I started reading spy thrillers and techno-thrillers back in my late-teens, at the height of Reagan’s presidency and the 1980’s Cold War with the “evil empire”. By the time the Wall collapsed, I had moved on, more interested in history and reality than in the grandiose themes and psuedo-threats that most spy novels take for granted. Those lurid fictions of the Cold War had one unexpected progeny, in that they did spawn in me an ongoing interest in real-world spycraft. The result is that I can seldom resist a glimpse into that secret, covert world, so when I spotted See No Evil on the bookstore shelf, I had to crack it open.
See No Evil is a biography of sorts, following the author through his 25-years of service (mainly overseas) with the CIA in India, Iraq, Lebanon and other Middle East hotspots. To an extent, See No Evil is a cautionary tale. Inspired by the events of 9-11, it is a call to action for the U.S. to resume and expand the activities of the Directorate of Operations, the spies that actually spy, on the ground and in the field. Baer is at pains to note that the DO job is mainly about spycraft – recruiting and running agents, pulling in data, passing along the vital human intelligence that satellites and intercepts cannot provide. He paints a compelling and rather searing indictment of the CIA’s policies and government direction in the past 20 years of moving away from relying on human intelligence to trust instead in technology, a strategy that, post-9-11, seems astonishingly naive.
Baer’s ground-eye view of the CIA is refreshing, if somewhat limited in its overview of the strategic thinking that drove the organization. Baer is a field-man, working the world’s terrorism hotspots, who, among other things, managed to make the DO issue two unique memos forbidding agents from a). parachuting with Russian special ops teams and b). driving T-72 tanks without a license.
The book reveals only limited surprises, as much of what it covers are the events of the 1980’s and early 90’s (the Beirut bombings, the hostage crisis, Iraq) but Baer does a good job in tying the events of yesterday to the post-9-11 world. At times, having followed in the headlines many of the events that Baer was on the periphery of, one is left with a maddening sense of “if only…” and how today’s events may have changed as a result. Particularly moving was Baer’s trip into the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon that, at a later date, was found to have taken him within a hundred yards of where several Beirut hostages were being held.
The long and short of it is that See No Evil is a good, solid account of life as a CIA field agent (if somewhat light on the analysis) and is intended as a wake-up call for anyone that thinks you can ever figure out what’s going on in the world without getting your feet on the ground.
The CIA is on the web and you can go there…by clicking here. Go on, I dare you.
I especially like their homepage for kids. Yeah, that’s right. No, I’m not kidding.
For some other books on spycraft, intelligence and general sneakiness, check out:
Inside the CIA: Revealing the Secrets of the World’s Most Powerful Spy Agency by Ronald Kessler
Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency by James Bamford (This one is particularly interesting is you are interested in codes, intercepts and electronic eavesdropping. If you are not, then probably give it a pass, as it is loooong.)
By Way of Deception by Victor Ostrovsky (A good look at Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, by an insider.)
Want to go to work for the CIA? You might need this…..