Top positive review
America's conflicted attitude toward assassination as national policy; a most readable history
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 14, 2019
There are hundreds of books on America's secret armies, CIA hit men and clandestine operations but never one with a focus quite like this. "Surprise, Kill, Vanish" is journalist Annie Jacobsen's very people-oriented history of a most unlikely topic: America's conflicted attitude toward assassination as a policy option and/or military weapon for accomplishing national strategic goals. The sub-title is somewhat misleading. "The Secret History of CIA paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins" suggests another comprehensive look at a subject other writers have already covered well (such as "Killer Elite : The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team" by Michael Smith, one of my favorites; or Jacobsen's own "The Pentagon's Brain" or "Operation Paperclip" also about CIA secrets). But "Surprise, Kill, Vanish" is a much more personable and readable book. It traces the history of the CIA clandestine/paramilitary service back to familiar territory -- the WWII OSS and the establishment of the Green Berets in 1952. But then only follows those aspects related to the specific "assassination as national policy" issue and how US Presidents and their executive agents in the CIA and DoD addressed it. Issues both organizational and legal are covered. Two Green Berets, Billy Waugh and Lew Merletti, become unwitting pawns of this national confliction. Waugh, an early Green Beret, becomes one of the CIA clandestine service's most seasoned operators (and the oldest to deploy to Afghanistan post 9-11). Merletti, a Vietnam Era Green Beret, joins the Secret Service and his career path charts the difficult path of protecting US Presidents against foreign entities intent on employing assassination to further their own objectives. Eventually the book follows three trajectories -- one being the history of America's assassination policy in practice; one the CIA Operator implementing it; and one the Secret Service Agent protecting the President from the consequences of assassination used against the US. Along the way, many US operations in Central America, the Middle East and Africa get their due coverage. There are better and more detailed books on some of these operations but Jacobsen's forte is personalizing the story by following characters like Waugh and Merletti (among others); gleaning from her sources new, previously classified details; and then, by book's conclusion, interjecting herself into the story as she follows Billy Waugh to Vietnam and Cuba where he meets with the children of his former battlefield enemies, General Vo Nguyen Giap and Che Guevara. It's readable, entertaining history about a very serious and important topic. And through it all, Jacobsen maintains her trademark objectivity. As a know-it-all military guy, I did notice a few minor technical details that needed tweaking (RPG and RPK are confused in one Billy Waugh story). But Jacobsen is a strong writer who knows how to get her subjects to open up and share with her. This might annoy those who prefer their history dry and "the facts only, ma'am" but that wouldn't be Annie Jacobsen. "Surprise, Kill, Vanish" is comparable to Ronan Bergman's "Rise and Kill First" in terms of content (there is even an overlapping story involving CIA and Mossad cooperation) but while Bergman's book is bleak -- a straight up description of nationally sanctioned killing repeated ad nauseum -- "Surprise, Kill, Vanish" is upbeat. Assassination may be a necessary evil. But the people involved are not necessarily evil. They are simply willing to go to any length to protect America. Highly recommended. Especially for readers of intelligence operations, military history, 20th Century history, national policy matters and military personalities.
Although a verified purchaser, I did obtain an advanced copy. Reviewer opinions are my own.