In late 1994 I found myself living pretty much on airplanes. I would arrive in Amman, Jordan, in the late afternoon, check into a hotel, take a quick shower, and then spend the night talking to one Iraqi dissident or another about what to do with Saddam Hussein. Often I wouldn’t crawl into bed until well after midnight, only to get up a few hours later to catch a plane back to Washington and my office at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It made for a long day. I was used to it, though, having spent nearly twenty years working the streets of the Middle East at the same pace.
Occasionally, in this covert version of shuttle diplomacy, I’d get off the plane in London and just walk around the city so I could catch my breath. I didn’t follow a particular route, but often without intending it, I’d end up in the Edgeware Road area, a part of central London taken over by Arabs and other Middle Easterners. With the veiled women, and the men walking around in flowing robes, it felt like I’d never left the Middle East, but there was one subtle difference: the Arabic bookstores.
In most parts of the Middle East, bookstores are forbidden from selling radical Islamic tracts that openly advocate violence, but in London’s Arabic bookstores there were racks of them. One glance at the bold print and you knew what they were about: a deep, uncompromising hatred for the United States. In the worldview 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. Having spent so much of my life in the Middle East, I knew that such intense, violent hatred represented an aberration of Islam; but I also knew better than most the human toll that such hatred can take.
Often I would pick up a tract and take a look at the small print. Rarely did the publisher or the editor’s name appear on the masthead, and office addresses were never noted. But with few exceptions, they carried a European post-office box, often in Britain or in Germany. 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.
Curious, I asked my CIA colleagues in London if they knew who was putting this stuff out. They had no idea, but there was really no reason why they should have. Since our London office couldn’t claim a single Arabic speaker, it was unlikely that anyone there was going to wander down Edgeware Road. Even if someone had, he wouldn’t have been able to read the venomous headlines. What’s more, the CIA was prohibited by British authorities from recruiting sources, even Islamic fundamentalists, in their country. What was the point, then, in spending time with the Arabs there?
In general, things were no better on the continent. By the mid-1990s, the CIA was shriveling up everywhere in Europe. Our offices in Bonn, Paris, and Rome were shadows of what they had been during the cold war with the Soviet Union. They lacked the officers to go after Europe’s vast Middle Eastern communities, and those they did have too often lacked the inclination, the training, and in some cases the incentive to do so.
Things weren’t much better in the Middle East. Often there was only one or two CIA officers assigned to a country. Rather than recruit and run sources—foreign agents—CIA stations in the tinderbox of the world spent most of their time catering to whatever was in fashion in Washington at the time: human rights, economic globalization, the Arab-Israeli conflict. To veterans like me, the CIA seemed to be doing little more than flying the flag.*
A lot of us who spent time on the ground in the Middle East worried that something big and bad was in the offing. There was too much hatred out there, and too many means of destruction to keep the bubble of American innocence from bursting. But I don’t think anyone saw with any precision the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon coming. Even by the standards of the terrorists involved, the scale of the assault was almost unimaginable. The point, though, is that we didn’t even try to find out what was headed our way.
Like the rest of Washington, the CIA had fallen in love with technology. 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. As for Islamic fundamentalists in particular, the official view had become that our allies in Europe and the Middle East could fill in the missing pieces. Running our own agents—our own 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.
Not only did the CIA systematically shed many of its agents, it also began to ease out many of their onetime handlers: seasoned officers who had spent their careers overseas in the hellholes of the world. In 1995 the agency handed the title of director of operations—the man officially in charge of spying—to an analyst who had never served overseas. He was followed by a retiree, and the retiree by an officer who had risen through the ranks largely thanks to his political skills. In practical terms, the CIA had taken itself out of the business of spying. No wonder we didn’t have a source in Hamburg’s mosques to tell us Muhammad Atta, the presumed leader of the hijacking teams on September 11, was recruiting suicide bombers for the biggest attack ever on American soil.*
This book is a memoir of one foot soldier’s career in the other cold war, the one against terrorist networks that have no intention of collapsing under their own weight as the Soviet Union did. It’s a story about places most Americans will never travel to, about people many Americans would prefer to think we don’t need to do business with. It is drawn from memory, investigative notes, and diaries. As the reader will soon figure out, there is too much detail, almost none of which has ever appeared outside of government files, for any one person to remember. All my life I’ve been a consummate note taker. At the same time, not surprisingly, some of the details simply can’t be told. Every CIA employee is required to sign an agreement that allows the agency to review and censor anything written for publication. I’ve left the censor’s blackouts in the text so readers can see how it works. But more than enough detail remains to give the reader an idea just how complicated the problem of terrorism is, and what this life has been like: the highs and lows, the dangerous moments in the field, and the sometimes more dangerous moments around the conference tables of official Washington, often as nasty a snake pit as Lebanon’s Biqa’ Valley.
I haven’t edited out the many mistakes I made in the field. The reader should see how painful the learning curve can be in the spy business. Nor have I hidden that I set out to understand how Washington works, with all of its special interests. I allowed myself to get sucked into the fringes of the Clinton campaign-funding scandal. I have nothing to apologize for—other than maybe my own stupidity—but if my name rings a bell, it’s likely to be from that time.
I also intend my story to be a metaphor for what has happened to the CIA that I served for nearly a quarter of a century, and for what needs to be done now. September 11 wasn’t the result of a single mistake but of a series of them. The Germans failed us, as did the British, French, and Saudis. But most of all, we failed ourselves. We didn’t have the intelligence we needed or the means for gathering it. Correcting those mistakes and regaining the upper hand in the long war against terrorism isn’t going to be easy, but it can be done. The way to start is by putting CIA officers back on the street, by letting them recruit and run sources in the mosques, the casbahs, or anywhere else we can learn what the bad guys’ intentions are before they break into horrible headlines and unbearable film footage.
This memoir, I hope, will show the reader how spying is supposed to work, where the CIA lost its way, and how we can bring it back again. But I hope this book will accomplish one more purpose as well: I hope it will show why I am angry about what happened to the CIA. And I want to show why every American and everyone who cares about the preservation of this country should be angry and alarmed, too. In letting the CIA fall into decay, we lost a vital shield protecting our national sovereignty.
Americans need to know that what happened to the CIA didn’t happen just by chance. The CIA was systematically destroyed by political correctness, by petty Beltway wars, by careerism, and much more. At a time when terrorist threats were compounding globally, the agency that should have been monitoring them was being scrubbed clean instead. Americans were making too much money to bother. Life was good. The oceans on either side of us were all the protection we needed. Afloat on this 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. Defanged and dispirited, the CIA went along for the ride. And then on September 11, 2001, the reckoning for such vast carelessness was presented for all the world to see.
Even if no one could have foreseen those attacks, it’s still inconceivable that so many people had to die in order to wake us up to the fact that we have sacrificed a national resource for greed and convenience and small-minded politics. I’m incensed, and I think we should all be incensed, that the courageous passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 were the White House’s first and only line of defense on September 11—not the CIA or the FBI or the Immigration and Naturalization Service or any other office or agency that we pay our taxes to support.
The other day a reporter friend told me that one of the highest-ranking CIA officials had said to him, off the record, that when the dust finally clears, Americans will see that September 11 was a triumph for the intelligence community, not a failure. 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.
Excerpted from See No Evil by Robert Baer. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Baer. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.