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Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins

The president of the United States has three options when dealing with threats to American interests abroad: diplomacy, war or covert action. Tertia Optio, meaning third option, is the motto of the Central Intelligence Agency's Special Activities Division (SAD). For more than half a century, this branch of the CIA has conducted assassinations, paramilitary missions and other clandestine operations around the world.

Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins by Pulitzer Prize finalist Annie Jacobsen (Area 51; The Pentagon's Brain; Operation Paperclip) chronicles SAD's long and often troubling history. She begins with the World War II-era predecessor of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, and its missions behind enemy lines, which laid a groundwork for the CIA's SAD (another part of their legacy was training Ho Chi Minh how to fight the occupying Japanese army). During the Korean War, many similar airborne insertions ended in failure, in part due to betrayals by supposed indigenous allies (which again became a problem in Afghanistan). Jacobsen devotes much of Surprise, Kill, Vanish to the career of Billy Waugh, a Vietnam Green Beret who later worked for SAD in Libya and Sudan (where he spied on Osama Bin Laden and facilitated the capture of Carlos the Jackal), and, at age 71, in Afghanistan.

Surprise, Kill, Vanish is a compulsively readable history of violence perpetrated in the name of American interests. Jacobsen's 40-plus insider interviews present both a thrilling and disturbing account of SAD missions over the decades. The result is a surprisingly nuanced take on what seems, at first glance, to be unmitigated evil. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer