I was a cowboy for the CIA

A tough-guy field agent blasts wimpy pencil pushers and "politics" for keeping him from lassoing terrorist evildoers. He's right -- but you wouldn't want his kind in charge, either.

Published January 15, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

The charges leveled in Robert Baer's memoir of his years working for the CIA will come as no great surprise to anyone who has followed the decay of the agency over the past 25 years -- but unfortunately that's not very many people. Baer is part of a loose group of dissident former CIA men, including Reuel Marc Gerecht, Howard Hart and the pseudonymous Edward G. Shirley, who have been warning the public about the perilous state of the agency since the mid-1990s. Until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 slapped the nation out of its complacency, though, they had reason to feel that their complaints were falling on deaf ears.

Baer's book, a rambunctious account of his 21 years working in such uncomfortable locales as Beirut, Tajikistan, Khartoum and Iraq, offers the usual tidbits of intelligence scuttlebutt expected of such volumes -- particularly about the National Security Council's shameful handling of an attempted military coup d'itat against Saddam Hussein in 1995. But what's likely to linger with most readers is its portrait of an agency in crisis as seen by one of its front-line hotshots. Seymour Hersh, who used Baer as a source for his reporting on the CIA in the New Yorker, describes him as having been "perhaps the best on-the-ground field officer in the Middle East."

"See No Evil" provides a first-person view of just what a great intelligence field officer can accomplish, as well as a frustrating depiction of how higher-ups increasingly thwarted Baer's efforts as the agency grew ever more deeply mired in a culture of bureaucratic timidity. For those shocked to learn after Sept. 11 that the CIA has few Arabic speakers and virtually no sources of "humint" (information gleaned from people rather than high-tech equipment) inside the societies in the Mideast and Central Asia where anti-American terrorism percolates, Baer describes how this came to be. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to swallow Baer's vision of the way the CIA ought to be hook, line and sinker; he's both an example of the kind of quality operative the agency is driving away and a demonstration of why it takes more than great soldiers to make a great army.

Film director Stephen Soderbergh is already developing "See No Evil" as a vehicle for George Clooney, which suggests how perfectly Baer conforms to Hollywood notions of heroism. In his own version of the story, Baer (a self-described "cowboy") is a familiar figure: the daring, committed maverick who's always pushing the envelope in his quest to get the job done. Sometimes his counterpoint is the gruff, experienced, by-the-books chief (like the men who ran the CIA posts at his first couple of assignments) who will nevertheless back the kid in a pinch -- in short, the stuff of a zillion cop shows and Dirty Harry movies. Sometimes, however, the boss is one of those pettifogging paper pushers who doesn't have the balls to risk getting his hands dirty in catching the bad guys. That describes John, chief in "a small but important outpost in the Middle East" (Baer's book was vetted by the CIA, and the author has allowed the censor's blackouts, including the name of this outpost and many individuals' last names, to stand), a man with "an account-book mentality about spying" who "refused to take risks."

But far worse than any interfering immediate superiors is that ultimate sinkhole of contemptible self-interest and ignorance, Washington, D.C. Baer did a few stints at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and got embroiled in the Clinton campaign financing scandal as well as some other vile messes, causing him to state, somewhat predictably, that "the conference tables of official Washington" are "often as nasty as a snake pit in Lebanon's Biqa' Valley."

In spite of (or, hell, perhaps because of) the hokiness of this setup, "See No Evil" packs a distinctly unwonky punch; Baer is a marvelous raconteur. He starts out by relating the old-school methods of CIA espionage and his own early and sometimes inept attempts to master them. As a case officer, Baer had the job of gathering intelligence, primarily through the recruiting of agents, which is what the CIA calls the foreign nationals who supply it with information. Agents are, as one of Baer's mentors bluntly puts it, "traitors," and cultivating their trust and protecting their lives was once the case officer's highest priority.

Some agents must be approached with great delicacy; others walk right into the American embassy and ask for the CIA, like one of the most useful contacts Baer had in Lebanon during the 1980s, a man who eventually joined Hezbollah and became the CIA's first inside source in that terrorist group. Most agents get paid, but a few, the best, have volunteered their services "simply because they loved America." Baer prides himself on the skill he developed in recruiting agents and the lengths he went to to do so, from learning to hunt partridges in the Punjab in order to cozy up to Indian military officers to engaging in vodka-soaked target practice sessions in the wilds of Tajikistan with a colonel in the Russian army.

Once recruited, agents feed intelligence to their case officers, and some of the most entertaining passages in "See No Evil" describe Baer's exploits as he shakes off tails, ducks into shrubbery to grab document drops, sneaks through Beirut's no-man's-land and successfully bluffs his way to the gates of a Lebanese terrorist stronghold. "We were all adventurers," he writes of his breed of case officer, and even though he's preening, it's also clear that doing the job well requires a bold temperament.

Nevertheless, Baer wasn't above doing unglamorous homework when necessary. He gives almost as much attention to the meticulous detective work involved in his job, particularly the mountains of reports, phone tap transcripts and other papers he pored over while trying to piece together a theory about the crime that became his personal obsession -- the still unsolved bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983. That attack killed 63 people, 17 of them Americans and six of those CIA officers.

Baer thinks he knows who gave the orders to bomb the embassy, and much of the bitterness he feels toward CIA headquarters comes from the fact that they didn't seem to care. "While the information is compelling," they wrote back in response to his report, "it is only of historical interest." Again and again he found that CIA staffers -- as is typical in cases of advanced bureaucratic decay -- opted to do nothing rather than to risk getting into trouble or being the bearers of bad news. "Garnering promotions and pleasing political masters became more important than collecting secrets," Baer complains. Outpost chiefs would rather he kept his nose clean and filed reports padded with worthless "intelligence" than tempt fate in order to get the good stuff.

John, his boss on that unnamed Mideast assignment, is the quintessential "see-no-evil, hear-no-evil model for the new CIA." When Baer, working in the unnamed Mideast country, discovered a secret office for the Abu Nidal Organization (a renegade Palestinian group that broke with the PLO in 1973 and was once considered to be "at the top of the CIA's hit parade"), he wanted to find a way into the adjoining building so he could run a bug through their shared wall -- your basic meat and potatoes CIA activity, what we pay these guys to do. John put a quick stop to the plan, however, scolding Baer for not having "the slightest idea what political sensitivities are involved. This country is important to the United States. No one wants to risk alienating it by undertaking a risky operation." Baer's suggestion that the Paris office conduct similar surveillance on two Abu Nidal-affiliated students was also sandbagged for fear of alienating the French.

Baer blames this and most other forms of CIA inertia on "politics," a rubric that for him includes a confusing range of things. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the agency suffered a series of scandals, and every few years it seems to get hit by another, including the unmasking of Aldrich Ames as a Russian mole in 1994. The investigations and restructurings that followed these scandals, along with the influence of civil service reform movements, transformed the way the agency is run -- for the worse.

Overseas case officers are now moved around more frequently to prevent them from becoming too involved with the locals, years spent working in an office in Langley were suddenly treated as the equivalent of years of field experience, and so on. These are the changes -- essentially bureaucratic, if partly inspired by the shifting climate of national politics -- that led to some of the most devastating disintegration within the CIA. It bred the kind of "politics" every office worker bitches about, the petty battles for power and prestige within an organization.

There's another kind of politics, though -- politics with a capital P -- that messed up the CIA, and Baer doesn't seem to grasp the difference and why it's important. In fact, it makes no sense to complain about "politics" driving the agency when the CIA is essentially a political tool. Its job is to advance the political goals of the United States, which during the "golden days" when Baer first came to work for the agency meant prosecuting the Cold War. It was a time when the need for and purpose of the CIA seemed perfectly clear, but even before the Cold War ended, the public had begun to question some of its activities, and rightly so. It was Seymour Hersh himself whose 1974 New York Times exposé of the agency's spying on U.S. citizens first began to erode its credibility.

Since Sept. 11, right-wingers have been denouncing the Clinton administration for weakening the CIA by forbidding it to work with "unsavory characters." In a recent piece in Salon, for example, Andrew Sullivan wrote, "The Clinton White House also allowed new constraints to be placed on the CIA, forbidding it from hiring or using any undercover agents with dubious or criminal pasts." What seems to have been forgotten is the reason those constraints were imposed. In fact, the quintessential "unsavory character" was an agent in Guatemala who was feeding from the CIA trough despite the fact that he had murdered an American innkeeper and committed other horrible crimes. Revelations about this agent caused yet another scandal in 1995.

Baer mostly doesn't discuss the agency's activities in Latin America during the 1980s and '90s, which is understandable since he was never stationed in the region, but he must have at least thought about them, since they were the source of so much criticism leveled at the CIA and all the leashing-in that followed. When Baer complains that the CIA has abandoned recruiting agents and as a result is "blind and deaf" in many key nations -- including Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan -- he blames an "official view" that foreign human sources "had become too messy. Agents sometimes misbehaved; they caused ugly diplomatic incidents. Worse, they didn't fit America's moral view of the way the world should run."

But if the CIA has become overly squeamish, that doesn't mean that it didn't make colossal mistakes when it had a relatively free rein. Most Americans would probably condone payments to a known killer (even one with American blood on his hands) if it meant getting the information we need to capture Osama bin Laden or other anti-American terrorists who pose a direct threat to our lives. But in Guatemala the CIA was hiring murderers to help prop up a hideously brutal regime for reasons that seemed compelling only to hard-core Cold Warriors. On the other hand, during the same period the agency fed millions of dollars to Pakistan's Interservice Intelligence agency, funds the ISI used to build camps to train mujahedin to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Those camps were almost all run by militant anti-American Islamists, and they became a key breeding ground for al-Qaida.

Baer never really tries to tackle the larger forces -- "politics" -- that led the CIA to pursue such destructive courses of action. What he also doesn't manage to grasp in surveying his two decades with the agency is that what the CIA lost is the kind of unifying, motivating vision that can only come from politics. Without the imperatives of the Cold War to drive it, the agency idled and stalled. The cost of this is painfully clear in Baer's chapter on the failed 1995 coup in Iraq. Baer, who had volunteered to head up an operation in Northern Iraq, was approached by an Iraqi general who had defected and was representing a group of military officers who planned to use their forces to oust the dictator. Baer was also in touch with a Kurdish leader who was willing to join in the attack, but both men wanted Washington's blessing, if not outright assistance.

Baer thought this plan had a shot at success, but his many urgent pleas to Washington went completely ignored -- until the very eve of the intended coup, when he was ordered by National Security Advisor Anthony Lake to tell the rebels that they were on their own. Baer never offers an explanation for Lake's decision (others have suggested that he thought that the coup's leaders wouldn't have been able to prevent Iraq from descending into chaos); he simply calls it a "failure of nerve." You can't blame him for being confused: In the absence of any input at all from Washington, "the only beacon I had to go by was what I understood American policy to be: that we would support any serious movement to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Those were my orders as I understood them." Naturally, he encouraged the conspirators. To his mind, "faced with a choice between sins of commission or omission, Washington had chosen the latter and left good and brave men twisting in the wind."

In this case, perhaps Baer is right, but there are enough pause-giving moments in "See No Evil" to lead a reader to suspect that Baer isn't always the best judge of such matters. At one point, he suggested that the CIA attempt to trick the late Syrian president Hafiz Al-Asad into cracking down on the Iranian-sponsored militant group Hezbollah by rigging "low-order explosives" to the cars of Syrian diplomats stationed in Europe (on the theory that the secularist Asad would think that Syria was being targeted by Islamists). Theoretically, the bombs would only "scare" the diplomats, but the CIA's director of operations emphatically (and to my mind correctly) nixed the idea, saying "it would be over his dead body that the CIA would set off bombs in Western Europe."

Later on, Baer grouses about a lost opportunity to eliminate 'Imad Mughniyah, a Lebanese terrorist who he believes was behind the 1983 embassy bombing. Baer finds a distinctly unsavory character willing to go after Mughniyah in the dangerous southern suburbs of Beirut, but the man refuses to attempt a kidnapping. Instead, he suggests putting a car bomb on either side of the building, a school, where Mughniyah is expected to be hiding out, setting off a dual explosion that "would definitely bring it down and kill everyone inside." Well aware that he doesn't have the legal authority to order an assassination, let alone one that would likely kill innocent civilians and whose target could only be indirectly linked to the embassy bombing, Baer doesn't even bother to tell his superiors about the suggestion. But he's still stewing because "we declined to go after 'Imad Mughniyah with maximum lethal force" -- in other words, that an individual case officer can't, when he thinks it appropriate, violate Executive Order 12333 (the official prohibition against assassinations).

Baer may be a great operative, but men of his ilk are obviously too reckless to be allowed to determine the extent of CIA actions. What "ground soldiers" like Baer need are firm policies and clear guidelines; they'll always bump up against the rules, but that's what the rules are for. What makes talented people like Baer leave the agency in droves, as they have been doing since the early '90s, is not reasonable restrictions on what they can do, but a rudderless, waffling leadership and a lack of any urgent sense of purpose. There's a lot of territory between letting the agency run amok, as it so often did in Latin America in the '80s, and allowing it to curl up and die, as it now seems to have done in the Mideast. Surely there's a workable piece of middle ground in there somewhere. We can only hope that the tragedy of Sept. 11 gives the CIA the clarity and focus it needs, and that the call to action hasn't come too late.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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