Title: See No Evil
Author: Robert Baer
Baer, Robert (2002). See No Evil: The True Story of A Ground Soldier in The CIA’s War on Terrorism. New York: Three Rivers Press
- Baer, Robert.
- United States. Central Intelligence Agency–Biography.
- Intelligence officers–United States–Biography.
- Spies–United States–Biography.
- Islamic fundamentalism.
Date Updated: May 4, 2017
Reviewed by Evan Thomas
In his memoir of two decades as an adventurous case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Baer takes bitter pleasure in recounting a story about the ineptitude of another undercover C.I.A. operative, a young woman he calls Becky. Baer tells of meeting with Becky and a French informant, a seedy arms merchant, outside Paris at a motel where the carpets smell of “puke and cheap wine.” The French arms dealer, Jacques, is “an outstanding agent” who—at least until he began working with Becky—provided the C.I.A. with valuable information about shady arms deals. Becky has decided that the spying business is not for her, but before she quits and goes home to America, she has to “turn over” Jacques to Baer as the new case officer.
Baer sees right away that relations between Jacques and Becky are frosty. She offers him coffee; he demands brandy. When Jacques leaves the room, Becky makes a show of rolling her eyes. Baer sets out to repair the damage, taking Jacques to dinner at a good restaurant where, in true James Bond style, the C.I.A. man shows off his knowledge of fine wine. Warmed up by a second bottle of a “white burgundy from a terroir I knew,” Baer writes, Jacques startles him by asking if he believes in God. “Er, no, not exactly,” Baer replies. Jacques is relieved. He goes on to explain that his prior handler, the hapless Becky, was only interested in trying to save the arms dealer from a life of sin by leading him back to Christianity. Baer complains to his boss about Becky, but the station chief brushes him off, saying that he can’t interfere with her First Amendment rights.
Baer’s disdain for women do-gooders is topped only by his contempt for risk-averse bureaucrats, like the station chief who would terminate conversations by taking out a rag and buffing his wingtips. “In practical terms, the C.I.A. had taken itself out of the business of spying,” Baer writes. “The C.I.A. was systematically destroyed by political correctness, by petty Beltway wars, by careerism and much more.” No wonder, he says, that the Sept. 11 attacks caught the United States by surprise.
Baer, who quit the agency four years ago , says he is angry about all this, but he clearly has a good time recounting how the C.I.A. went to the dogs. Though See No Evil is breezy and blustery and presents a one-sided view, it is entertaining and at times revealing. (Baer, who had to clear the manuscript with the agency, left in the censor’s blackouts; the deletions are relatively few and appear innocuous.) Insiders will argue that Baer’s information is already outdated, that the C.I.A.’s performance in Afghanistan shows that its covert operators can move quickly and effectively when necessary. Still, the timing of his book is opportune. With the C.I.A. gearing up a secret war against terrorism, there is—and should be—great public interest in the culture of the place and the kinds of men and women who work there.
Baer has always been a risk taker. A breakneck skier who liked to race close to the edge, he was a college hell-raiser who once drove a motorcycle into the library reading room at Georgetown University. Signing up for the agency in 1976 (“as a prank,” he says), Baer loved jumping out of airplanes down on “the Farm,” the C.I.A.’s training base in Virginia. The old hands there gleefully told him about the agency’s greatest dirty tricks. For example, the time when “the agency’s skunk works had come up with the idea of filling a captured Soviet transport plane—Soviet markings and all—with live pigs and dropping them over Mecca, Islam’s most holy city.” The agency spymasters were hoping “to light the Middle East’s fuse and direct the blast toward the Soviet Union.” (Baer does not say whether this nutty scheme was ever carried out, but if it was, it fizzled.)
After serving for a time in Central Asia and Africa, Baer was only too happy to be stationed in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when the city was a haven for spies and terrorists. Fluent in Arabic, he thrived in smoky bars and on the Arab street. His problems came whenever he got too near headquarters.
In the mid-80s, Baer was called back to Washington. At the time, William Casey was trying to build up the C.I.A. to fight both Communism and terrorism, and the agency had established a counterterrorism center at its headquarters in Langley, Va. The chief of the center was an old-school swashbuckler named Duane Clarridge, known as Dewey. Baer was delighted to work for Clarridge, who had an inventive and devious mind. He had once run an agent as a mole inside a lethal Palestinian group, called the May 15 Organization, that specialized in airplane bombs. The agent was a “gold mine,” Baer writes, “providing information that stopped a couple of terrorist attacks.” Clarridge was interested in building up the agent’s credibility in his own organization. So he arranged to have a car blown up inside a United States Embassy compound in such a way that the agent could claim credit. No one was killed, but the agent won points with his terror bosses for trying. In the meantime, the mole continued to feed the C.I.A.
“All of us new recruits expected operations like that to be the norm” in the counterterrorism center, Baer writes. But Clarridge had no agents in the field to command, and he was constantly undermined by bureaucratic timidity and turf battles. “We’d ask the Paris office to put together a surveillance team to watch the apartment of a suspected terrorist, and Paris would come back and tell us it couldn’t because the local intelligence service would find out,” Baer writes. “We’d ask Bonn to recruit a few Arabs and Iranians to track the Middle East émigré community in West Germany, and it would respond it didn’t have enough officers. Once we asked Beirut to meet a certain agent traveling to Lebanon, and it refused because of some security problem. Security was never not a problem in Europe, for God’s sake. Instead of fighting terrorists, we were fighting bureaucratic inertia, an implacable enemy.”
As far as Baer was concerned, the enemy dug in deeper in the 1990’s. The most dramatic set piece in See No Evil is Baer’s virtually single-handed attempt to stir up a rebellion against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the mid-90s. As Baer tells it, he managed to get various Iraqi colonels and Kurdish leaders lined up to overthrow the Iraqi strongman, but the nervous Nellies in Washington pulled the plug at the last minute. The Kurds fell to fighting with each other, and Baer had to flee. Did the Clinton administration blow a great opportunity? Baer argues that it did, but Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, and the C.I.A.’s analysts back at Langley apparently believed that the operation had been fatally compromised and decided to cut their losses. The full truth about the operation and its chances for success will probably never be known.
How credible is Baer? C.I.A. old boys tend to have more glorious memories than history warrants. The agency’s so-called golden age, which ran roughly from the beginning of the cold war in the late 1940s to the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961, saw plenty of blown or botched operations. C.I.A. officials like to say that you never hear about their victories, only their defeats, but that is to some extent a canard. Old hands eventually brag about their secret successes. Burned by scandals, the C.I.A. pulled back from aggressive covert actions in the 1990s. But the agency takes fewer foolish risks as well. The key to good intelligence is striking a balance and accepting the reality that some covert actions will fail.
For the most part, policy makers turn to covert action when all other options look hopeless. Presidents still call on the agency to do dirty jobs: intelligence officials now say that the C.I.A. has been trying to kill Osama bin Laden since at least 1998. The agency’s failure of intelligence on Sept. 11 may say more about the magnitude of the task than the lack of will or effort. Now the job is to root Al Qaeda out of dozens of countries. That will take luck and ingenuity and—for all their bluffing and swagger—more men like Bob Baer.
Recent Books on the CIA
Nigel West is a author and consultant on counterintelligence matters. I had the privilege of hearing a series of his lectures about the Queen Mary II in the summer of 2010. This book was one of the best recent books on the CIA. Here is the entire list.
Baer, Robert (2002). See No Evil: The True Story of A Ground Soldier in The CIA’s War on Terrorism. A CIA officer’s experiences in the Middle East with the clandestine service during the Clinton Era.
Drogin, Bob (2007). CURVEBALL. A detailed account of how a single Iraqi chemical engineer in Munich misled the DIA, the CIA, and Colin Powell.
Drumheller, Tyler (2006). On the Brink: An Insider’s Account of How the White House Compromised American Intelligence. A controversial insider’s view of the WMD debate by the former CIA operations chief for Western Europe who says he warned George Tenet not to rely on CURVEBALL.
Earley, Pete (2007). Comrade J. The former Russian SVR deputy rezident in New York, Sergei Tetyakov, defected in October 2000 and recalls his KGB career offering a fascinating insight into Putin-era corruption in the Kremlin.
Olson, James M. (2006). Fair Play. A thoughtful review of the ethics of intelligence operations written by an experienced CIA station chief who served in Mexico City, Moscow, and Vienna.
Plame, Valerie (2007). Fair Game. A self-serving, not entirely accurate memoir by the CIA analyst married to Joe Wilson, who became controversial when he challenged publicly the White House view of Iraqi WMD.
Scheuer, Michael (2004). Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War on Terror. A highly critical analysis of the CIA’s campaign against Al-Qaeda written by Michael Scheurer, a respected senior CIA counterterrorism analyst and expert on Osama bin Laden.
Susskind, Ron (2008). The Way of the World. A journalist’s rather disorganized account of the intelligence community’s internal debate on Iraqi WMD prior to the 2003 invasion, with plenty of indiscreet insider gossip.
Tenet, George (2007). At The Center of The Storm. The angry memoirs of the former Director of Central Intelligence who recalls 9/11 and reveals rather too many of his own inadequacies.
Weiner, Tim (2007). Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. A journalist’s history of the CIA. Comprehensive, but too reliant on newspaper reports of the Agency’s well-publicized failures and so reads as a one-sided critique.