In 2006, as the war in Iraq was reaching a fever pitch, a Pentagon employee working on special operations teamed up with a Czech technology entrepreneur who had dabbled in the porn business and devised what they considered an ingenious plan. Knowing that video games played on mobile phones were popular throughout the Middle East, the team wanted to build games that contained positive messages about the United States. But the games weren’t just about propaganda. Every download would give the United States a window into the digital comings and goings of whomever was playing it it, a cyber foothold that could allow American spies to potentially track and collect information on thousands of people.
The propaganda/spy campaign was dubbed Native Echo, and it was conceived by Michael Furlong, a colorful civilian employee working for US Special Operations Command, and a company called U-Turn, which was headquartered in Prague and founded by a pro-American Czech national named Jan Obrman, whose parents had fled the Soviets in the 1960s. The idea was to target Middle Eastern teenagers in “high risk/unfriendly areas,” and over time to integrate the US messages “into the lifestyle of the targets,” ideally to make them more amenable to US armed forces, and to counter the rhetoric of Muslim fundamentalists.
The full account of this previously unreported intelligence operation is found in the new book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. The book explores the ways in which the CIA—which before 9/11 had long been out of the business of killing people—and the US military—which had not been the domain of spies—have often changed roles over the past decade. It is filled with characters, like Furlong, who move between the membranes of these two worlds, and find themselves at home in either one.
Mazzetti writes that the first mobile game developed for Native Echo was modeled on the popular Call of Duty series. This new “shooter” game, Iraqi Hero, “took the player on an odyssey through the streets of Baghdad, shooting up insurgents trying to kill civilians in a wave of terrorist attacks,” Mazzetti writes. “The goal was to reach an Iraqi police station and deliver the secret plans for an upcoming insurgent attack, plans that had been stolen from a militia group’s headquarters.”
Native Echo was timed to coincide with the US troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Its “main focus was on combatting the flood of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and parts of North Africa,” Mazzetti writes.
As an intelligence collection program, Native Echo was both broad and audacious:
“Thousands of people would be sending their mobile-phone numbers and other identifying information to U-Turn, and that information could be stored in military databases and used for complex data-mining operations carried out by the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. The spies wouldn’t have to go hunting for information; it would come to them.”
In order to hide the US role in the scheme, “Furlong convinced [U-Turn’s] executives to create an offshore company that could receive Pentagon contracts but not be tied directly to the United States,” Mazzetti writes. Obrman set up JD Media Transmission Systems, LLC, incorporated in the Seychelles Islands, in order to receive money transfers from the US through a foreign bank account.
Furlong was a master at working the byzantine procurement bureaucracy to further his covert plans. “Taking advantage of a law that allows firms owned by Native Americas to get a leg up when bidding on government contracts, Furlong arranged for U-Turn to partner with Wyandotte Net Tel, a firm located on a tiny speck of tribal lands in eastern Oklahoma,” Mazzetti writes.
U-Turn developed two more games for Native Echo—Oil Tycoon, which challenged players to protect vital pipelines and infrastructure, and City Mayor, in which players became urban planners and rebuilt a fictional city destroyed by terrorists. The team came up with various ways to distribute the games, including by hand via memory cards, which could be sold or given away in markets and bazaars, Mazzetti reports. “The way to get far wider distribution, however, was to post the games on Web sites and blogs frequented by gamers in the Middle East. This allowed [Special Operations Command] to monitor how many people were downloading the games and, more important, who was doing it.”
Mazzetti concludes that it’s hard to know how far Native Echo went, and even how many companies like U-Turn were hired to create propaganda for the military. Furlong came up with other wild ideas, some of which were never approved. But the relationship between the military and U-Turn blossomed, and it offers a concrete illustration of how the armed forces evolved into a network of spies.
The Way of the Knife is full of stories like this, of people living on the edge between two worlds, frequently not sure how to operate on turf that had long been forbidden. The book is a culmination of Mazzetti’s years of reporting on the intersections of the military and the CIA, and it is a forceful, compelling articulation of a new way of war. Mazzetti’s reporting has been among some of the most important, in that it has shed light on usually hidden practices, particularly the use of brutal interrogations on terrorist detainees. As the book unfolds, we see how the 9/11 attacks shake the CIA out of their Cold War culture of espionage, and turn the agency into a highly-efficient global killing force.
I spoke with Mazzetti yesterday as he was heading off to New York to begin a book tour. He said that he began working after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and that the first few months of writing were filled with some anxiety, since his journalism beat was now the hottest around. Lots of his competitors were writing books and long magazine articles about the raid. But Mazzetti said that he wanted to write something broader, to show how the long arc of the war on terror has fundamentally changed how the US fights.
“I covered the Pentagon for five years, and then I have been covering the intelligence world since 2006,” Mazzetti said. “And really, I realized that I was kind of covering the same beat. The lines that existed before 9/11, where the military did this and the spies did that, really have blurred.”
Mazzetti said he’s glad to be back at the Times after a 15-month book leave. He had missed the collegiality of an office. Writing a book is solitary business. But in the midst of the project, Mazzetti and his wife, Lindsay, welcomed Max, their first child.
“I can’t wait until he is old enough to read this book,” Mazzetti writes in his acknowledgments. “I cherish the memories of the mornings we spent together during the first few months, and of the smiles he delivered when I came home at the end of particularly frustrating days of book writing. They put things in perspective.”