Book Review: “See No Evil” by Robert Baer

(Crown Publishers – 284 pages)

Reviewer – Luke Brown

The momentous failure of intelligence agencies, in particular the CIA, to prevent the horrors of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon is obvious, certainly with the benefit of hindsight. For Robert Baer, an ex-CIA field officer in its Directorate of Operations division from 1976 to 1997, that it was able to occur was not so surprising. Along with recounting the career of a spy who would go on to recruit agents in such places as India, Lebanon, Sudan, France and Tajikstan, See No Evil also details, in Baer’s opinion, the CIA’s decline from an agency that would do whatever was felt necessary to achieve its goal of eliminating security threats to the United States, into a toothless, politically correct organisation run by bureaucrats.

The strength of the book is the interesting and dangerous nature of the experiences he is able to relate to the reader, in his engaging storytelling style. Conversely, its weakness, quite naturally, is what he is not able to tell us. Due to his employment contract with the CIA, there are operations he isn’t allowed to divulge the details of, some he cannot acknowledge and even places where he operated that he cannot reveal. Undoubtedly the secretive nature of his job has also contributed to his personal life not receiving more than a superficial airing, resulting in only a modest insight into his personal motivations and drive.

What we do know is that ever since the age of nine, Baer lived a relatively adventurous life. His divorced mother took him to Europe for a couple of years, where he would travel extensively, ski, learn about politics and philosophy from his mother, and get a taste for the exotic. Moving back to the United States he went to school, doing so badly that he was sent on to military school. Next was University and then, as a “prank,” he applied to and was accepted in the CIA. It was then onto spy school, to learn such things as how to use weapons, use explosives (“By the end of the training, we could have taught an advanced terrorism course”), survive deserts and mountains, jump out of planes, as well as evade surveillance. His first assignment was India, then under the sphere of influence of the Soviets, where after a couple of nerve-racking and aborted agent-recruitment attempts, he finally found his feet. It was in Beirut, Lebanon several years later, that it seems he really came into his own, arriving right after the bombing of the US embassy. It was the mystery surrounding this attack that drove Baer to undertake his own investigation of the attack, as well as to become frustrated by the bureaucratic nature of the CIA and the direction it was taking.

It was in the mid-nineties, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Washington’s unwillingness to support efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein, that he concluded his last foreign mission for the CIA. He was called back to Washington and was by this time rather disillusioned. In his view, the CIA had a near complete lack of interest in the human intelligence side of spying, in favour of technology-driven surveillance. This combined with their unwillingness to get their hands dirty and deal with unsavoury types, its see no evil-hear no evil-speak no evil attitude (hence the title of the book), and the politics of Washington, finally took their toll, causing Baer to resign.

Of course, the CIA has also had its external critics, but for different reasons. Its involvement with coups, funding of armed opposition groups in sovereign countries, and the like, has brought about calls for its reigning in or downright scrapping, whether it be due to concern over human rights abuses or its critics’ ideological differences. While that side of things (documented elsewhere) does not really get a mention in Baer’s book (the closest he gets is in recalling his Beirut embassy bombing investigation, where he had the opportunity to have a terrorist suspect assassinated, but turned it down; regretting it later) that is not a reason to ignore this particular work, with its insight into a true believing ex-spy.

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