Robert Baer’s See No Evil presents a firsthand account of the life of a CIA case officer in the war on terror. From recruiting agents in the volatile Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to wiretapping Abu Nidal students in France, Baer provides a fascinating description of his CIA service. Due to his long career—starting in 1976 and ending in late 1997—Baer has seen the impact of changes in the agency, which, he argues, have been detrimental to the operational effectiveness of the CIA.
Baer begins with an anecdote in which two FBI agents question him about his alleged involvement in an assassination plot, planned during his time in Iraq, against Saddam Hussein. Although the accusations were fabricated, Baer uses the event to highlight the increasingly bureaucratic nature of the CIA.
Baer then describes his life prior to working for the agency. Between traveling through Europe with his mother, spending the majority of his adolescence skiing in Colorado, and riding a motorcycle through the basement of Healy Hall during an alumni reunion at Georgetown University, Baer makes it clear that his adventurous life did not begin only after joining the CIA.
After jokingly applying to the agency, Baer soon found himself hooked up to the nodes of a polygraph machine and taking the first few steps in his long journey to becoming a CIA officer. Upon completion of training at a secret location in Tidewater, Virginia—codenamed “The Farm”—Baer began his career in Madras, India. While in India, despite initially making a handful of mistakes, he soon learned how to navigate the streets and how to recruit agents and procure information.
Baer then discusses his experiences in places like Sudan, Lebanon, and Tajikistan. While in Lebanon, Baer became preoccupied with the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing. He relentlessly searched for connections between Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and bombing suspects, but he was reassigned before he could come to any conclusions.
In the latter half of the book, Baer recounts his experiences in Salah al-Din, Iraq, where he worked closely with Iraqi army defectors and Kurdish peshmerga fighters. The Kurdish fighters—led by a man named Talibani, who was then head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—wanted the CIA to support their plot to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Despite his efforts to assist the Kurds, Baer was unable to convince Washington to lend its support. Baer was then recalled to Langley. At this point the book comes full circle, as Baer comes under investigation for allegedly ordering the assassination of Saddam.
The account comes to a close with Baer’s last few years at the agency before retiring. After enduring a thorough, agency-wide investigation by Secret Service agents, Baer concludes that the agency has deviated too far from its primary mission of protecting the American people and has become too bureaucratic and political.
The author leaves the reader with a final anecdote. Soon before 9/11, one of Baer’s s, who had been procuring information from a Saudi military official, told Baer that the military official had said that there would soon be a spectacular operation carried out. Baer sent this information to the CIA as well as Saudi intelligence services, but he never received a reply.
In his final remarks, Baer says that although collecting human intelligence is difficult work, it is necessary, and case officers who are willing to travel the world under dangerous circumstances to gather this intelligence are needed. Baer argues that the CIA must begin to recruit and promote officers who are willing to take such risks. He also says that Langley—as well as Washington—must listen to the intelligence being sent in from the field; until this occurs, Baer predicts that the United States’ “see no evil” mentality will continue to be its greatest vulnerability.
See No Evil provides an inside look at the life of a CIA case officer operating from the mid-1970s to a few years before 9/11. Not only does Baer provide a gripping account of his experiences while working for the agency, but he also provides information and insight on events such as the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing; Iranian influence in Lebanon; and KGB operations during the Soviet era. The book is beneficial to any scholar interested in pre-9/11 national security concerns and the CIA in general.
Primary Research Applications
- Central Intelligence Agency operations in the Middle East before 9/11
- Iranian Revolutionary Guards
- 1983 Beirut American Embassy bombing
- CIA counterintelligence operations during the Soviet era
- U.S. foreign policy
A Documentary History of Modern Iraq, by Stacy E. Holden, 2012.
Global Security Watch—Iran: A Reference Handbook, by Thomas R. Mattair, 2008.
Iraq's Crime of Genocide: Anfal Campaign against the Kurds, by Human Rights Watch, 1993.
Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism: 1979 - 95: The Iranian Connection, by Edgar O'Ballance, 1997.