Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Definitive History of Secret CIA Assassins, Armies & Operators by Annie Jacobsen - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

All the President’s Hitmen

Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Definitive History of Secret CIA Assassins, Armies & Operators


John Murray 544pp £25 order from our bookshop

Annie Jacobsen is an American journalist and television producer interested in espionage (largely conceived here as shooting people) and special forces operations. Although Jacobsen writes very clearly, there is nothing ‘definitive’ about this book. How could there be when so much of the relevant documentation remains classified, especially for more recent cases?

There are also better books on this subject. Every case dealt with in the book has been extensively studied before, whether it’s the CIA’s ‘direct action’ role in attempts to kill the Castros and Che Guevara or its indirect complicity in the assassinations of Rafael Trujillo, president of the Dominican Republic, and the USA’s South Vietnamese client Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu. Speaking of the Diems, none of the really excellent books on their regime in South Vietnam gets a mention here. Nor does Jacobsen seem to have read Alex von Tunzelmann’s outstanding Red Heat, about the Cold War in the Caribbean. Although the CIA pursues operations across the world, a kind of American provincialism hangs over this endeavour.

Much of this ground has been regularly ploughed before by writers asking better questions of their materials. There have been several good studies of the CIA that look at the tensions between its intelligence-gathering remit and the paramilitary side of its operations – something related to its evolution

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