continued vitality.

Both Mazzetti and Scahill describe drones’ tactical and political allure. Drones, they explain, have allowed the United States to wage war without a significant commitment of troops. Drones supposedly provide a cleaner, more precise way of killing—what CIA Director John Brennan described as a “scalpel” rather a “hammer.” For the Obama administration, drone strikes remain the key to a smarter, more focused war aimed at hunting down terrorist suspects around the world while avoiding the kinds of protracted and costly military operations that characterized the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

But drone warfare has proven far messier and costlier than anticipated. Among the 4,000 dead are a significant number of innocent civilians, although details are difficult to ascertain given the secrecy surrounding drone killings and the way the United States calculates and classifies victims. In areas of militant activity, Mazzetti notes, the U.S. effectively counts all military-aged males as enemy fighters. When they are killed, therefore, they are presumed to be combatants, absent express intelligence to the contrary. Although the White House has disputed this assertion, it has not provided details of how victims are counted or assessed.

The vaunted precision of drone strikes is also something of a myth. An administration intelligence official reportedly told Scahill that the killing Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s sixteen-year-old son, was a mistake, and the Obama administration recently acknowledged he was not a target. And, As Mazzetti and Scahill document, “signature strikes” based on targets’ patterns of behavior create a high risk of such mistakes. The behaviors used in the U.S. government’s pattern analysis—such as bearing arms—are common in most affected areas.

Mazzetti and Scahill do more, however, than describe these failings. They explain how drone killings and other covert lethal operations often fuel the very threat the U.S. claims to be fighting.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Somalia, expertly covered in Scahill’s Dirty Wars. Scahill shows how the United States misread the situation in Somalia at virtually every turn, conducting a shadow war through drone strikes, kill and capture operations, and military intervention by Ethiopian proxy forces that further destabilized the country and the region. Directed at rooting out al Shabaab—a violent Islamist group with connections to al Qaeda—this shadow war had the opposite effect. By killing thousands of civilians and decreasing already low levels of public security, the secret American war fostered a power vacuum that enabled al Shabaab to grow from a small extremist group into a significant force. It also inspired a number of U.S. citizens of Somali descent to travel to Somalia to join the organization—one of whom, Mazzetti notes, became the “first-ever American suicide bomber” when he drove a car packed with explosives into a government building.

Drones have had a similarly polarizing effect in Yemen, where they have increased popular support for the al Qaeda offshoot there, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Drone strikes have had their most significant repercussions in Pakistan. The United States can, to be sure, point to isolated accomplishments. But CIA and Special Forces operations are perceived as violations of Pakistani sovereignty, and killings of innocents, along with the lurid case of CIA operative Raymond Davis, have generated significant friction between the United States and Pakistan. Although drone strikes in Pakistan have declined significantly during the past few years, public opinion of the United States in Pakistan remains at an all-time low. Even strikes against Pakistan’s enemies—such as the one that reportedly killed the Pakistani Taliban’s deputy leader, Wali ur-Rehman—provoke official condemnation and public rage.

From these individual stories of the war on terror, The Way of the Knife and Secret Wars assemble a scene frequently marked by chaos and improvisation. For example, Mazzetti describes how forces within the Pentagon sought to counter terrorist threats by waging “simultaneous secret wars in as many places as possible.” Predator drones helped make this approach possible both operationally—the unmanned vehicles are easy to deploy widely—and politically—no American soldiers are put at risk.

But eliminating terrorist targets one by one is not a strategy for eliminating terrorism itself. It is but one tactic. That tactic was elevated to the place of strategy in a war that no one knows how to fight. In his speech, President Obama appeared to recognize that drones could only be one piece of the larger strategic puzzle. Obama, however, alluded only generally to what those other pieces might be—“effective partnerships” and “diplomatic engagement and assistance”—or how they might fit together with drones to form a comprehensive approach to terrorism.  It appears, then, that for the time being the improvised drone war will continue.

Drones and other kill-or-capture operations have also prompted important changes in the respective functions of the CIA and the military, with significant implications for the United States’ ability to develop an effective counter-terrorism strategy. The CIA has become highly militarized—America’s “second air force,” as one general described it—as the agency’s focus has shifted from gathering intelligence to killing terrorist suspects. With resources increasingly devoted to combat as opposed to spying, the CIA was caught flat-footed by the upheaval of the Arab Spring.

A war that brings little risk to the homeland or its citizens—including those in the armed forces—does not elicit much protest.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, has become more like the CIA. Mazzetti describes how JSOC forces are “sheep-dipped” into the CIA’s command, thus bringing JSOC under the CIA’s authority. This is a legal fiction that transforms a traditional military activity into a covert action, allowing JSOC to operate in secret beyond recognized war zones and to bypass opposition from other countries to U.S. military forces acting on their territory.  While JSOC is now freer to use drones and conduct other covert activities, it is also more prone to pursue operations that can generate instability in other countries and create friction with partner states.

Both books do an excellent of connecting the dots, explaining how drone strikes have their origins in the post-9/11 paradigm of a global war on terrorism. Just as the Bush administration used open-ended war-on-terror logic to detain “enemy combatants” indefinitely at Guantánamo, the Obama administration has embraced that logic in the conduct lethal operations against suspected terrorists.

Obama administration officials understandably resist such comparisons to their predecessors in the Bush White House. They point to President Obama’s executive orders banning torture, shutting down secret CIA-run “black sites,” and ending the deliberate rendition of suspects to foreign governments for torture. They also stress that the United States is not engaged in a war against all terrorists, but only against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces.

But Mazzetti and Scahill highlight important operational continuities between the two administrations. The Obama administration has defined the conflict in the same terms as the Bush administration, notwithstanding the latter’s broader rhetoric about a global war on terror. And Obama has used this loosely framed conflict—one that encompasses not only al Qaeda but also associated groups—to target terrorism suspects wherever they are found. The conflict’s elasticity has reduced the need to develop an endgame or a plan to achieve it, requiring instead only the will and means to make piecemeal war against one suspect at a time.

Obama’s recent speech marks the first the time the administration has publicly questioned this logic. The president emphasized that drones are not a “cure all for terrorism” and that while drones remain a valuable tool, they must be part of a larger strategy that addresses the underlying grievances and conflicts that fuel terrorism. Obama issued new guidelines to restrict the use of drones and underscored that the current war against al Qaeda and associated groups must at some point be brought to an end.

But the description of the new guidelines for drone strikes—the guidelines themselves remain classified—leaves important questions unanswered, including the definition of an “imminent” threat or an “associated” force.  Much turns on the meaning of these terms, including when drone strikes may be authorized and precisely with whom the United States believes it is at war.

The last decade has shown that war is a powerful enabler, making it easier for the government to justify killing beyond the battlefield and to avoid the difficulties of apprehending terrorist suspects in countries without effective governments. Forceful voices within the military and intelligence services will be reluctant to give up the flexibility that the current model provides, while opposing politicians will equate abandoning the model with weakness in response to terrorism. Meanwhile, the constant fear of the next terrorist attack will continue to exert pressure to use powerful tools such as drones to address short-term threats, without regard to strategic decision-making.

America’s attachment to the war-on-terror model underlies ongoing proposals to expand the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the main domestic legal authority for U.S. military action against al Qaeda and associated groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Such proposals are aimed at shoring up the legal basis for drone strikes and other military operations as the United States completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 and as new threats emerge elsewhere. A Hoover Institution white paper, for example, calls upon Congress to enact an open-ended statute authorizing the use of military force against future terrorist organizations, to be designated by the executive as circumstances warrant. Such an authorization would place the United States on a permanent war footing and allow for the continued expansion of drone strikes and other military operations against suspected terrorists.

Obama has pledged not to sign any law that expands upon the AUMF and has said he will work ultimately to repeal it. But the AUMF is still in force, and it has proven capacious enough to cover the drone warfare Mazzetti and Scahill describe. Indeed, as a Defense Department official recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee, there is no geographic boundary or end point in the current conflict, which he said could last for another ten to twenty years. In other words, even with his expressed aim of winding down the war on terror, and even without an expanded AUMF, Obama is leaving himself the option of an endless, boundless war, which, as he acknowledged, may be legal but also strategically unwise.

Obama also pledged to make more information about America’s secret wars public. This is an important part of restricting drones and other operations conducted away from the battlefield. Transparency enables the public to act as a check on a war that has only widened over time. Secrecy, by contrast, allows the government to engage in ad hoc operations without consideration of a larger strategy for fighting terrorism or bringing the conflict to a close.

Greater transparency, however, will only go so far. As Mazzetti and Scahill show, one of the greatest challenges to restricting drones is that they permit the United States to engage in war without experiencing war’s hardships firsthand.  A war that brings little risk to the homeland or its citizens—including those in the armed forces—does not elicit much protest, as polling on the use of drones against foreign targets has consistently shown. Whereas the public would likely demand a real strategy for completing a war in which its own sons and daughters are dying, the urgency of such demands is tempered in a drone war, providing cover for yet more improvisational fighting.

The temptation to use drones will inevitably increase as the technology becomes more accurate and effective. But higher-precision killing will not alter the reality of death and destruction where drones strike or the terror they instill when they dot the skies, all of which fuels anti-American sentiment and creates tensions with partner states. The tipping point will come only when the United States absorbs and internalizes drones’ hidden costs and commits to a strategy that takes those costs seriously. The President’s speech suggests that this process has begun, but there is still a long way to go.