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Truth and (few) consequences

Disturbing tale follows CIA from days as spy agency to remote-controlled killing machine

Fast moving and crisply written, this is a sometimes exciting, sometimes comic, always disturbing account of the transformation of the American Central Intelligence Agency into a gang of assassins, followers of the way of the knife.

Author Mark Mazzetti is the New York Times national security correspondent.

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night.


An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night.

In the 1970s, he explains, when the Church Senate Committee hearings exposed CIA plots to murder inconvenient foreign leaders, president Gerald Ford issued an executive order banning government agencies from carrying out assassinations.

The CIA was to strictly abide by the law that defined its purpose as gathering intelligence by spying on foreign countries.

All that changed with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

President George W. Bush swept the ban on assassinations aside and put the CIA in charge of getting Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership.

By declaring the attacks acts of war instead of crimes, he laid the groundwork for years of legal sophistry that undermines the U.S. Constitution and justifies secret trials and prisons, kidnapping, torture and the invasion of sovereign countries.

At the same time, U.S. Air Force engineers had coincidentally developed what Mazzetti calls "the ultimate weapon for a secret war" -- the Predator drone, a small remote-controlled aircraft armed with a Hellfire missile. The U.S. now had a weapon of war that did not require anyone to actually go to war.

Within weeks of 9/11, the CIA began conducting dozens of drone strikes in Afghanistan.

Since then, with little public accountability, American forces and their "contractors" (OK, mercenaries) have been in action in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia and Yemen.

Mazzetti is excellent at explaining the Byzantine turf wars between the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defence.

By the time Obama was elected, the CIA was in the ascendant, doing less spying and more hunting and killing, controlling drones, mercenaries and sometimes army special forces.

During the election campaign, Obama had denounced Bush's reliance on torture and secret prisons. Once elected, to avoid seeming weak, his alternative, Mazzetti says, was to ramp up the drone killings.

An ex-CIA agent tells Mazzetti, "Every drone strike is an execution, and if we are going to hand down death sentences, there ought to be some public accountability and some public discussion about the whole thing."

In 2011, drone missiles killed three American citizens in Yemen. Obama, once a teacher of constitutional law and now a president sworn to uphold the American Constitution, seems to have convinced himself that due process is optional.

Because of the secrecy required and often faulty intelligence, drone attacks kill innocent civilians along with militant terrorists. The result is that drones create more terrorists than they kill.

A parallel theme of this book is the privatization of state security. Both the army and the CIA have hired private companies to spy and fight for them.

There is no shortage of black humour in the descriptions of the self-important snake oil salespeople who become (or hope to become) inordinately rich by setting up espionage firms and private armies.

Mazzetti describes the events leading up to the assassination of Osama bin Laden, including misusing a hepatitis B vaccination program as an excuse to get into the compound at Abbotabad. Does he think torture played a crucial part? (Sorry. This is a spoiler-free zone.)

The disturbing part of this book is that it is just one more revelation of the loss of American civil liberties at home and moral credibility abroad, yet there is so little public outrage.

Maybe the play A Few Good Men was right.

We can't handle the truth.

A mercenary book reviewer in Winnipeg, John K. Collins depends on the theatre for happy endings.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 A1

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