Summary

A Pulitzer Prize—winning reporter's riveting account of the transformation of the CIA and America's special operations forces into man-hunting and killing machines in the world's dark spaces: the new American way of war

The most momentous change in American warfare over the past decade has taken place away from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, in the corners of the world where large armies can't go. The Way of the Knife is the untold story of that shadow war: a campaign that has blurred the lines between soldiers and spies and lowered the bar for waging war across the globe. America has pursued its enemies with killer drones and special operations troops; trained privateers for assassination missions and used them to set up clandestine spying networks; and relied on mercurial dictators, untrustworthy foreign intelligence services, and proxy armies.

This new approach to war has been embraced by Washington as a lower risk, lower cost alternative to the messy wars of occupation and has been championed as a clean and surgical way of conflict. But the knife has created enemies just as it has killed them. It has fomented resentments among allies, fueled instability, and created new weapons unbound by the normal rules of accountability during wartime.

Mark Mazzetti tracks an astonishing cast of characters on the ground in the shadow war, from a CIA officer dropped into the tribal areas to learn the hard way how the spy games in Pakistan are played to the chain-smoking Pentagon official running an off-the-books spy operation, from a Virginia socialite whom the Pentagon hired to gather intelligence about militants in Somalia to a CIA contractor imprisoned in Lahore after going off the leash.

At the heart of the book is the story of two proud and rival entities, the CIA and the American military, elbowing each other for supremacy. The CIA, created as a Cold War espionage service, is now more than ever a paramilitary agency ordered by the White House to kill off America's enemies—in the mountains of Pakistan and the deserts of Yemen, in the tumultuous civil wars of North Africa and the chaos of Somalia. For its part, the Pentagon has become more like the CIA, dramatically expanding spying missions everywhere. Sometimes, as with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, their efforts have been perfectly coordinated. Other times, including the failed operations disclosed here for the first time, they have not. For better or worse, their struggles will define American national security in the years to come.