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Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History Of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, And Assassins

4.24  ·  Rating details ·  1,711 ratings  ·  185 reviews
The definitive, character-driven history of CIA covert operations and U.S. government-sponsored assassinations, from the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Pentagon's Brain

Since 1947, domestic and foreign assassinations have been executed under the CIA-led covert action operations team. Before that time, responsibility for taking out America's enemies abroad was eve
Hardcover, First Edition (U.S.), 560 pages
Published May 14th 2019 by Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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Average rating 4.24  · 
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 ·  1,711 ratings  ·  185 reviews

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Start your review of Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History Of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, And Assassins
Annie Jacobsen
Mar 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)
My new book coming out in May!
David Lucero
Aug 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating, compelling look into how American politics has evolved in its effectiveness in fighting the war on terror.

Author Annie Jacobsen's novel, 'Surprise, Kill, Vanish,' covers how America fought clandestine, behind-the-lines, covert, and tackling the delicate issue of assassination, all under the order of 'plausible deniability' in order to prevent World War III.

From the 'Jedburgh' teams dropped into Occupied France during WWII when the Office of Strategic Services was born, to today's
11811 (Eleven)
Apr 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The CIA has a really bad habit of recruiting double agents. It's shocking how many operations went awry because of spies we mistakenly thought were working for us.

This is the fifth book I've read by Annie Jacobsen. The common theme among all of them is they are based on recently declassified information, shedding new light on stories I'm already familiar with from various history classes. This new release covers the topic of assassination and paramilitary operations from WWII to present. The na
Tucker  (TuckerTheReader)

Many thanks to Little Brown for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

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Erik Graff
Jul 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: espionage, CIA fans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
This is hardly the definitive story of CIA special operations. Rather, it discusses the activities of regular military special forces as well as comparable activities by agents of foreign powers. What seems to have occurred is that Jacobsen became close to a couple of guys who did work for the CIA and who served as her primary informants for some accounts ranging from WWII until the ongoing 'war on terror'. It is, in my opinion, a rather lazy, but still engrossing, book. ...more
Apr 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A remarkable narrative on the history of the CIA with numerous interviews, first hand accounts and a bibliography filling several pages. If you seek an unbiased account of the shadowy world of espionage in the United States, this book delivers. Without bias or blame, the political aspect is acknowledged and given its place in the hidden hand operations of the CIA. Being a consumer of numerous spy & action books & movies, this true history of America's secret organization is remarkable and fascin ...more
Jun 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Could not stop, once I started this book.
Recommended to me by a friend and former CIA employee, this book delivered 100% on expectation. I can see why it has captured curious outside readers like me while also satisfying readers from the inside who would certainly absorb these stories through different goggles that allow them to see many subtle layers. The author walks the reader through the history of the CIA from inception to modern day, hitting all of the main events you have heard about whil
Jul 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
First time reading an Annie Jacobsen book. Quite the surprise considering I thought the length alone would deter me. One of the rare finds where I only meant to read a chapter or two a day, and ended up with six or more. Her research, access and ability to write a thorough and, dare I say, entertaining book without the need for sensationalism was a breath of fresh air. I must admit my bias, coming from the ranks of the formally uniformed, I tend to lean to these type of topics. I am adding the r ...more
Apr 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I received this book as a free give-a-way from Goodreads Giveaways. I have never been disappointed by Jacobsen's writings, and this one does did not disappoint. This read was one that was hard to put down. If you're interested in paramilitary/special ops history, this book is for you! ...more
Aug 25, 2019 rated it liked it
A readable, mostly well-researched history of America’s use of assassination in foreign policy, both in wartime and in covert action.

Jacobsen’s narrative is engaging and crafted around people. She covers the origins and history of the CIA’s paramilitary branch (often using Billy Waugh’s Special Forces and CIA career to flesh it out), and the US government’s search for the best way to protect the president from assassination (using Lew Merletti’s Special Forces and Secret Service career to add th
Tom Oman
Feb 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a book about the CIA and its history of meddling in other countries, often steering the political landscape of these countries toward something more favourable to the US and its allies. Events of this magnitude usually end up as spectacular successes or failures.

Many of these stories have been retold countless times; the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadegh in Iran, attempts to bring down Castro and his regime. The book focuses much more on the operational and tactical approach,
Interesting read, but not really anything new or surprising.
Dec 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I had high expectations for this book and was not disappointed. As all of Annie Jacobsen’s books, Surprise, Kill, Vanish was spectacularly well-researched and provided a good history of long-suppressed CIA operations. One can only imagine what has been left classified.
Jordan Larsen
Within the cloak and dagger world of geo-political warfare, there exists an elite few sworn to defend their countries interests in the name of national security and survival. Comprised of elements from the CIA and elite Paramilitary units such as Delta Force, these top-secret operatives work in the shadows, far removed from the glaring spotlight of the media. Answering to the President of the United States and Foreign Heads of State, their mission… to get on the ground and eliminate high profile ...more
Apr 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A few years ago I visited the memorial and what is currently occupying the small village of Lidice in the Czech Republic and learned the horrific details of an assassination of a Nazi general during WWII. Then, on another vacation trip, I visited Guatemala and our guide recounted the story of CIA action in that country during the '50s and how its resulting consequences are still being felt today. Both of these events and many others are related in this fascinating book. It finally has begun to s ...more
Oct 02, 2019 rated it liked it
While the writing was decent, I was dissatisfied with the book. It’s essentially a recounting of many “hidden hand “operations. I think I was dissatisfied because I want to understand the value or lack of value in these operations more so than what took place. And of course, the book focused on what took place, not on the value and outcomes of the operations.
May 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio-book, espionage
This is a fantastic read. I chuckle at the title though. If it's secret, how was she able to write the book? But I digress...

"The most successful covert operations are designed and orchestrated to be plausibly denied". Annie does a fantastic job of showing the light of this statement. This book is more of a tribute to Billy Waugh, but that shouldn't down play the delivery of the substance of the book. I'm glad that books like this exist and we get a however be-it small peek behind the curtains o
Robert Heckert
Feb 13, 2021 rated it it was amazing
"Ground Branch officers and operators are high-level problem-solving warriors who operate in the most radical, nonpermissive combat environments in the world. They must think clearly and act flawlessly in a 360-degree gunfight; in close-quarters combat; in ambush, hit-and-run, snatch-and-grab, and rescue operations. To infiltrate a target, they must be able to fast-rope out of helicopters, perform HALO and HAHO jumps out of airplanes, walk twelve kilometers or more behind enemy lines, carrying s ...more
Feb 12, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audios-read
I am amazed by people who conduct the kind of research that Annie Jacobson does!  Hours of interviews, and I am sure piles and boxes of files and papers.  Annie spent LOTS of time interviewing William (Billy) D Waugh, a much decorated veteran.  According to, he received 8 Purple Hearts! 

I thought this might be boring, but it is not at all!  I learned quite a bit - going back to the beginning of the CIA and the Civil War - up to the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden and the Trump admin
Feb 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
not a big fan of the military industrial complex but this was (if true) a pretty interesting history of the CIA that i hadn't heard before. i'm still not a big fan of of our meddling in other countries through assassination and espionage but out of the many narratives told in this book it's story about our relationships in the middle east all the way back to the 1950's and 60's is very compelling and add much background to huge problems and conflicts that have been going on long before Bin Laden ...more
May 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
I won this on a Goodreads Giveaway for my honest opinion.

Even though it took me awhile to read, because I have been sick, it is an interesting book. A nonfiction about some of the things the CIA has done for America since its inception. Sometimes war is not the answer and the President needs another way, when this happens he calls in the CIA Paramilitary Armies. It takes you thru the 1940's up to President Trump.

Is assassination right, when it's for the safety of our country? I will leave that
Jimmy Page
Mar 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I have now listened too all but one of Annie Jacobsen's books in the audiobook format and I continue to be drawn in and amazed by all of her writings. The topics that Annie writs about are fascinating and to someone interested but not an expert in these fields can find her books are addicting. Researching topics like these, which in their very nature are ultra secretive are not for everyone. The detail of each mission and the time frame that this book encompasses is detailed and extensively rese ...more
Patrick Adekunle
Sep 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Some non-fiction books read like the most exciting fiction, and this is one of them. Annie Jacobsen's writing is very engaging, and through her detailed research, she unearths stories that are downright unbelievable.

That said, something about these hidden-hand operations left a bad taste in my mouth. To say the world is a complex place is an understatement, and after reading this, I don't even know what words like 'justice' and 'right' mean in the context of global politics. I need to cleanse my
John Piotrowski
Feb 27, 2021 rated it liked it
Felt somewhat choppy and areas where attention to detail was done were not always in parts that felt pertinent. Ended up finishing as a book specifically around one person that has seen multiple battle fields. I did do this via an audio book and the author is the reader, her reading was very dry and monotone, had to listen to it at 2X speed to make it sound like a normal read.
John Drexler
Feb 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great read, and a page burner! I enjoyed reading and learning about numerous foreign leaders and their intertwining connections to one another. Jacobsen is a great author, and I always enjoy her books. This was such a fascinating history of CIA operations, and I’m certain only a glimpse, at that.
Nick Swanson
Aug 25, 2019 rated it it was ok
I was extremely disappointed in this book. Rather than being a history of CIA’s Special Activities Division as the cover jacket advertised, it focused on Billy Waugh, a single CIA contractor. While interesting, Billy Waugh’s story has already been written about in numerous other books.
Jan 09, 2020 rated it liked it
A fascinating read but one that felt somewhat disjointed when transitioning between eras and persons of interest.
“My observation is that the more the battle machines are perfected, the greater the need in modern warfare of men calculatingly reckless with disciplined daring, who are trained for aggressive action...It will mean a return to our old tradition of the scouts, the raiders, and the rangers,” - William “Bill” Donovan (OSS Chief)

- The motto of one unit, the OSS Jedburghs, was “Surprise, Kill, Vanish.”

- Tertia Optio, the president’s third option when the first option, diploma
Jesse D
Jan 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
Well written and pretty comprehensive, definitely learned some new things I hadn’t known before.
Pete Zilla
Apr 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this - it pairs well with “Legacy of Ashes” and I definitely learned intelligence history and details I had never read before. The author clearly had some amazing sources, both on the record and for background.
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Annie Jacobsen is a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist and the New York Times bestselling author of AREA 51, OPERATION PAPERCLIP, THE PENTAGON'S BRAIN, PHENOMENA—and SURPRISE, KILL, VANISH, paperback out July 7, 2020.

She also writes and produces TV (Tom Clancy's JACK RYAN) and the forthcoming PHENOMENA (Amblin/Blumhouse), a dramatic series based on her book PHENOMENA.

A graduate of Princeton University

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