Most Active Stories
Wed April 10, 2013
'The Way Of The Knife': Soldiers, Spies And Shadow Wars
Originally published on Wed April 10, 2013 2:10 pm
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The CIA and the military have been transformed in ways that have blurred the boundaries between them. The shape of the new military intelligence complex is the subject of my guest Mark Mazzetti's new book, "The Way of the Knife." He writes: The CIA is no longer a traditional espionage service, devoted to stealing the secrets of foreign governments. The CIA has become a killing machine, an organization consumed with man-hunting.
Meanwhile, the American military has commando teams running spying missions that Washington would never have dreamed of before 9/11. These changes are connected to the shadow wars America is fighting, pursuing its enemies with drones and special operations troops.
Mazzetti's new book examines the successes and consequences of this new way of war. Mazzetti is a Pulitzer Prize-winning national security correspondent for the New York Times.
Mark Mazzetti, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So one of the basic premises of your book is that the CIA has become more like the military, and the military has become more like the CIA. Give us an example.
MARK MAZZETTI: Well, one of the things I talked about is how right after the September 11th attacks, the CIA was given this lethal authority by President Bush to go out and hunt al-Qaida operatives, capture or kill them. This was something that the CIA hadn't had for quite some time.
I spend a lot of time in the book talking about how, for several decades, the CIA had gotten out of the killing business. After the revelations of the Church Committee of the 1970s that talked about attempts to kill Castro and other world leaders, a whole generation of CIA officers came through the ranks thinking that the real mission they should be doing is espionage, not hunting and killing.
In the years since they got this lethal authority, they've been doing a whole lot of man-hunting and killing. So it really has changed the agency, in many ways, into this paramilitary organization, less a sort of classic espionage service. On the other hand, the Pentagon has, as I said, become more like the CIA, because from the early days after 9/11, the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was furious that soldiers couldn't go into countries where he thought al-Qaida was operating, because there were restrictions about where soldiers could go. They couldn't go beyond declared war zones, so it was hard for them to get in and do spying.
And so a lot of those authorities were expanded under - during those years, and so you have soldiers going into what I call the dark corners of the world that are not traditional places where soldiers go, and they're doing sort of espionage missions. So there's been this sort of convergence in the mission.
GROSS: You write that this new military intelligence complex has short-circuited the normal mechanisms for how we go to war. How so?
MAZZETTI: Well, one of the things I write early on is after 9/11, the CIA was given this mission to basically run this secret war. And in contrast to the military, where you have layers and layers of bureaucracy and four-star generals and large staffs briefing all different levels about their war plans, you have the CIA, which is a small organization, a very small group of people in charge of running a war.
Now, the CIA points out that this gives it greater flexibility to take on an organization like al-Qaida, but at the same time, you have a different chain of command. You have the head of the counterterrorism at the CIA working with the CIA director, going right to the White House, going to Bush and Cheney and then later to President Obama, being able to sort of craft a war plan in secret.
And not that the Pentagon isn't secret, but you have the entire structure for how the U.S. goes to war in fewer hands and briefed to small members - select members of Congress in closed-door hearings. Very little is discussed with the public. So the public doesn't have as much understanding about how war is conducted, because it's all done in secrecy.
GROSS: Do you think that the CIA's expanded role in hunting down terrorists and assassinating them is coming at the price of the CIA getting intelligence? Are we missing intelligence?
MAZZETTI: It's always hard to prove what they're not doing, because - and I should point out that I don't want to make the case, and I don't make the case in the book that, you know, the CIA doesn't do traditional espionage. There are CIA stations in China. There are CIA stations in Russia doing this. But really, because the White House has wanted the CIA's focus to be man-hunting and killing, that has been its focus.
And one example I point out is when the Arab Spring really started blowing up in early 2011, there was a lot of concern at the White House that the CIA was just missing each revolution as it happened - not that they should have predicted the spark of the revolution in Tunisia, but as it cascaded through Egypt and Libya, they were behind the curve.
And there is one reason for that, because when you do man-hunting, you are necessarily going to become very tight with foreign spy services who know their turf. So, for instance, the CIA became very close with the Egyptian intelligence service, the Libyan intelligence service, and - in order to hunt down operatives in those countries.
But at the same time, those spy services are not going to be the ones that are going to be the most honest about ferment in the streets of those countries. So if there's opposition growing in Egypt or opposition growing in Tunisia, the CIA's not going to get it from these foreign spy services. They need to get it from the ground. They need to get it from talking to opposition groups.
And that's one of the things that has been lost, I think, in this tight embrace with these foreign spy services, and therefore, what the CIA is less able to do is make predictions about world events before they happen.
GROSS: Is there a controversy within the CIA about this new emphasis in direction, the emphasis on man-hunting and killing, as opposed to just collecting intelligence?
MAZZETTI: There is. And certainly, former CIA officers believe that the CIA should get back to a more traditional mission. And you've heard recently, just in the last couple months, the new CIA Director, John Brennan - who was a career CIA officer, then went and worked at the White House for the last four years - talk about how some of these paramilitary activities possibly should move to the Pentagon.
It's interesting that Brennan says that. I mean, Brennan has been at the center of the targeted killing operations over the last four years from his job at the White House. But I think he's heard from a lot of people that the CIA really has changed. And there's this question of: Does the United States need a spy service that is, you know, maybe first and foremost, a paramilitary service, when we already have a Pentagon?
GROSS: My guest is Mark Mazzetti, and he's a national security correspondent for the New York Times and author of the new book "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth."
In talking about how the CIA became more of a man-hunting and killing operation and how the military became more of an intelligence-gathering operation than it had been before, let's go back to the Bush administration. You describe Vice President Cheney as having signed off on CIA hit squads after September 11th. What was the first program that he signed off on?
MAZZETTI: Well, one of the very earliest that I discuss in the book is a program that had been briefed to him not long after the September 11th attacks by two CIA officers in the Counterterrorism Center. The idea was to put together hit teams of officers and foreign agents who could go into foreign countries, even go into crowded cities and kill the enemies of the United States. They had put a list together of possible people who would be the number one targets.
This was an early sort of plan that the CIA hadn't quite thought through yet. And - but they briefed it to Cheney and Cheney's staff, and, I mean, the order was OK, proceed. See how this goes, and see if you can develop this capability.
There were several sort of iterations of this program. After Cheney approved the program in the early days, they tried it. They did some training. To my knowledge, there was never an actual operation carried out. And then it was resurrected a couple years later, in 2004, when the CIA decided to basically outsource the mission to a couple senior executives at Blackwater, the private security firm, including Erik Prince and Enrique Prado, who - Prado was a former CIA officer, and actually one of the people who had briefed Cheney in the first place.
And then that phase ended in 2006. So this program had different phases. It was, to my knowledge, never executed. But what the CIA found was the armed drone as its weapon of choice in order to carry out these targeted killing operations around the world.
GROSS: So once Vice President Cheney was signing off on CIA operations - whether it was hit squads or drones - you say at that point, there was a secret war being run at the direction of the White House. Would you consider that unprecedented?
MAZZETTI: I think it's unprecedented, certainly in the scope of it. I mean, we've seen throughout American history - or at least since the beginning of the CIA in the late '40s. I mean, we know that the CIA has run a lot of covert operations. They've been involved in paramilitary operations, but not to the extent and not for the duration that we've seen it in the 12 years since the September 11th attacks, to the point where it really has, I think, changed the DNA of the agency and really brought a new generation of officers who came in after 9/11 and who got brought into the counterterrorism mission. That is what they have known.
And the concern you hear is that it is - even if tomorrow John Brennan said OK, we're going to get out of this paramilitary business. You've got people trained, and some of the very best people trained for these kinds of operations. And so the sort of classic work of spycraft is harder to train to do, or at least it's different, and they might need to be retrained.
So this is going to be, I think, something that I'm skeptical that the CIA really will get out of this any time immediately. And even if they were, it will take a long time to sort of shift course.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Mazzetti, and he's a national security correspondent for the New York Times and author of the new book "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth." Mark, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about your new book. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Mazzetti. He's a national security correspondent for the New York Times and author of the new book "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth." And the book is, in part, about how the CIA has taken on certain military tasks - like hunting down and killing people - and how the military has become a little bit more of a spy agency, and what that means for current and future wars.
So now that we have this overlap between the CIA and the Special Operations forces of the military, where the CIA is hunting down and killing people and the Special Ops are conducting intelligence operations - in addition to other things - who decides, like, which mission is best for which agency?
MAZZETTI: It's a good question. There's still a lot of overlap. I mean, for instance, you have right now, in Yemen, both the CIA and JSOC carrying out parallel drone wars. They have different kill lists, and they operate drones with different missions, but very similar missions, because they're basically hunting and killing.
It's unclear whether that will remain, and it's still unclear to me why there is this redundancy in the system in Yemen. There has been, over time, a little bit of a detente between the CIA and the Pentagon on where they go. I describe in the book a period of time where, around 2005 and 2006, they basically got together and they said we're tripping over each other all over the world, and we need to work out arrangements, where the Pentagon takes the lead and where the CIA takes the lead.
And so they worked out these memorandum. So, in Pakistan, for instance, the CIA took the lead, meaning that any operations in Pakistan would be under Title 50, which is the U.S. law that governs CIA activities. Any soldiers who were operating in Pakistan to do cross-border raids into the tribal areas were operating under CIA authority. They were - I use the term sheep-dipped, as CIA officers. We saw this example...
GROSS: What do you mean by sheep-dipped?
MAZZETTI: Well, sheep-dipped, it's like - you know, in an instant, you become a CIA officer. You're a Navy SEAL, and in an instant, or for this mission, you become a CIA operative under covert action authority. And it's a bureaucratic trick that allows you to operate in places where you wouldn't normally operate.
And we saw this most famously in May of 2011, when the - a team of Navy SEALs went into Pakistan, deep into Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden, and they were acting under CIA authority. Technically, Leon Panetta, the CIA director, was in charge of the mission. This is the most famous example of this, but this has happened a number of times.
There were other places where the Pentagon was taking the lead, because they had a little bit easier time convincing the government to give them a presence - for instance, in the Philippines. The Navy SEALs have had a presence in the southern part of the Philippines for some time, and it was acknowledged by the government of the Philippines. And so it's easier for the Pentagon to operate.
So there has been better collaboration in recent years, but as you said, there is still some redundancy, and the question is: Is that going to continue in the future?
GROSS: So with the sheep-dipping...
GROSS: With the arrangement where, like, military forces can suddenly become CIA agents just by putting them under the authority of the CIA, this is a way of, for instance, getting around the Pakistan government that doesn't want military forces in Pakistan, but they already have an agreement that the CIA can operate there?
MAZZETTI: Right. I mean, Pakistan - I spend a lot of time in the book talking about Pakistan, because I just think it's a fascinating country, and the whole American relationship with Pakistan, I think, has been the most interesting and important relationship since the September 11th attacks.
And so very early on, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan basically said: You're not going to have American troops in any large numbers on the ground in Pakistan. It is too inflammatory. And so the CIA can operate, and we will do joint operations, but there can't be, quote-unquote, "boots on the ground."
Any military forces that did exist there at the time were basically under - for all intents and purposes - CIA authority. Later on, you found that Musharraf finally allowed armed drones into Pakistan, and this was in 2004. The CIA kept pushing, you know, pushing the envelope to get more and more authorities for Pakistan and pushing Musharraf to allow more activities into the country.
And one of the things that I describe is that the first CIA drone strike in Pakistan was in 2004, against a militant tribal leader named Nek Muhammad, who was helping facilitate al-Qaida activities in the tribal areas in the mountains. He was more a problem for Pakistan than he was the United States, and part of the deal was that the CIA said, well, we'll take care of your Nek Muhammad problem if we can have regular drone flights in the tribal areas.
GROSS: So let me just get back to the sheep-dipping one more time.
GROSS: Did this really work? So did disguising military people as CIA people really fool the Pakistan government that didn't want military, you know, that didn't want the military in Pakistan? I mean, like with the bin Laden mission, the fact that they were operating - you said special forces were operating under this jurisdiction of the CIA, didn't help the Pakistan government respond favorably to the action.
MAZZETTI: Right. There are several different phases of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and in the early days, certainly. I spoke, for the book, to a Pakistani intelligence officer, former, who was the station chief in Peshawar, a western city in Pakistan, a very interesting man named Asad Munir. And he talked about some of the military people who were operating with him and doing joint operations, and they were under different authorities, but he knew what was going on. And they were working much more closely together.
Over time - starting really at around 2008 - the U.S. started doing more and more inside Pakistan without the knowledge of Pakistan's government, because the relationship between the CIA and the ISI, which is Pakistan's spy service, really became toxic. And the U.S. came to think that the ISI was playing what they called a double game, where they were helping out the militants, helping out the Taliban. And so the U.S. needed to be much more unilateral.
So what the U.S. did was start sending more and more spies into Pakistan without the knowledge of the ISI, under different false covers. And this all came to a head in early 2011, when a CIA contractor named Raymond Davis shot two people on the street in Lahore. And this seemed to confirm all of the big conspiracies in Pakistan that the CIA had deployed this secret army inside Pakistan.
It was really the worst thing that could happen for the CIA, because in - even in Pakistan, sometimes conspiracies are true. And there had been this great expansion of CIA ground activities in Pakistan, and the Raymond Davis matter confirmed some of those fears.
GROSS: Mark Mazzetti will be back in the second half of the show. He's a national security correspondent for the New York Times and author of the new book "The Way of the Knife." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET RHYTHM")
JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) When you get the blues. Get a rock and roll feeling in your bones. Put taps on your toes, and get goin'. Get rhythm.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mark Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book, "The Way of the Knife." It's about the new military intelligence complex, which has blurred the roles of the military and the CIA. Military commandoes conduct spy missions, Mazzetti says, while the CIA - with the help of drones - has become a killing machine, consumed with man hunting.
Let's look some more at their agreement between the United States and Pakistan that allowed the United States to fly drones over Pakistan and target extremists. You had just mentioned that early on in this agreement, the United States offered to kill Nek Muhammad, who was an extremist that posed a greater problem to Pakistan than the United States, but the United States offered to do Pakistan a favor and kill him in return for access to Pakistan to fly drones. So tell us more about the agreement that was made between the U.S. and Pakistan enabling the U.S. to fly drones over parts of Pakistan and target suspected terrorists.
MAZZETTI: The CIA had been trying to get armed drones into Pakistan for some time. There had been unarmed drones, previously, in Pakistan - surveillance flights, but not actual armed drones that fired missiles. And the way that the targeted killing program in Pakistan began was the offer of killing Nek Muhammad. I should say that Nek Muhammad was facilitating, you know, helping al-Qaida build a base in Pakistan and was engaged in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. So the U.S. was concerned about him, certainly, but he was not a senior al-Qaida leader. He was a problem for Pakistan because he was the sort of his first figure since 9/11 that created big problems for Pakistan's government. He was fomenting a tribal rebellion in South Waziristan and launching attacks on Pakistani soil.
This was when Pervez Musharraf, the president, started to see the future of, you know, this war in Afghanistan is spreading into my country and I got a big problem. So Musharraf sends troops into the tribal areas. The entire operation is a disaster, civilians are killed, Pakistani troops are killed, and he pulls back and signs a peace deal with Nek Muhammad. That peace deal doesn't last very long and pretty soon when the CIA presents this offer to Musharraf to kill Nek Muhammad, it seems very appealing. And one of the things Musharraf would later say about why he - he didn't say this publicly but he said this privately - why he thought that this ruse could be kept up was that in Pakistan things fall out of the sky all the time. So in other words, missiles can be fired, people can be killed and we, the Pakistani government, can take credit for it and no one will be the wiser.
GROSS: Pakistan also wanted to be paid. What was the cash arrangement?
MAZZETTI: Well, Pakistan has been the recipient of billions of dollars, in both public money and secret money, from the United States since September 11th. Musharraf did align himself with the United States in agreeing to go after al-Qaida after 9/11, and part of it was that he needed to be compensated for the work that his troops and his spies do. And so there have been billions of dollars of what they call reimbursements for counterterrorism operations. So, for instance, if Pakistani troops go into the tribal areas and launch military operations, the Pakistani government's argument is well, we're doing this because the U.S. wants us to and so the U.S. should pay us for it. This has led to a lot of mistrust and bad feelings between the two governments. The U.S. feels that Pakistan isn't doing enough for U.S. money. Pakistani officials have felt used in many ways, like this is just a transactional arrangement.
GROSS: The Bush administration started this direction that you write about in your new book, where the CIA starts emphasizing, hunting down suspected terrorists and assassinating them, and the Special Operation Forces and the military become more specialized in intelligence gathering than they had been before, so you see this kind of blending or swapping of CIA and military responsibilities. So when President Obama enters the White House, what did he keep and what did he change from this direction that the Bush administration started us in?
MAZZETTI: The first act that President Obama - one of the first acts that he did was to announce the end of the CIA interrogation and detention program, closing the secret prisons. I mean for all intensive purposes they had effectively been empty for a couple years and the program was not much of anything at this point. But he made the statement that the United States would not be doing these interrogation methods again - the CIA was out of the detention business. At the same time, what he did preserve and indeed expand, was the drone program, the targeted killing program. And by 2010, you saw a dramatic escalation in drone strikes in Pakistan. The escalation had begun under Bush in 2008, continued in 2009, but 2010 was really a very critical year.
Another thing that President Obama famously said was that he was going to shut down Guantanamo Bay - the prison at Guantanamo Bay - as we've seen, that has proved harder than he thought and the prison remains open. But it's interesting that a very core part of the Bush administration's counterterrorism program has been embraced by the Obama administration, and in many ways expanded, in places where it didn't really exist under Bush. For instance, in Yemen. I mean there had been one CIA drone strike in Yemen and that was in 2002. There's been dozens of strikes in Yemen since 2009, partly that's because the Obama administration saw a threat that was escalating in Yemen from an al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen named al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. And so they saw the threat morphing and decided that the counterterrorism operations, the drone strikes, needed to be escalated there. Also, Somalia is another place that has been - seen a lot more activity under the Obama administration.
GROSS: Do you think President Obama came into the White House wanting to run these like secret wars with the drones and Special Operations Forces, or do you think he came to embrace that later on after seeing what was going on and after considering the alternatives?
MAZZETTI: If you've read President Obama's speeches during his first campaign, he said he made it clear that he would be aggressive in Pakistan. He famously said that, you know, if he knew where Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan he would go in and kill him in Pakistan and not tell the Pakistani government. He was talking about ending the war in Iraq and focusing on Afghanistan, but also being very tough on terrorism. So it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone that he, you know, believes in drone strikes. But what has been surprising, I think, is the extent that these shadow wars really have come to define Obama's foreign policy. That, you know, he ended the war in Iraq and after the surge in Afghanistan he's now winding down. And it was interesting, he said during his second inaugural address, a decade of war is now coming to an end. But that's a decade of the wars that we know about, it's the decade of the public wars. What are continuing are these more secret wars and there really isn't any evidence, yet, of them abating. The drone strikes continue and we'll see what happens in the second term.
One of the things I write about is how interesting it is that the CIA really has been ascendant in the Obama administration. Obama's first CIA director, Leon Panetta, had a tremendous amount of authority and respect in the White House and the CIA got what it wanted during the first term of the Obama administration. And this is a liberal, Democratic president who has really given the CIA a long leash in order to carry out these operations.
It's not entirely new in history. You've seen Democratic presidents in some cases really embrace these secret wars. Jimmy Carter did toward the end of his presidency. Of course, John F. Kennedy did. So Obama has embraced this kind of warfare that has its benefits, certainly. It's cheaper and less costly in American lives than the big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But certainly, these other wars are not as surgical as some would like to make them out to be.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book "The Way of the Knife." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Mazzetti. He's a national security correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth."
In talking about drones, which you've been reporting on for some time - and there's a lot about drones in your new book - Robert Gibbs, President Obama's former press secretary, now that he's no longer press secretary, recently acknowledged that because the CIA drone program was classified, he could never acknowledge that it existed at press conferences, even though everybody knew it existed and that it put him in this really ridiculous position.
I'm wondering what that was like on your end, you know, knowing that this program existed, knowing that everybody knew, but at the same time it's a classified program, so I don't know how hard it was to get people to actually talk to you on the record about it.
MAZZETTI: Well, certainly no one who was serving in the government could talk about it on the record. It was obviously the most overt/covert action in world history, probably, because everyone knew it was going on and there was no - I mean a covert action is supposed to be deniable. In other words, the very definition of it is that the U.S. is supposed to deny any knowledge or any role in these activities, but, I mean that became such a farce. As the drone strikes increased you couldn't deny that the U.S. played a role, but at the very least, they could acknowledge it. So it was very strange. We certainly reported about them and we reported that the CIA was carrying out these strikes but he found public officials talking about the very vaguely.
Now in the last couple of years, President Obama has taken steps to at least acknowledge the program. And John Brennan, in his previous role as White House counterterrorism advisor, gave a speech last year saying, for the record, that the U.S. uses drones to carry out targeted killings. And so that allowed the administration to acknowledge that these strikes exist, but it's not as if they're acknowledging each one as it happens. So, for instance, if there's a drone strike in Pakistan a week ago, it's not as if the U.S. government says last week the U.S. carried out a drone strike in South Waziristan and killed this person and this number of people were killed. That part all remains secret. And there has been a push inside the government, especially you hear it in the State Department of, we would like to come out and talk about this program more. Because in their minds, it is a more precise program and a program that has fewer civilian casualties than get reported, but if we can't talk about it then the vacuum gets filled by people who have other agendas - whether it's the Pakistani spy service or whatever. And so there is a constituency in the U.S. government to be more open about the drone strikes, and this is what we're seeing the Obama administration wrestle with right now. There's now calls by Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to be more transparent, to have more public accountability. You saw Rand Paul, a libertarian senator, filibuster on the Senate floor - which is really an extraordinary moment, considering where we've been over the last 12 years.
GROSS: So one of the stories that you write about in your book is how the United States negotiated with Saudi Arabia so that the United States could use Saudi Arabia as a drone base for strikes in Yemen. And this was, you know, this was a big secret and I'm sure the Saudis are not happy that the story was revealed. Before your book was published, this was revealed in The New York Times and in The Washington Post. What was that like for you to have this information for your book - you weren't publishing it in The New York Times - but the story kind of beat out your book? And a related question, is when you're doing a story like the stories you've covered for your book, what do you feel obligated to kind of publish in The New York Times as you get it, and what is OK to hold until the publication of your book?
MAZZETTI: Well, The Times was nice enough to give me a long book leave and so I was away from the paper for 15 months. And I did write stories during that time. It's a judgment call. There are some stories you come across in your book writing that, or your book research that you know won't hold. Books obviously have a much longer deadline. And so you decide, well, I can write the story for the Times because there's no way this going to hold and I'd rather the Times got it first. So I did that a few times during my book leave. On the Saudi story, I was prepared to report it in the book and when I got back to the Times, actually, in January, had some discussions with my editors about what's in my book.
And we decided that we wanted to publish the fact about the Saudi base in the paper and my publisher was nice enough to go along with that. But we thought it was an important story. We knew others were on to it and we thought it should be in the paper.
GROSS: So you co-wrote that story with Scott Shane.
MAZZETTI: Yes. Me and Scott Shane and Robert Worth.
GROSS: Were there any stories that you tracked down for this book that where you weren't sure whether they should remain secret or not? Because sometimes the government or the military or the CIA keep things secret for a good reason. Because you can't afford to show your hand to your enemy. Um, and, you know, by definition the CIA is a secret.
So even a story like the Saudi base for the drones that would be flying over Yemen, how do you decide whether that's something that should be made public or not?
MAZZETTI: These are decisions that we get confronted with all the time when you're covering national security. Pretty much everything you're writing about is classified in some way. And we will report our stories. We will talk to as many people as possible. We will call the government for comment. And, you know, there's sometimes a process where the government will come back and say, you know, we ask you not to report a story.
And it escalates up the chain of command at the Times and usually goes to the executive editor of the paper. And we always listen and hear them out. You have to sort of assess the case that's being made. If someone is making the case that your story will directly lead to people's lives being lost or people being killed, I mean, that is a very - that makes you sit up and take notice.
And you certainly ask for more information about why that's the case. And that is something that the paper always listens to very carefully. There's other arguments that get made along the lines of other governments aren't going to like it if this is published. They will be embarrassed. They don't want to show that they are helping the United States. It will hurt our diplomatic relations.
Now, that's a lower bar, and more often than not, you know, the Times will not see that as a really strong reason t hold a story or to withhold details of a story. Because, you know, it's not a matter of strict national security where you're talking about lives being lost. You're talking about diplomatic embarrassment.
GROSS: Well, Mark Mazzetti, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
MAZZETTI: Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Mark Mazzetti is the author of the new book "The Way of the Knife." He's a national security correspondent for the New York Times. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward considers Johnny Cash's Columbia years. There's a new 63-CD box set of his albums and singles. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.