In his description of himself, Baer acknowledges that he wasn’t born a patriot whose intention was to work for the CIA. He describes himself as a struggling student who had personal agendas (Baer, 2002). The book gives several accounts of what Baer describes as frustrations and mistakes he made while posted in Lebanon and India. The book also discusses the failings of the CIA. Baer gives the reasons for a failing CIA as: replacement of human intelligence with computer and satellite technology; a risk aversion approach by the agency that promoted bureaucratic practices and undermined intelligence gathering; and the prioritization of interests by Washington lobbyists to the detriment of national security (Baer, 2002).
The book does not have many surprise revelations as it dwells on historical events especially those that occurred in the 1980′s and early 1990′s. The significant events covered include the two Beirut bombings and the Iraq hostage crisis. Baer tries to tie these historical events to the post-9-11 world. The book is developed in four sections; Baer’s CIA recruitment and training, his time as a field officer, the agency’s decline and his role in campaign financing in the Clinton era (Baer, 2002, p.266).
Baer gives a refreshing overview of the CIA while at the same time issues a strict critique of its methods and policies. The book calls the United States to action on the resumption and expansion of activities under the Directorate of Operations (DO) (Baer, 2002). The DO runs the spy section of the CIA. It handles operatives that do actual spy work in the field. Baer notes that the job performed by the DO is one which intercepts and satellites cannot perform as it entails recruitment and operation of agents, data retrieval, and communication of vital human intelligence. His is an indictment of policies adopted by the CIA over the past 20 years which persistently continue to move away from reliance on human intelligence towards technology. He contends that this strategy is quite naive given the events that transpired on 9/11/2001 (Baer, 2002).
At the beginning of the book, Baer states that since age nine he lived a relatively adventurous life. He moved to Europe with his mother for two years. While in Europe he was able to travel a lot and learn how to ski (Baer, 2002, p.10-11). His mother also taught him on politics and philosophy (Baer, 2002, p.9-11). Baer acquired a taste for exotic stuff during his stay in Europe. On returning to the United States he enrolled in school, but performed poorly that his mother sent him to a military school (Baer, 2002, p.12). He later joined university and applied to the C.I.A as a prank. His prank became reality as he was accepted into CIA. At the C.I.A spy school, he learnt how to use weapons, explosives. How to mountains and deserts, jump from planes and evade surveillance (Baer, 2002, p.24-44).
Baer is first deployed to India which was by then a Soviet stronghold (Baer, 2002, p.45-51). He has an interesting experience in India that includes failed attempts to recruit. Several years later, he is deployed to Beirut, Lebanon and here he find his feet and comes into his own. His deployment to Lebanon in the 1980’s was after serving in Africa and Central Asia for a while. He was happy with this posting. At the time, Lebanon was a haven for terrorists and spies. Lebanon was also highly anti-American and there were many cases of kidnappings and killings. Iran had deep hatred for the United States and Iranian propaganda made Beirut a very risky place for Americans (Baer, 2002, p.65-68).
Baer managed to survive and thrive in this hostile environment. Baer uses his human sources and street smarts to collect evidence and information on anti-American forces in the Middle East. His fluency in Arabic enabled him to thrive in the smoky bars of the city. Baer details another filed experience in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. Of particular mention is his sky diving experience from a Soviet AN-2 airplane at night and driving Soviet tanks (Baer, 2002, p.146-148). Baer’s 1992 excursion into post-Soviet leads him to find evidence of terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden. He also finds an opportunity to spy on Bin Laden and learn of his plans, but the C.I.A neither shows any interest nor does it make a follow up on the issue.
He was among the first people to witness the emergence of radical Islam. He was able to identify its source and those behind it and was a first hand witness of its potential for harm. Baer knew that emergence of radical Islam was a new threat that required additional agents and deeper ground infiltration. The threat was non-governmental in nature and quite different from what Baer dealt with in most cases. For Baer, more eyes and ears would facilitate infiltration. As the Cold War came to an end, the CIA began to lose interest in the human intelligence gathering approach. The agency began to shift towards technological surveillance (Baer, 2002).
In his career, Baer developed a personal obsession to discover those responsible for the 1983 bombing of U.S. Military barracks and US embassy in Beirut, Lebanon (Baer, 2002, p.68). He also tries to find out why the FBI and CIA appear to give up the pursuit of those responsible for the bombings at a very early stage. In his investigations over the years, he makes a lot of discoveries on the case and also comes to understand why the pursuit ended prematurely (Baer, 2002, p71-72). Baer believes that if more operatives had emulated his methods, the 9/11 terrorist attacks would probably have been averted. He complains on the replacement of human intelligence with technical surveillance, the reliance on satellites and radio intercepts as one of the reasons for decline in intelligence capability of the CIA (Baer, 2002, p.74-75).
Apart from the usual C.I.A narrative, the book also talks about the influential power held by American petroleum multinationals (Baer, 2002, p.221-252). In his assertion, Baer states that many oil giants such as Exxon and Amoco place their own agents into sensitive government positions to help maintain this influence. He further states the pattern of people leaving institutions such as congress to join well paid jobs in the private sector is also quite common in the CIA. He gives an example of Ed Pechous, who left his meteoric career at the CIA for the petroleum sector (Baer, 2002, p. 223).
The book also asks some questions with regard to the 9/11 bombing. According to Baer, the government’s unwillingness to pursue all leads is one possible reason for the success of the 9/11 attacks. He speculates that the bombings would have been prevented if there was better human intelligence in the pursuit of those terrorists (Baer, 2002). For instance, it looks at those involved in the attack and tries to question their motivation to perform such an atrocity. One of the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 was Ziyad Samir Jarrah. Jarrah was of Lebanese origin, well educated and did not fit the profile of typical Islamist terrorist who were in most cases unemployed, destitute and ignorant (Baer, 2002, p. 276). He describes Jarrah’s profile as that of an apparently normal, secular, and westernized young man of good family. He fails to understand the motivator that caused him to commit that act of terrorism.
In the memoir, Baer also recounts a story on the ineptitude of a C.I.A. undercover operative, a young lady named Becky. Baer recounts a meeting Becky and a French informant, Jacques, at a motel outside Paris. He recalls the motel’s stench of cheap wine and puke. The informant who was also an arms dealer was a valuable C.I.A intelligence provider on shady arms deals at least until he started working with Becky. The meeting is a handover of Jacques to Baer as Becky decides to quit the spying business and head back to the United States. Baer detects right away that Jacques and Becky did not have a good working rapport. Becky offers him coffee but Baer asks for brandy instead. As Jacques leaves the motel room, Becky rolls her eyes in a way to suggest dislike for him.
Baer decides to attempt and repair the relations between the two. He takes Jacques to dinner to warm him up and find a way to remedy the situation. During dinner, Jacques asks Baer if he believed in God to which Baer replies ''Er, no, not exactly''(Baer, 2002). The answer comes as a relief to Jacques who then goes on to explain that Becky’s interest had been to save him from a life of sin through Christianity and not the work they were supposed to do together. Baer lodges a complaint to his superior on Becky’s conduct but is brushed off by the station chief. The chief states that he has no authority to interfere with Becky’s First Amendment rights (Baer, 2002).
Baer's holds characters like Becky in high contempt, but is even higher in his contempt are risk-averse bureaucrats who dodge challenges and critical decision making scenarios. He disdains his station chief because of his habit of terminating conversations prematurely. Baer writes that practically, the C.I.A. took itself out of the spying business. He further states that the C.I.A. was systematically destroyed by political correctness, arrogance, greed, corruption, incompetence and petty Beltway wars.
Baer is recalled to Washington in mid 1980's. In January 1986, Baer Joins Clarridge at the Counterterrorism Center in Langley (Baer, 2002, p.83-86). This was during a period when William Casey wanted to remodel the C.I.A. to enable them fight both terrorism and communism. A counterterrorism center was established at C.I.A headquarters in Langley. The counterterrorism center was headed by an old-school operative named Duane Clarridge. Clarridge is creative and devious and Baer is happy to work for him. Baer recounts that Clarridge once run a C.I.A mole inside the May 15 Organization, a Palestinian terror group whose specialty was in making airplane bombs. The mole provided crucial and valuable information on the groups plan.
Baer describes the mole as a ''gold mine.'' The information provided by the agent helped to stop several terrorist attacks. As a way to build the agent’s credibility within the May 15 Organization, Clarridge arranges a car explosion within the United States Embassy compound for which the agent could claim credit. The explosion did not have fatalities, but agent’s credibility within the organization gained a big boost. He was able to continue giving intelligence information to the C.I.A. Baer writes that at the counterterrorism center, operations such as the one conducted for the mole was a norm.
Despite the importance of work done by the center, Clarridge lacked sufficient agents. In fact, he did not have any field agents under his command. His work was further undermined by bureaucracy and turf battles within the agency. These turf battles affected their work to a great extent. For example, the center would ask the Paris office for a surveillance team to watch a suspected terrorist’s apartment and Paris would refuse claiming that local intelligence would discover them. In another instance, the center asked Beirut to organize a meet with an agent who was travelling to Lebanon. Beirut refused citing a security problem. Some stations would also refuse to offer assistance and claim a lack of sufficient officers as the reason. Baer states that instead of fighting terrorists, the center fought bureaucratic inertia.
Baer and Clarridge also make contact with Muslim Brothers (Baer, 2002, p.86-92). Baer proposes that the C.I.A kidnapps Imad Mughniyah’s family and use them to in hostage exchange (Baer, 2002, p.92-93). Later, Baer proposes a plot to fake a failed Hizballah bombing attempt against Syrian diplomats but the plan is refused by Clair George (Baer, 2002, p.94-95). In March 1987 while Baer operated in Beirut, the C.I.A places telephone taps on suspected enemies of the U.S (Baer, 2002, p.113-14). Hasan a C.I.A recruit volunteers to infiltrate Hizballah (Baer, 2002, p.118-19).
An Imam alledges that the embassy bombing was conducted by Muhammad Hassuna but Hassuna’s brother says that he died Iran. By this time, the United States government seems to have lost interest in the case (Baer, 2002, p.20-22). Baer also talks about Yasser Arafat. He gives a fundamentalist background (Baer, 2002, p.128-31). He says that Arafat and Ayatollah Khameini had an accord which they has signed in Najaf, Iraq for the training of Islamic fighters. The training camps were located in southern Lebanon. Baer adds that almost every Iranian revolutionary leader had undergone training in these camps (Baer, 2002, p.130).
Baer believes that enemy efforts intensified during the 1990's. Baer’s attempt to start a rebellion against Saddam Hussein is perhaps the most dramatic of all set pieces in the book.
According to Baer, he was able to get a number of Kurdish leaders and Iraqi colonels who were ready to carry out the plot but Washington got nervous and aborted the plan. The Kurds began fighting each other and Baer was forced to flee. The mess that followed brought Baer's field career to an end (Baer, 2002, p.203-205). In March 1995, Baer was cleared of conspiracy charges in Washington, D.C. (Baer, 2002, p.217-18).
Baer returned to Washington DC where he witnessed firsthand political corruption and the decline of the CIA. Baer believes that Clinton administration wasted an excellent opportunity. This view was disputed by Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser, as well as C.I.A. analysts who believed that operation was compromised. In his return to Washington, he experiences a huge culture shock. The two decades away from home which were mostly spent in regions which very few people would live made him miss a lot. He is also worried about what to do next as his skill set count not attract any meaningful job (Baer, 2002).
In Washington, Oil magnates such as Tamraz maintain close relations with President Clinton’s administration (Baer, 2002, p.238-39). The C.I.A continues to increase its participation in oil deals (Baer, 2002, p.241-43). Heslin and the Deputy NSA director Sandy Berger also advance interests of oil companies (Baer, 2002, p. 242-44). When Tamraz meets with President Clinton, Baer says that he seemed to have seen a possibility of venturing nito China.
There are external C.I.A external critics, but their reasons are quite different. In most cases, criticism towards the C.I.A is on its political interference in foreign nations through participation in coups and funding armed opposition groups. There have even been calls for its restructuring and even dissolution for reasons that range from concerns over human rights abuses to ideological differences among its critics. Such criticism is not in this book due to the author’s standpoint and involvement with the agency. His criticisms are quite different as they are mainly on the agency’s inaction in what he considers to be important national security aspects.
Baer’s See No Evil provides an insider account into Middle East politics and culture. He makes meticulous explanations of how Washington politics, especially after the cold war came to an end, led to a slow and systematic start to the C.I.A’s decline. His non-partisan approach to discussing issues means that no political party or presidential administration escapes his critique. He is keen to point out political correctness, arrogance, greed, corruption and incompetence as the factors that led to the September 11, 2001 attacks. In the end, Baer notes that human intelligence gathering is essential to the C.I.A and cannot be wished away or replaced. He advises that the United States government should be willing to take all necessary measures on security if it is keen to win the war on terror.
The book draws its strength from the interesting and dangerous nature of Baer’s narrations. Baer is able to relate and engage with the reader through his narration style. The book also has a natural weakness in that Baer is not able to reveal the details of some operations. His employment contract limits his ability to divulge information on some operation. There are cases and places which he cannot acknowledge his participation. The secretive nature of Baer’s job is a huge limitation to the book’s contents.
Baer, R. (2002). See No Evil. New York: Three Rivers Press.