- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2002

With the possible exception of CIA Director George Tenet, few sentient people would deny that, aside from Pearl Harbor, the September 11 terrorist attacks were the most catastrophic intelligence failure in American history. In his new book, "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism," Robert Baer, one of the agency's top field officers of the post-Vietnam era, shows that the horrors of that day did not occur in a vacuum and might have been prevented with the right kind of leadership in the CIA and the White House.

Mr. Baer provides a particularly disturbing account of how senior Clinton administration officials, in particular National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, actively worked to kill a promising plot to overthrow Saddam Hussein. According to Mr. Baer, Mr. Lake was so intent on preventing this effort to overthrow Saddam that he went so far as to have the FBI investigate the author and veteran CIA agent on trumped-up charges of participating in a conspiracy to murder the Iraqi dictator. To make things worse, he dragged Mr. Baer out of Iraq for interrogation on the charges in March 1995, at the very time that resistance forces had begun a promising military offensive that might have driven Saddam from power.

Mr. Baer who served as an undercover operative in France, Germany, Lebanon, northern Iraq and Tajikistan, among other places, during his 21-year career saw up close the agency's successes and failures (mostly the latter) in trying to recruit agents and ultimately neutralize a rogue's gallery of terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, al Qaeda and state sponsors like Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Mr. Baer shows how, during the past quarter-century, the agency has been weakened by laziness and bureaucratic passivity and crippled by a culture that discourages virtually any kind of risk taking. CIA leadership, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, had little interest in infiltrating hostile foreign governments and terrorist groups with U.S. intelligence agents. Instead, the prevailing theory came to be that technology, such as spy satellites, electronic intercepts or the Internet, and publicly available material such as articles in academic publications, would tell us all we needed to know about the world outside of the United States.

Currying favor with senior administration officials and deskbound CIA analysts with little or no experience abroad by telling them what they wanted to hear, became more essential than ever inside the agency. Recruiting agents who could provide essential information on what cut-throats like Hezbollah or Osama bin Laden had in store for us was regarded as a nuisance.

"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," Mr. Baer writes. During his time with the agency, "not only did the CIA systematically shed many of its agents, [but] 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."

Mr. Baer provides some fascinating tidbits about Yasser Arafat's likely complicity in helping Hezbollah carry out the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 persons, among them 17 Americans, including six CIA agents. He documents Mr. Arafat's longstanding ties with Hezbollah security boss Imad Mugniyeh, who masterminded scores of kidnappings and murders of Americans in the 1980s in Lebanon. Mr. Baer's accounts of his spy activities in 1980s Lebanon, particularly his visits to the Hezbollah-controlled Bekaa Valley, are particularly compelling.

Mr. Baer's dealings with Hezbollah may have helped prepare him for the ugliness of dealing with the Clinton administration when he was based at CIA headquarters during the mid-1990s. Mr. Baer, who was investigated (and cleared) on farcical charges of destroying documents by the Clinton Justice Department task force that was supposedly investigating the 1996 campaign fund-raising scandals, tells his side of the story. The Clinton administration and its friends at the Democratic National Committee were embroiled in a vicious struggle over competing plans to build a Caspian Sea oil pipeline.

From reading Mr. Baer's account, one thing seems clear. If the Clinton administration had pursued the campaign against Osama bin Laden and other terrorists with the degree of determination it brought to the pipeline issue, September 11 may not have happened.

Joel Himelfarb is assistant editor of the editorial page for The Washington Times.

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