Book Review: Surprise, Kill, Vanish

Annie Jacobsen, Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins (2019)

"Author Annie Jacobsen is certainly no stranger to good writing and research. She is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and the New York Times bestselling author of six books including this one. According to some sources, this book was reported by Apple to be one of the most popular nonfiction audiobooks of 2019. Having read a lot of Cold War-related intelligence and covert nonfiction works I thought this was going to be another run-of-the-mill piece of work. Boy, was I wrong! Billed as an ‘untold’ story of the Central Intelligence Agencies (CIA) covert operations and Special Activities Division, it is a comprehensive history dating back to just after WW II on the subject. Many know that the National Security Act of 1947 was historical in the creation of significant US institutions, one of which was the CIA. The Agency’s work and mandate hit the ground running and has never stopped.

So, what happens when diplomacy fails and the US needs to resort to other options and instruments of power to achieve its objectives and national security interests? Since the 1947 Act domestic and foreign assassinations have been a weapon of choice for the CIA-led covert action team. Before then, similar work by the US in the protection of its interests was shrouded in mystery, but Jacobsen reveals in her interviews and research that since then, a methodical approach as part of the foreign policy machine’s gears has continued to grind. Officially, this part of the CIA is off the books to the public, despite notification to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the House and Senate Select Committees. And yet, it is the President who is solely responsible to give the green light for the most clandestine operations the CIA conducts. And though the military and its special arms play a role in some of these efforts, their involvement is often, in time, made public—the CIA’s missions are not.

From hostage rescues, sabotage, assassinations and other clandestine covert operations, the Special Activities Division and its paramilitary-trained operatives (many of whom were former military special operators) are called in to get the job done—often under plausible deniability auspices. This breathtaking, and uber-comprehensive, history of CIA covert operations will leave readers wondering—and rightly so—why they’ve never heard of some of what they’ll read here. " 


--Brigadier General, Chad Manske, USAF (Ret) was the former Commandant of National War College, is a prolific reader, author and publisher of dozens of book reviews and articles, and is the Special Advisor to the NDU Foundation CEO.