Author: Robert Nolan
January 31, 2002
This week, the Foreign Policy Association spoke with former CIA agent Bob Baer. Baer is the author of the controversial memoir, “See No Evil,” which gives an account of his experiences fighting terrorism in Beirut, Tajikistan and Northern Iraq, and is highly critical of the American intelligence organiztion.
Read the transcript of Global Q&A below:
Hello, and welcome to Global Q&A. Today we are speaking with Mr. Robert Baer, a former CIA agent who spent 21 years working for the U.S. intelligence agency in places such as Lebanon, Tajikistan and Northern Iraq. He is also the author of "See no Evil," a recently published memoir of his years as a foot soldier in the yet to be declared war against terror. Thanks for being with us today Mr. Baer.
BB: Thank you very much for having me.
There has been quite a bit of controversy, especially within the government ranks, concerning the publication of your memoir 'See No Evil' and its criticism of the U.S. intelligence community. Why did you decide to write this book?
BB: Actually, I started the book as soon as I left the CIA. This was in December of 1997. I resigned. I saw what I thought were endemic problems -- that was my experience. I never reached senior management, but at the ground level, it was very seriously in trouble.
In what ways?
BB: We weren't running human sources. Agents as we call them – foreigners who spy. There were fewer and fewer. The Director of Operations, in 1996, basically got rid of I'd say 60 percent of them. We were in trouble, on the ground.
This was in 1997, so you sort of foresaw the possibilities of what could happen without putting people on the ground?
BB: It was more then just possibilities - there were whole areas where we had no coverage. I was responsible for Central Asia and the Caucuses before
I left. I had eight posts there, and we had no agents, no sources. There were Americans, but they were flying the flag, that's all.
And when you say agents and sources, you mean indigenous people who are operating for the U.S.
BB: Yes. Indigenous people. A topical issue now would be to send people to a mosque. A blue light American can't go into a mosque in Central Asia and not be noticed. So if you are in Uzbekistan, you want an Uzbek to go in and listen to what the imam or the sheik is saying. Obviously, we would have been in much better shape if we had had agents, sources, Saudis, who could have gone into the mosques in Saudi Arabia and tell us what was going on, but we didn't.
Although efforts have been made to bolster intelligence since 9/11, many claim that fighting poverty and corruption are the best tactics in fighting terrorism. You have been in this business for 21 years. Where should intelligence rank in the current war on terrorism?
BB: I happen to agree. My personal opinion is that it should be second. Second to a political solution in the Middle East, between Israel and Palestine. Implementation of 242, the UN resolution. Those governments in the Gulf are corrupt. They are stealing 30 or 40 percent of the oil wealth. It's not getting down to the people in the streets. As long as there is this disparity between the rulership and the people, you are going to have unhappy people, and we as Americans are going to get blamed, even though you and I know that that is not what we want to see in those governments, Saudi Arabia especially. We are still going to get blamed. We are looked at as what keeps those governments propped up. Of course, that's a mistake, but we have to consider the people on the ground and what they are thinking. It should be second. We cannot fight this war, the CIA cannot fight it alone, unless there is a political solution.
Two of the places that your mention in you book quite frequently are Iran and
Saudi Arabia. Many have begun to speculate where the war on terror will move to next. Somalia, Iraq and the Philippines have all been thrown out, at least by the media. Where should the U.S. be focusing its attention?
BB: Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of those bombers came from Saudi Arabia. They were recruiting on Saudi mosques, by Egyptian clerics or Saudi clerics, and paid for by the government. There hasn't been a single arrest, and I have heard very reliably that the second and third tier police officers are not cooperating in the investigation. We have to bring along Saudi Arabia to do a full investigation of who was behind September 11. We haven't so far. I understand why we went into Afghanistan first. I understand why we went after Qaeda. It was a problem. But now we have to move to the real targets, which are the Gulf Arabs.
And do you think the U.S. is willing to even consider such a dramatic shift in policy?
BB: I don't know. That really is a big question. I don't know what is practical in Washington's terms right now.
You mention in the book that if we had been more persistent in putting competent case officers on the ground, that the odds of finding a link to bin Laden would have been much more likely, maybe even inevitable. Which of the groups that you personally investigated do you think could have put the U.S. on to bin Laden's tracks sooner?
BB: The Muslim Brotherhood. It is a Sunni [Islamic] movement based in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. They have always been dangerous. They have been around since the 1920's. It has gotten worse and worse and more radical since. The fact that they killed all those tourists in Egypt should have been a wake up call. The fact that they support Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. All of these signs are pointing to an increasingly radicalized movement, which also is based in Europe. What I would have done, had I been the CIA, and what I should have done when I was in the CIA – I take my part of the blame for September 11 too - is I would have had coverage on those European mosques where this message was being preached.
We should have been aware of Atta. We should have been aware of these small student groups. We should have been running Muslim students in France, in Britain, Germany. When you get close to people it is hard to hide what they are up to, but if you are just dealing with satellites, or telephone intercepts, or whatever you are doing, you never know. We should have been more aggressive on the ground.
You talk a lot about the matrices that begin to form, that you yourself had put together during your time as an agent. Some people have been dedicating a lot of time and study to network theory. How does this apply to espionage now, versus the cold war, when it was more spy vs. spy?
BB: That's a good question because it is networking. The Iranian terrorists with the Sunni terrorists - they do network, they do know each other, and we have to get in the middle of those networks, in the middle of those connectors, which is what we call these people. Atta, he was a connector. We have to find out who these people, the connectors are, and somehow get close to them. Put taps on their telephones, surveillance. Of course, I am speaking as an operations officer.
So in your opinion, again, it requires more manpower, people on the ground actually doing the work.
BB: Yes, to identify those connectors. When I was in Beirut, I spent years just identifying the connectors, where they lived and who they talked to, which was a start. I can't pinpoint the lives I've saved, but once you identify the connectors, you are a lot farther along in getting to the root of the problem.
You write in the end of your memoir that, based on your career investigations in some of the world's hottest terrorist beds, that Iran and its militant arm Pasdaran had been fighting a war against the United States that for some reason, the U.S. choose to ignore. How far reaching is Pasdaran, and why would the U.S. not address what you believe is an ongoing threat?
BB: It has been accepted, inside government circles, as it has in the press, that Iran blew up our first embassy in Beirut in April 1983. In Lebanon, the Marines second embassy, and Kuwait. The problem is, we knew who the people were leading this campaign - it was a handful of Iranians, working inside the Iranian government - that had had headquarters in Iran, and headquarters in barracks in Lebanon. By not going after them, in some way - and I am not advocating violence or bombing or whatever – by not dealing with them we convinced those people that terrorism pays, and not only does it pay - it's cheap. We were forced out of Lebanon. When the same people hit our Khobal barracks, they had hoped to achieve the same thing in Saudi Arabia. Simply by attacking Americans and killing them, they hoped to drive us out of the Middle East. That is their objective. By not dealing with the problem at the beginning, it only gets worse.
Could you talk about some of the tactics that this militant arm of Iran used? At the end of the book you mention that they had been using the IJO as a front. Is that right?
BB: Yes. The Islamic Jihad Organization in fact never existed. It was a cover name, in order to introduce plausible denial into their operations. The way it worked was that the Iranians went out and hired Lebanese and other nationals and had them conduct operations, and then it was declared in the name of the IJO. The point was to have no return addresses for the operations, so there would be no one to hit. It was just a name. Sort of like "Black September," used by the PLO. There was no "Black September."
And do you think that these sorts of tactics are still being used today?
BB: Yes, by surrogates. These are smart people. We cannot underestimate them. They need surrogates, they need to cover up the connections between them and the state, so that there is nobody for us to hit.
Since 9/11, some have called for increased intelligence sharing in Central Asia, particularly with the Russians. Can you talk about some of your experiences with Russian agents and military personal in the region that you write about in the book? Do you think this is a good idea?
BB: Well, the Russians on the ground when I was there, especially in the military fighting the war - and they were fighting a war when I was in Tajikistan - were very enthusiastic about the United States' help. They invited me on maneuvers, and let me drive their tanks and jump out of their airplanes. They loved the United States. And they were saying to us that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the Islamic fundamentalism creeping up from the southern tier of the former Soviet Union.
BB: Yeah, the Wahhabis, in Chechnya, and they said let's work on this together. These are individual Russians -- let me put it that way. They said Afghanistan is going to be a problem and not just for us, for you. I passed this on to Washington, but the mood there was, "We're doing just fine, the cold war is over, the Nasdaq is doing great."
Do you think the economic situation in the U.S. had a lot to do with what you have been calling the downfall of the CIA?
BB: Yes, I do. The CIA was increasingly losing talented people. The smart people --many CIA officers are really smart – went into investment banking, because [in the CIA] the salary is relatively low, the prestige isn't there. So many thought “Well, the cold war is over,” and I am going to work for an investment bank, go live in New York, and send my kids to private school. A lot fewer people from the Ivy League were coming in. A lot fewer people with specialties, you know, that studied Russian or whatever in college were coming in, or Arabic, or scholars of any sort. You know, the scholar/spy thing is not a bad idea, as long as you can make people operative, but those people were fewer and fewer. Language training became very perfunctory. People might learn Arabic for two years, but if they wanted to be promoted, they looked for a staff job in Washington, and they lost their Arabic. So the CIA may be able to trot out figures about how many Arabic speakers they have, but a lot of them have just forgotten the language. They have gone to the war college, to the department of agriculture, wherever people go to get promoted within the bureaucracy.
So what kind of people was getting sent overseas then?
BB: Some of them were absolutely outstanding. We did a wonderful job against the former Soviet Union. But the people who were going to Central Asia and the Caucuses sometimes were at the end of their career, and they wanted to make a little bit of money. Some of them were retirees. I even sent someone out as a chief as his first post, which is unprecedented in the CIA, because you want people who have had training on the ground. To give someone their own post on the first time around gives you an idea of where the CIA was in the 1990's.
Do you think the CIA now, and all of the other agencies fighting for the United States in the war on terrorism, have the patience to do the background, to do the recruiting, to get the agents that are going to be necessary to win this?
BB: Sure they do. You just have to put the operators back in the field. You don't need to change the laws and you don't need more money. You take the people that like to operate, reward them, put them back in the field, and recruit new people who like to operate overseas, and you can bring it back. But the CIA, and I say it over and over again, once it becomes politicized, involved in covert action, you detract from the mission of collecting intelligence.
What about when the mission collides with Washington's objectives? You talk a lot in the book about the influence of big oil and other interests in Washington and how that deterred the role of CIA agents out in the field.
BB: It's crazy. I had operations that I wrote about in the book that were turned down by the National Security Council, because it interfered with economic interests. Those people in the NSC were following orders from the Oval Office. These weren't people who were negligent about terrorism. We wanted to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. That was our major focus. Not bin Laden. Not collecting intelligence. It was very clear that I should just get out of the way of the other people in the field. That we shouldn't interfere with that. In 1995, we closed our operations in France because of what we call a flap – we were caught spying. But in order to do the job, you inevitably are going to get caught, one day or another. You just have to prepare for that, have a diplomatic incident, and move on to the next operation.
Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences in Northern Iraq, working with the opposition to Saddam Hussein and the kinds of problems you had in gaining support here at home?
BB: I was in Iraq when a coup was proposed in 1995. A general, a major general, came to me and said that he had an inside group that wanted to overthrow the government. Frankly, there was no interest in Washington. I don't know why, it is not my story why there was no interest. I met somebody recently from inside the White House who said it was completely compromised, but I realized at that point that he wasn't aware of the coup, only of the diversion of the coup. There was an uprising in 1995, which was going to be a Kurdish uprising, and the hope was that once everybody started moving troops in the north, that this military group, an armored unit, would be able to surround Saddam and force him to give up. Would it have worked? I don't know. Should it have been postponed and tried later? I don't know. What happened was, although I reported this in detail on paper, I never got an answer. For some reason, people were distracted at home. Nonetheless, at that point I was left on my own. I gave them a message, from the White House, on the fourth of March, which said, “You are on your own.” I said, “Read it literally,” to them. “The President of the United States says you are on your own.”
And what was their reaction?
BB: It took the wind out of their sails, but they had already committed, and the message arrived 36 hours before the coup was supposed to go down. They couldn't pull back. One Kurdish group attacked the Iraqi army and overtook three divisions. But by the ninth or tenth of March they were out of ammunition and had to retreat. I can't say if we could have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein or not, because we just never investigated. It was negligence.
You write that you were in some ways relieved to leave Beirut when you did,
because your tactics began to resemble, a little too closely, those who you
were supposedly fighting against. How far do you think agents should go now
that we are fighting a full-scale war against terrorism?
BB: That's a great question. Personally, I wouldn't participate in assassination. I never joined the CIA for that. You do have to ultimately end up killing innocent people, and you hope the right people. I think the CIA should be an intelligence collection organization, and if assassinations or destroying command nodes are part of it, as it's called in the military, we should leave that up to the military, and it should be conducted in a state of war. But the CIA out assassinating with some kind of executive order would turn out to be a huge mistake. A civilian organization should not do it. It should be an objective organization to collect intelligence, and then let the military go out and conduct assassinations, but not the CIA.
You write in your book about when you first joined the CIA, that some of your thoughts at the time were that you enjoyed traveling, and you maybe thought you would get a great post so you could ski and what not. Obviously it turned into a lot bigger of an adventure than you ever imagined. What would your advice be to a young person now who might be considering doing something like that? Would you recommend it? Do you think the CIA has learned from these lessons?
BB: I think it has and it will. I think that as things shake out it is going to come back as maybe a better organization, after all the scandals and September 11. I think that people understand what needs to be done. It's chaotic now, because we are having to suck people in from everywhere, but that is natural when you hire thousands of people, you are going to have confusion. I think that once they get a strong director of operations, it will be a fun place to work. You can do national service, five or six years, ten years.
Was it difficult when you left the organization, because you had gained so much knowledge of the organization and its operations?
BB: Yeah, it was difficult, but at that point I knew I was getting a little bit stale. Let me put it this way, a bit cynical, and that doesn't mix with good leadership. I had too many close calls, and by the way, they were all of my own making. I did get a medal when I left, given to me by George Tenet, which was a courageous act on his part because I left in sort of a controversial position. I was happy to move on to other things.
Towards the end of your memoir, you ask the question, "How do you call an end to a career that has taken you so far into the heart of darkness and show you so many of the secrets that lie there?" What's next for you?
BB: People have asked me weather I wrote this book by myself, and yes, I did. I did it very painfully, and I would like to see if I could write something a bit more difficult. Someone else's story. Writing my own story is easy, but a bigger story drawn from the past. Maybe about a complicated operation. The CIA will let me do it in fiction, but not in non-fiction. I'd like to see how that works out.
Mr. Baer, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. We at the Foreign Policy Association really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your insight with us.
BB: Thanks for having me.
Associated with: Defense and Security, Terrorism, Transcripts