Sunday, April 28, 2013

See No Evil: A Book Review

I write stories about spies and espionage because it’s the subject that interests me the most. One of the side benefits of writing in this genre is being able to read memoirs of former case officers and calling that activity “work”. I’ve had Robert Baer’s See No Evil on my radar for years, but I was finally able to devote time to it this month. Baer did a good job in explaining how the CIA declined since the end of the Cold War, but his personal entanglements muddle his overall message.

See No Evil is written in four parts; Baer’s introduction and training in the CIA, his time in the field as a case officer, the decline of the agency and his involvement in the campaign financing fiasco during the Clinton years. The first half of the book felt very candid. Baer doesn’t describe himself as a patriot from birth who always wanted to work for the CIA. He’s just a struggling student with an agenda of his own. He details many of his mistakes and frustrations during his postings in India and Lebanon. It felt as if Baer has a lot of nostalgia for the Cold War years, if only because he felt his agency was in better shape then.

The third part of his book covered familiar ground for anyone who has read CIA memoirs from the past decade (See the Art of Intelligence Review), but the frustration that Baer puts into it makes the failings of the CIA more profound. It has been well established that the CIA strayed from its mission for three reasons;
  • A rejection of human intelligence in favor of satellite and computer technology
  • An aversion to risk that undermined intelligence gathering and promoted career minded bureaucrats and,
  • A capitulation to the interests of Washington lobbyists at the expense of national security

Baer goes into maddening details about how his own career was crushed in the machinery of the Beltway. If his life was the only casualty of this debacle, it would be disturbing. The fact that disinterest and neglect within the intelligence community contributed to 9/11 is crippling.

By the time I got to the last section of the book and the illegal oil deals, questionable campaign financing and the transformation of the CIA from an intelligence agency to a publicly funded manhunt company, I was numb. I was sure Baer felt the same thing. Then why did he stay, when so many of his colleagues left? Why did he get caught up in things that he had no interest or experience in? Is See No Evil his way of fighting back?  It is hard to imagine devoting decades of your life to a cause, only to see it fail on so many different levels.

Hopefully Baer’s writing is keeping him sane. I think his experience and insight will definitely influence the stories I write.

Have fun.


  1. I read the memoir Baer wrote with his wife (also a former case officer), The Company We Keep. That one spent more time in the Balkans, where the two met, but many of the points you raise here were also present in that book.

    It sounds like See No Evil should be shelved with The Human Factor and Blowing My Cover, two other accounts by ex-operatives who were crushed by the bureaucracy and the life.

  2. I think you're right. It reads very differently that Art of Intelligence, even though both officers served in the same agency during the same time period. It was very interesting to compare them side by side.