Islamic Radicals at the Gate? Ho Hum

Late in 1994, Robert Baer, a CIA operations officer with more than 20 years of experience working the streets of the Middle East, found himself shuttling between Washington and various foreign outposts-often passing through London. On these layovers, Baer, who is fluent in Arabic, would inevitably wander through central London's Edgeware Road section, which had been so thoroughly taken over by Arab immigrants that he might have mistaken it for a city in the Middle East, were it not for the bookstores. Bookstores in the Middle East are generally forbidden from selling radical Islamic tracts that openly advocate violence, but London's Arabic bookstores were under no such restrictions. And there, in bold type on rack after rack of pamphlets espousing a radical version of Islam, were venomous calls to take up arms against the United States.

"In the world view of the people who wrote and published these tracts, a jihad, or holy war, between Islam and America wasn't just a possibility; for them the war was a given, and it was already under way," Baer writes in See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, a riveting tale of the author's CIA career. To him, Washington proved as Byzantine and fraught with intrigue and power politics as any terrorist network Baer encountered. Unfortunately, not enough people at the CIA or anywhere else in the U.S. government seemed to notice or care that Islamic radicals had declared war. None of his agency's London staff spoke Arabic, and nobody there or back at headquarters in Langley, Va., knew who was publishing the tracts. "It didn't take a sophisticated intelligence organization to figure out that Europe, our traditional ally in the war against the bad guys, had become a hothouse of Islamic fundamentalism," Baer writes.

As the Senate and House intelligence committees undertake an unprecedented joint investigation into the CIA's and other agencies' responses to terrorism over the past three Administrations, See No Evil should be on the recommended-reading list of all committee and staff members. The book, based on Baer's field experiences in India, Central Asia, and the Middle East, chronicles what the author contends was the CIA's systematic self-destruction "by political correctness, by petty Beltway wars, by careerism and much more." Afloat on a sea of self-absorption, "the White House and the National Security Council became cathedrals of commerce where the interests of big business outweighed the interests of protecting American citizens at home and abroad."

Baer makes no attempt to disguise his anger and frustration with what he sees as the CIA's devolution following the Cold War. And while he names many names and offers surprising details about the incompetence of key players, See No Evil is essentially a testament to the value of his shadowy trade and a tribute to those who sacrifice much to pursue it. It is also refreshingly devoid of partisanship; there are plenty of villains in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton Administrations. Baer describes his unwitting brush with what would turn out to be the Iran-Contra scandal; his anger and frustration over the U.S. abandonment of Iraqi opposition forces at a critical time; and his disgust about the long shadow cast by Big Oil over the Clinton Administration. The fact that Baer's story was even published at all suggests there is reason to hope for changes. Interestingly, the author retained in his book the blacked-out portions left by the CIA censors, thus giving us an idea of what things were cut.

Much of the book focuses on what became for Baer a "lifelong obsession" with the still-unsolved 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. His journey, both physical and intellectual, into the world of radical Islam led him to conclude that much of official Washington was either unable or unwilling to comprehend the threat that America faced. As his agency began closing up shop across Europe following the Cold War's end, valuable contacts were lost and critical opportunities were missed. Baer was stationed in Tajikistan in the early 1990s, when civil war was engulfing neighboring Afghanistan. He requested a speaker of Dari or Pashtun so he could debrief the flood of refugees crossing over the border into Tajikistan: "They were a gold mine of information. We could have even recruited some and sent them back across the border to report on Afghanistan." It never happened. Baer was told there were no Dari or Pashtun speakers anywhere, and besides, the CIA was no longer collecting information on Afghanistan. (Headquarters did, however, offer to send out a four-person sexual-harassment briefing team.) Baer's replacement spoke neither Russian nor Tajik, nor had he ever recruited an agent, much less handled one.

The CIA's shift away from a reliance on human intelligence to a reliance on technology is a nagging theme throughout the book. "The theory was that satellites, the Internet, electronic intercepts, even academic publications would tell us all we needed to know about what went on beyond our borders," Baer writes. Time after time, he shows us the fallacy of this thinking.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, a friend of Baer's told him that a high-ranking CIA figure had said that when the dust finally cleared, the intelligence community's record would be viewed as a triumph, not a failure. Writes Baer: "If that's going to be the official line of thinking at the agency charged with manning the front lines in the war against the Osama bin Ladens of this world, then I am more than angry: I'm scared to death of what lies ahead."