CIA out of spy business before Sept. 11, former field operative alleges in book

New agents not hired, tricky inquiries avoided, 21-year veteran claims

January 27, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A former CIA field operative has alleged that before Sept. 11, the agency had largely been out of the spy business for years, not hiring new agents and avoiding delicate inquiries for fear of embarrassing itself, other nations or the White House.

The only way to defeat terrorism, writes Robert Baer in See No Evil, published this month, is for the CIA "to once again go out and start talking to people - people who can go where it can't, see what it can't and hear what it can't." The agency must "let those who know how to learn secrets perform their jobs, no matter how murky the swamp is."

Although Baer wrote in the book that he was not sure the nation was prepared for the agency to "walk down that path and stay on it," he said in an interview last week that things had changed at the CIA since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "They are hiring retirees to go out in the field" in large numbers, he said.

CIA censors blacked out many names and titles, but the book, completed in November, spells out in great detail operations that Baer ran in India, Lebanon, Tajikistan and Iraq, as well as other unidentified nations during his 21-year career. He retired in 1997.

He said in the interview he was surprised at how much he had been allowed to publish and speculated that his manuscript was seen by the directorate of operations as "a recruiting poster for the CIA," or at least for the kind of agency he and some in operations wanted.

A spokeswoman for the CIA said Thursday that the agency would not comment on the book.

Baer also told how Don Fowler, who was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, sought his help in 1995 in getting access to President Bill Clinton for Roger Tamraz, a Lebanese businessman seeking support for a Caspian Sea pipeline project. Baer, who was referred to as "Bob from the CIA" at congressional hearings, said he gave no help.

Baer described his involvement with a failed coup in Iraq in March 1995 - an effort that achieved some surprising initial military victories but ended in failure. He said he appealed for the U.S. backing that the rebels sought but was given a cold shoulder by Washington, which did not believe that they could succeed.

The outbreak of the coup - which involved a defecting Iraqi major general and collaborators in three army combat units, Kurdish forces, and Ahmed Chalabi and his opposition Iraqi National Congress - was reported a few days later in the international media. The plans were known in Washington before the coup began. But when Baer reported the rebels' first successful attacks, in which they captured thousands of prisoners and some artillery, he writes, CIA officials did not believe him because they had no confirming satellite pictures.

He said he told his boss at headquarters in Langley, Va.: "There's a real live war going on up here. In another week, there will be no V Corps" of the Iraqi army.

"No one here," he was told, cared "about the Kurds."

At other points, the book put out by Crown Publishers reports smaller cases of CIA unwillingness to act. In 1983, in a country he did not name, Baer said he sought to bug an office maintained by Abu Nidal, then a leading terrorist organization. His station chief refused, saying: "This country is important to the United States. No one wants to risk alienating it by undertaking a risky operation."

In 1984, Baer writes, the same official refused to pass on to Washington a tip he had picked up in Lebanon that an American was about to be kidnapped. It turned out to be William Buckley, the CIA station chief who died while being held by his captors.

In 1986, Baer writes, the CIA office in Bonn, in what was then West Germany, refused to talk to a leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, a group that wanted to assassinate President Hafez el Assad, "for fear of irritating the Germans." He met the man, but CIA officials in Bonn did not follow up. He said that after Sept. 11, "the FBI came calling to tell me that one of the Syrian's associates was a suspect" in the network behind the terrorist attacks.

In 1988, he took over an agent in Paris who was pleased to see him because his previous handler had paid no attention to documents he offered and spent time trying to convert him to her church. One of her converts, a CIA administrative officer, spent business hours handing out church leaflets. But Washington advised the Paris station chief not to interfere with the administrative officer's First Amendment rights.

Baer said he was also ordered not to put a telephone tap on a suspected Iranian intelligence station or three Abu Nidal students studying as guests of France.

At that time, he complained, "The CIA was in the process of closing up shop overseas." After the Pan Am 103 bombing, he discovered: "Bonn didn't have a single Middle Eastern agent to run down leads - neither an Arab nor an Iranian. For that matter, it didn't have a single Muslim agent in all of Germany's enormous Islamic community," nor a single source in "the Frankfurt airport to say whether anything suspicious had occurred before 103's feeder flight departed," carrying the bomb.

When Baer left Tajikistan in 1995, he was not replaced by someone with the necessary language skills to cultivate an agent close to the Islamic chieftain Abdullah Nuri, who fought the Russians in Afghanistan and subsequently arranged a meeting between Iranian officials and Osama bin Laden intended to plan anti-American acts.

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