The Magazine

Why We Don't Spy

The Failure of the American Intelligence Community

Mar 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 24 • By CLAIRE BERLINSKI
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See No Evil
The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism
by Robert Baer
Crown, 288 pp., $25.95

Cloak and Dollar
A History of American Secret Intelligence
by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
Yale University Press, 384 pp., $29.95

ACCORDING TO CIA case officer Robert Baer, who spent twenty-one years recruiting informants in the Middle East and Central Asia, the luminaries of the CIA hold that the events of September 11 are no grounds for self-reproach. In the preface to his outraged memoir, "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism," Baer reports that high-ranking CIA officials privately tell reporters that "when the dust finally clears, Americans will see that September 11 was a triumph for the intelligence community, not a failure."

It is a challenge to imagine what the words "intelligence failure" might mean, if not an unexpected attack on American soil that leaves more than three thousand civilians dead. Perhaps these officials are keeping the term in reserve for an invasion by extraterrestrials. And thus Baer replies: "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 am scared to death."

Only months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet is still in place, his power and prestige, if anything, augmented. The CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center staff has doubled in size, its budget enlarged by hundreds of millions of dollars. No one from the center has been asked to resign or retire. Indeed, no one at the CIA has been called to account in any way. "Absolutely not," says CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. "We'll give them medals."

Many observers--including the president of the United States, who within days of the attacks visited headquarters to clap the affable CIA director on his leather-clad back--have made the case that the CIA cannot be held responsible for its failure to predict the outrages. After all, they argue, the world is a very big place. One cannot know everything, all the time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CIA's budgets were cut. The CIA has been fighting with one hand tied behind its back, apologists say, hamstrung by the constraints of the Church and Pike committees, forbidden to assassinate miscreants, enjoined from recruiting the very assets needed in the war against terrorism--human rights violators, to be precise. There is no use pointing fingers, defenders argue; it will only make everyone concerned feel bad about themselves.

Baer is of another mind. The attacks of September 11, he argues, might have been predicted and preempted through an aggressive intelligence program. Through negligence, failure of imagination, bureaucratic infighting, careerism, and political correctness, the CIA consumed itself in pettiness after the Cold War, missing thousands of warnings, failing to capitalize upon opportunity after opportunity to penetrate terrorist organizations, refusing to dirty its hands with the messy and risky business of collecting human intelligence, systematically purging the very assets who might have warned of the impending disaster, and driving from its ranks its most aggressive and talented case officers. Baer writes:

"Americans need to know that what happened to the CIA didn't happen just by chance. . . . At a time when terrorist threats were compounding globally, the agency that should have been monitoring them was 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. . . . 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."

In the early 1990s, Baer, who reads and speaks Arabic, noted an unusual efflorescence of radical Islamic tracts in the bookstores of Central London. These pamphlets, written in Arabic, openly advocated violence against the United States--and were, in fact, so inflammatory as to be banned even in most Middle Eastern countries. "One glance at the bold print," writes Baer, "and you knew what they were about: a deep, uncompromising hatred of the United States. In the worldview of the people who wrote 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 underway." What was the CIA doing, then, to monitor the authors and publishers of these tracts? According to Baer, it was doing nothing whatsoever. Why not? For one thing, not a single CIA officer in Britain spoke or read Arabic. Moreover, the CIA feared the British would be annoyed were its officers to recruit sources--even Islamic fundamentalists--on British soil.