Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Book Review: See No Evil, by Robert Baer (2002)

Many failures in intelligence preceded the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. In his entertaining autobiography See No Evil, former CIA agent Robert Baer shines the spotlight on one failure that contributed more than most: the decay, drift and politicization that was eating away at the CIA for a decade prior to that fateful Tuesday morning. By the time passenger airlines were flown into the New York towers, the CIA had next to no on-the-ground human intelligence gathering capabilities in the Middle East; and was in no position to predict, much less pre-empt, the attack, and certainly in no position to infiltrate the organizations engaging the United States with an existential war.

See No Evil is a fascinating journey into the world of espionage, a place where the ridiculous is normal, and where survival depends on nimble decision making and snap judgements are needed to differentiate the highly risky from the outright deadly. Baer joined the CIA in the mid-1970s, a foot soldier in a Cold War-hardened organization obsessed with recruiting spies, running agents, infiltrating all levels of foreign governments, and learning the secrets of its enemies. And Baer was good at it. He describes the intensive training courses, his early overseas experiences, and the meticulous process needed to identify and recruit agents willing to sell their national secrets to the United States.

Early stops in India and an unnamed Middle East capital were a mere prelude to Baer's experiences in Beirut, starting in 1986. At the time Beirut was likely the most anti-American place on earth, with rampant kidnappings and killings fuelled by Iran's hatred of the Great Satan. Baer not only survived in this most hostile of environments, he thrived, using human intelligence sources and street smarts to piece together the shadowy figures and forces plotting against US interests in the convoluted dark alleys of the Middle East. Baer had a front row seat to the emerging radical Islam threat, and he identified it's early roots and protagonists, and he witnessed first hand its destructive potential.

What was glaringly obvious to Baer was that this emerging non-governmental threat needed more agents, more on-the-ground eyes and ears, more infiltration. But with the end of the Cold War, the CIA was losing interest in the dirty work of foreign intelligence gathering using human sources, and the organization was becoming overly reliant on remote technology while being beset by careerism and bloat.

In 1992 Baer embarked on a colourful excursion into the surreal vodka-fuelled world of post-Soviet Tajikistan; even in this remote hell-hole, he finds evidence of the activities of Osama bin Laden, and opportunities to listen in on his plans. Again, there was no interest, follow up or support from the CIA.

By the mid-1990s, Baer was in Northern Iraq, getting embroiled in a half-baked plot by the in-fighting Iraqi Kurds to attempt an overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Washington pulled its support for the operation at the eleventh hour, and the resulting mess effectively ended Baer's career in foreign outposts. He had a final chapter in the even more dangerous jungle of Washington DC, and the close-up view of political corruption and what the CIA was evolving into convinced Baer that his time as an agent was up.

Baer is articulate, succinct and self-depreciating when needed. See No Evil is an excellent book, enlightening and absorbing in equal measures.

Subtitled "The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism".
271 pages, plus Glossary and Index. Includes some black and white photos.
Published in hardcover by Crown Publishers.

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