SURPRISE, KILL, VANISH by Annie Jacobsen


The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins
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A behind-the-scenes look at the most shadowy corners of the American intelligence community.

It’s no secret that intelligence agents operate covertly around the world. As Jacobsen (The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency, 2015, etc.) notes, this so-called “third option” is used “when the first option, diplomacy, is inadequate and the second, war, is a terrible idea.” The underlying idea is that getting up close and killing a single opponent or small batch of them is preferable to bombing an entire city or region to achieve the same goal. So it was that, as Jacobsen writes, a weathered and fearless contractor named Billy Waugh entered Khartoum to track a well-protected Osama bin Laden, who was enraged after having been rebuffed by the Saudi royals to lead a war against Saddam Hussein. When the Saudis decided to allow infidels in the form of a vast American army to do the job, bin Laden “began plotting jihad against the United States.” Waugh saw what he needed to see and developed a plan to eliminate his target that might have kept 9/11 from happening—but it never happened, nixed somewhere between his handlers and the president’s desk. Waugh and other operatives hatched other plots, and they were just right for the job. As Jacobsen writes, one CIA officer “was an expert in parachute insertion, scuba exfiltration, evasive driving, knife fighting, and a host of other close-quarters combat skills,” and his credentials seem light compared to some of the other agents she profiles. Some of the operations failed, but some were successful, as when Waugh scouted a Hezbollah higher-up in Riyadh and passed the ball to Mossad, which planted a car bomb that caught up with its target in Damascus, incinerating him in one of the book’s critical moments.

Assassination may be frowned on but it’s used more often than you might think. Well-sourced and well-paced, this book is full of surprises.

Pub Date: May 14th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-316-44143-8
Page count: 560pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2019


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